Last week a new memorial was dedicated to victims of the Salem witch trials. Wednesday, July 19 marked the 325th anniversary of the first five hangings, a number that would expand to 19 in a series of public executions.
In 1692, when children often died young, Rebecca Nurse’s lived. During the Salem witch trials, this was one of the reasons locals were convinced that Nurse was a witch, according to Benita Towle, her granddaughter nine generations removed.
“I was told that people were jealous of her,” said Towle, a Milford, Conn., resident.
Exactly 325 years since Nurse’s execution, dozens of people gathered at the spot of her death Wednesday for a dedication of the new Salem Witch Trials Memorial at Proctor’s Ledge, where 19 were executed because of accusations of witchcraft.
Wednesday’s event began at noon, around the same time the first of three mass executions took place on the site on July 19, 1692, when five women accused of witchcraft were hanged: Nurse, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, and Sarah Wildes. In addition to those executed at Proctor’s Ledge, at least five died in jail, and one was crushed to death.
I started out to write a brief acknowledgment of this new monument. But each time I turned my hand to it, the more the strange tendrils of this story tugged at me. Salem is iconic, not only for its tragic history, but for its enduring lessons about human nature.
I was in Salem years ago. It is, among other things, a tourist destination. I visited the Salem Witch Museum, a cheesy exhibit of full-sized dioramas, depicting the major episodes of the tragedy. I had hoped to visit the famous shop owned by Laurie Cabot, the "official witch" of Salem, but it was closed that day. And now it's closed for good.
Cabot said tourism in the Witch City has dipped to the point where a brick-and-mortar store is no longer sustainable.
. . .
Cabot didn’t practice witchcraft openly until shortly after she found herself a 30-year-old divorcee with two young children, in the late 1960s. But she concealed her religion again after a friend urged her to move into a Federal-style house across the street from the mayor of Salem in 1969.
“Well, they hung people here. I didn’t know how they felt about witches,’’ Cabot recalled. “There weren’t any witches going, ‘I’m a witch.’ ’’
Cabot enjoyed decades of commercial success as a witch in the city famous for hanging witches. Of course, the victims of Salem weren't witches of any kind, so it's almost paradoxical. The word witch is subject to a range of interpretations. As I wrote here, to the modern Christianist, everything from indigenous shamanism to Harry Potter is lumped under the term witchcraft, and this confusion is still getting people killed.
The Salem witch trials are also obliquely referenced by JK Rowling. The International Statute of Secrecy was officially instituted in 1692. I was reminded of this recently when Ross Douthat penned a remarkably obtuse column in the Times.
For the six readers who have never read the Potter books but who have stuck with the column thus far nonetheless: Muggles are non-magical folks, the billions of regular everyday human beings who live and work in blissful ignorance that the wizarding world exists. The only exception comes when one of them marries a wizard or has the genetic luck to give birth to a magic-capable child, in which case they get to watch their offspring ascend to one of the wizarding academies while they experience its raptures and revelations secondhand.
The proper treatment of Muggles, meanwhile, is the great controversy within the wizarding world, where the good guys want them protected, left alone and sometimes studied, while the bad guys want to see them subjugated or enslaved (and all the Muggle-born “mudbloods” purged from the wizarding ranks).
All of this plays as an allegory for racism, up to a point … but only up to a point, because what’s notable is that nobody actually wants to see the mass of Muggles (as opposed to their occasional wizardish offspring) integrated into the wizarding society. Indeed, according to the rules of Rowling’s universe, that seems to be impossible. You’re either born with magic or you aren’t, and if you aren’t there’s really not any obvious place for you in Hogwarts or any other wizarding establishment.
What Douthat seems determined to ignore is that wizardkind didn't remove itself to a hidden world because they thought they were superior to mugglekind. They went into hiding to protect themselves from persecution.
"As the witch-hunts grew ever fiercer, wizarding families began to live double lives, using charms of concealment to protect themselves and their families. By the seventeenth century, any witch or wizard who chose to fraternise with Muggles became suspect, even an outcast in his or her own community."
—Albus Dumbledore's notes on The Wizard and the Hopping Pot[src]
By the seventeenth century, wizard-Muggle relations were at their worst. Ever since the early fifteenth century, the persecution of witches and wizards gathered pace all over Europe, making many in the wizarding community feel, and justifiably so, that offering to aid their Muggle neighbours with their magic was tantamount to volunteering to fetch the firewood for one's own funeral pyre: many witches and wizards were locked up and sentenced to death on the charge of witchcraft, and while some (such as Lisette de Lapin in 1422) managed to use magic to escape, others like Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington in 1492 were not as lucky and were immediately stripped of their wands. Wizarding families were particularly prone to losing younger family members, whose inability to control their own magic made them noticeable, and vulnerable, to Muggle witch-hunters.
