Tag Archives: Witch Hunting

A County in Crisis, 1692

The twitter tagline for Hub History’s podcast on the Boston witch trials in the mid-seventeenth century was a bit on the edge for me: The Salem Witch Trials? So mainstream. Boston was hanging women for imaginary crimes BEFORE it was cool. Yet I think I will forgive them (not that they need my forgiveness, as they offer up wonderful and popular podcasts on Boston history prolifically) because this expanded geographical perspective is something that the interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials needs, always. When I came to Salem with my newly-minted Ph.D. in early modern European history, I was astounded that so few people knew that thousands of people had been tried and executed for witchcraft in that era: now that awareness seems much improved as far as I can tell, but because Salem’s history is so commodified, the Salem story still seems to dominate even though the town was very much in the center of a county-wide storm in 1692. Academic historians have told the larger story for years—from Richard Godbeer’s Devil’s Dominion to Marybeth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare to my colleague Tad Baker’s Storm of Witchcraft—but I am wondering if the regional approach has any bearing on how the tale is told in Salem today. I’ll look—and listen—around, and try to find out.

Essex County Witch VictimsThe names of just one day’s (September 22) victims of the Salem Witch Trials reveal some extent of the regional impact, but the University of Virginia’s site has a dynamic regional map here.

When I saw the preview for one of those cheesy cable paranormal shows on “haunted” Salem that appear with increasing frequency, especially at this time of year, advertising an ” immersive, multi-platform event [which] will investigate ghostly activity at three historic locations tied to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century: the Ipswich Gaol, the Proctor House and Rockafellas” [restaurant in Salem, the site of the first meeting house where interrogations occurred], I was impressed with the regional scope for about a second, until I realized that the show’s producers seemed not to know or care that neither the “haunted” Ipswich Jail or the Proctor House in Peabody were built until well after the trials, and that the building identified as the “old Ipswich Gaol” was not in fact the Old Ipswich Gaol. In this article, Ipswich Town Historian Gordon Harris expressed proper disgust at the “hype and fabrication” of it all, especially given the fact that Ipswich had a real role to play in the Salem Witch Trials, “a mass systematic state-sponsored killing of innocent people [which] should not be used for mindless entertainment.” I did not hear or read a similar expression of condemnation in Salem, but then again I did not read anything at all about this show in Salem, which is great. Perhaps the producers can blame their ignorance on one of the “local historians” they featured, who appears to be a professional actor.

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Well, enough of this: there are far better choices out there, this very month, for those that are interested in truly historical and regional perspectives on the Salem Witch Trials. Just this week, Curator Kelly Daniel of the Peabody Historical Society & Museum will be speaking about a local family that emerged from the Trials unscathed despite that fact that they were very much in the midst of it all: “We Do Testefy : The Felton Family & Salem Witch Trials,” Smith Barn @Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Massachusetts, Wednesday, October 9 at 1:00 pm. And in the following week, another promising presentation, at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers: “Skeletons in the Closet: The Memorialization of George Jacobs Sr. and Rebecca Nurse after the 1692 Witch Trials” by Dan Gagnon. For a more creative (and clearly labeled as such!) yet equally regional perspective on the trials, this play about Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, whose resignation from the specially-commissioned Court of Oyer and Terminer has made him a perennial (and rare) judicial hero of the Trials, looks interesting: Saltonstall’s Trial, with multiple performances at Beverly’s Larcom Theater from October 17-27. I have always wondered why Saltonstall has not been featured more prominently in creative depictions of the Trials: in The Crucible, for example, Samuel Sewall seems to stand in for him in the play and the Reverend Hale in the film. He deserves a starring role, and he will have it in Beverly.

Saltonstall better

Nathaniel Saltonstall 4 Perley History

Saltonstall CrestI can’t find a single contemporary (or later) image of Saltonstall–only mistaken images of his grandfather and son, but Sidney Perley included his autograph in his History of Salem (1924); Saltonstall family crest, Cowan’s Auctions.