Widespread persecution of wizarding children by Muggles, escalating attempts by Muggles to force witches and wizards to perform magic for Muggle ends and teach them magic, increasing numbers of witch-burnings, including those of Muggles mistakenly burned as witches were the catalysts for some kind of measure to be taken.
In the Great Britain, the newly-created Ministry of Magic attempted to liaise with the Muggle British Monarch (then jointly William III and Mary II) via a special Ministry Delegation, begging them for the protection of wizards under Muggle law. The failure of this attempt at official recognition and protection seems to have been the final straw that forced wizardkind to voluntarily move in the opposite direction toward secrecy.
In the Potterverse, there are good and bad people in both worlds, and homicidal bigotry is a shared human failing. In the Potterverse, just as in this world, this trait persists and periodically erupts into collective panic and the tyranny of the mob. This is just as true now as it was in 1692.
The semi-circular stone wall memorial is inscribed with the names of the people hanged at the site, now a small city-owned lot in a residential neighborhood and behind a pharmacy.
"The sun casts few shadows this time of day, and yet the shadows from this site extend across our city in ways we cannot see with our eyes," Mayor Kim Driscoll said.
Descendants of the victims were in attendance, including Jeffrey Stark, a relative of Susannah Martin.
"(The memorial) brings justice to the fact that they were wrongly accused," Stark said. "It's a welcoming feeling that they put this memorial up and they have recognized the mistake that was made here in Salem back in 1692."
Yes, they were most assuredly innocent, but of what could they possibly have been guilty? It seems absurd, in this day and age, to even consider the possibility of their guilt, or at least it should. But the sad and horrible truth is that we're still making these kinds of accusations, and people are still going to jail and even facing execution for them.
Damien Echols, of the West Memphis Three, narrowly escaped with his life, thanks to an Alford Plea. But he, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley lost their youth to a modern-day witch hunt, at the height of a "Satanic Panic" that saw many such prosecutions.
At the heart of both the Salem and West Memphis cases were stunning confessions that confirmed prosecution targets and drove the narrative. In West Memphis, it was Jessie Misskelley, a special needs student with an IQ of around 70. In Salem, it was a slave named Tituba.
Did Tituba's non-white skin and obscure tribal origins make her a target? In later tellings, like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, they certainly did. Or was it simply that as a slave, a woman with no personal agency, she could be counted on to tell the kind of story the prosecution wanted to hear? And tell one she did.
She had seen a hog, a great black dog, a red cat, a black cat, a yellow bird and a hairy creature that walked on two legs. Another animal had turned up too. She did not know what it was called and found it difficult to describe, but it had “wings and two legs and a head like a woman.” A canary accompanied her visitor. If she served the black-coated man, she could have the bird. She implicated her two fellow suspects: One had appeared only the night before, with her cat, while the Parris family was at prayer. She had attempted to bargain with Tituba, stopping her ears so that Tituba could not hear the Scripture. She remained deaf for some time afterward. The creature she claimed to have so much trouble describing (and which she described vividly) was, she explained, Hathorne’s other suspect, in disguise.
She proved a brilliant raconteur, the more compelling for her simple declarative statements. The accent may have helped. She was as utterly clear-minded and cogent as one could be in describing translucent cats. And she was expansive: Hers is among the longest of all Salem testimonies. Having fielded no fewer than 39 queries that Tuesday, Tituba proved equally obliging over the next days. She admitted that she had pinched victims in several households. She delivered on every one of Hathorne’s leading questions. If he mentioned a book, she could describe it. If he inquired after the devil’s disguises, she could provide them.
While she was hauntingly specific, she was also gloriously vague. Indeed she had glimpsed the diabolical book. But she could not say if it was large or small. The devil might have had white hair; perhaps he had not. While there were many marks in the book, she could not decipher names other than those of the two women already under arrest. Other confessors would not be so careful. Did she see the book? “No, he no let me see, but he tell me I should see them the next time,” she assured Hathorne. Could she at least say where the nine lived? “Yes, some in Boston and some here in this town, but he would not tell me who they were,” she replied. She had signed her pact with the devil in blood, but was unclear as to how that was accomplished. God barely figured in her testimony.
Like Jessie Misskelley's, Tituba's lurid confession was used to impugn and indict other people. Like Jessie Misskelley's, it had all the hallmarks of a false confession. Like Jessie Misskelley's, it was recanted.
In other cases, it was the purported victims, often children, who told graphic stories of horrid abuse and Satanic rituals, as I wrote here.
People were tried and even went to prison with a paucity of physical evidence, on the basis of "recovered" memories and half-baked theories about occult practices. This "Satanic Panic" has been pretty thoroughly discredited. Verdicts have been overturned. Therapists have been sanctioned for creating false memories.
One such therapist is Barbara Snow, who readers of this blog will recall treated teal. Concerns have been raised as to teal's possible use of Snow's techniques and her attempts at "recovered memory" therapy. As ghoste recently shared, teal tried to convince her that she had "repressed" memories of involvement in a Satanic cult, and then referred her to Snow, who did the same.
The absolute apex of my relationship with Teal came when she attempted to make me believe that I grew up in the very satanic cult she was a part of. I knew my childhood- but Teal knew me better than I know myself. I was being driven absolutely mad. I loved her so much but we both had these butting-head type of differences and disagreements- disagreements that I found increasingly harmful to my psyche. Funny thing about Teal is that she will tell you “from universal perspective it’s all valid, it all needs to be dissected, it is your repressed memories” Repressed memories in general are a very controversial topic in the field of psychology. It is MUCH more likely that a memory is implanted than to be repressed. We both kind of had to back away from another if we were going to make this friendship work.
Eventually Teal gave me the name of her Psychologist that she had seen for the last however many years… the one who changed her life. The one who “specializes” in Satanic abuse because it is such a massive problem here in the State of Utah. Barbara Snow. I visited her just to see if I could get any answers, for myself or for Teals behavior. It was almost immediate that the leading questions began. I would tell her exactly what was on my mind- and suddenly she would finish my sentences.
One of the biggest cases of its kind, spanning six years, and garnering massive media coverage, targeted the McMartin Preschool. Five teachers endured a Kafkaesque legal nightmare, but were ultimately acquitted. In 2005, one of their then juvenile accusers publicly apologized. His account sheds a little light on the internal process of a child trying to please authority figures by spinning fantasies.
It always seemed like I was thinking. I would listen to what my parents would say if they were talking, or to what someone else would say if we were being questioned at the police station or anywhere. And I would repeat things. Or if it wasn’t a story I’d heard, I would think of something in my head. I would try to think of the worst thing possible that would be harmful to a child. I remember once I said that if you had a cut, instead of putting a Band-Aid on it, the McMartin teachers would put on dirt, then put the Band-Aid over the dirt. That was just something in my head that was bad. I just thought of it and told [the investigators].
I think I got the satanic details by picturing our church. We went to American Martyrs, which was a huge Catholic church. Every Sunday we had to go, and Mass would last an hour, hour and a half. None of us wanted to go: It was kicking and screaming all the way there. Sitting, standing, sitting, standing. What I would do was picture the altar, pews and stained-glass windows, and if [investigators] said, “Describe an altar,” I would describe the one in our church. Or instead of, “There was a priest in a green suit”–someone who was real–I would say, “A man dressed in red as a cult member.” From going to church you know that God is good, and the devil is bad and has horns and is about evil and red and blood. I’d just throw a twist in there with Satan and devil-worshipping.
The stories told by these children, at the prompting of parents, police, and therapists, were outrageous, but they were reported straightforwardly and accepted by a credulous public. Similar cases were taking place all over the country, many ending in convictions.
Both children and adults can be steered into torturous memories of imaginary events. The prevalence of false memories and false confessions are a problem we're only beginning to unpack.
This episode of Frontline, from 1995, is like a time capsule of the period just as our "Satanic Panic" was winding to a close.
We really don't seem to learn. We just repeat the same mistakes over and over again, ruining lives, tearing families apart, and sending innocent people to death row. And occasionally we memorialize our hard lessons.
The Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell, of the First Church in Salem, welcomed the crowd.
"We should not be here today,” he said firmly. "We should not be here dedicating this memorial and setting aside this small patch of rocky earth. We should not be here commemorating the heartbreaking and tragic loss of life, people who were falsely and unjustly accused of being in the snare of the devil.”
Barz-Snell added that in 1692, Rebecca Nurse, who was one of five killed at Proctor’s Ledge on a hot, July afternoon like today, was a member of his congregation. Barz-Snell said his predecessor, the Rev. Nicholas Noyes, helped fan the flames of hysteria that engulfed Salem.
“We would like to think that we've learned from the evil and traumatic choices made 325 years ago. We would like to think we've become better people," Barz-Snell said. "The truth is the lessons of Salem are not just learned once, but must be learned and relearned by each generation.”