Last year when this play debuted in Haverhill, the local paper wrote a feature with the title “Stay away from the freak show in Salem and head to the witch trials in Haverhill”: this year’s Beverly production seems more focused on presenting a substantive combination of drama with post-production “conversations” with people who do not have to act as if they have expertise, including Tad Baker, Danvers archivist Richard Trask, author Marilynne Roach, the new Head Librarian of PEM’s Phillips Library, Dan Lipcan, and Curator of the Wenham Museum Jane Bowers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the view from Wenham before!


The Witchfinder in Salem

As tragic and interesting as the Salem Witch Trials are, they are still somewhat limited in the scope of characters and duration. So in the constant and evolving effort to market anything and everything about them, a bit of cultural appropriation always takes place: I see many images from Europe’s longer reign of witch-hunting used in Salem rather indiscriminately every year, most prominently the storied “swimming test”, and the Salem Witch Museum features a “strong Celtic woman, diminished and demonized by the church fathers in the middle ages” even though the myth of the midwife-witch has long been consigned to folklore by European historians. A very popular and creative “immersive media game theater” company called Intramersive Media here in Salem is staging the fourth chapter of their “Daemonologie” series this October at PEM’s Assembly House: an experience entitled “Smoke and Mirrors” centered on a seance in 1849. (I really wanted to go because I haven’t been in the Assembly House forever but that of course would mean staying in Salem for the October weekend performances which I just can’t do; in any case I think they’re sold out!) Now there is only one Daemonologie for me, the famous book by King James VI of Scotland (soon to be King James I of England) published first in 1597: a text that impacted how “witches” were perceived and prosecuted once James acceded to the English throne in 1603. But I don’t think these performances have anything to do with that: it’s just a name: though James perceived witchcraft very personally and perhaps that is the meaning here.

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Alan Cummings as King JamesYou can read the entire first edition of the Daemonologie  of King James by “turning the pages” at the British Library here; Alan Cumming made a brief appearance as a pretty amazing King James in the Thirteenth Doctor’s Witchfinders episode last year.

But I saw the absolute best “transportation” and reincarnation of an icon of British witchcraft just this weekend, standing on a stool in front of the Peabody Essex Museum just before I went in for my new wing tour: Matthew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder General” of Civil-War England! Hopkins was a rather unsuccessful East Anglian lawyer who took advantage of the conflict between Crown and Parliament to proclaim himself the official Witchfinder General, vaguely commissioned to discover, prosecute, and execute “witches” as he crusaded from town to town in his native country. Villages would pay him for his troubles, and consequently he gained both money and fame as he and his associates went about their business between 1644 and 1646, eventually executing between 230 and 300 people for witchcraft, employing uncharacteristically-English torture techniques in the process. The image of Hopkins was transmitted across England in his The Discovery of Witchcraft (1647), and so I immediately recognized him as a familiar figure standing on a Salem street. The depiction was quite good: kind of a combination of the seventeenth-century illustration with (a younger) Vincent Price’s profile in the 1968 film Witchfinder General. 

Witchfinder The-discovery-of-witches-hst_tl_1600_E_388_2British Library version here.

After I got out of the Peabody Essex, I approached this Witchfinder General and asked him if he knew who Matthew Hopkins was and he certainly did. I was informed that Matthew Hopkins was never officially licensed by any authority in seventeenth-century England, but he, the Salem Witchfinder was. The City of Salem had provided his license, a bright pink badge which he displayed. I certainly had no argument with that; he was entirely correct. That was about the extent of our interaction: he allowed me to take his photograph for free but I had to pay if I wanted one with him with my hands encased in his portable stocks. I said no thank you and off I went. So here we have a very official Witchfinder in the Witch City. I’ve been to Manningtree, the beautiful little Essex village where the reign of terror of Matthew Hopkins began, several times, and I’ve never seen him there: no doubt its residents have shunned him, but of course he’s perfectly welcome here in Salem, where all is good clean (licensed) fun.

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Witchfinder Wellcome 1792

20190929_162442The (official) Witchfinder General in Salem, September 30, 2019.


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