Twenty were executed
In an eight-month spasm that will not die in America’s conscience, 156 women and men were accused of witchcraft. Of those arrested in 1692, 14 women and five men were convicted and hanged, and one man was crushed to death to force a plea.
Witch hunts are a recurring subject in American history, the term itself signifying hostile, unjust hounding of individuals or groups. In the three centuries since, Salem and its witch trials have come to stand for the darkest of American sins – piety that poisons. This is the theme of Salem-based literature, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, “The Crucible.”
Miller’s story was based on the case of Elizabeth and John Proctor, accused in April 1692 by a group of girls whose hallucinations persuaded several judges (including Hawthorne’s ancestor, John Hathorne) to arrest and condemn the couple on Aug. 5. Elizabeth was spared because she was pregnant, but John was hanged Aug. 19. Like all who died in Salem that year, Proctor wouldn’t confess to being a witch.
What is false in Miller’s story is a love triangle between the Proctors and Abigail Williams, a 17-year-old in the play. She was, in fact, an 11-year-old girl living with her uncle, the Rev. Samuel Parris, Puritan Salem’s minister in whose house the witchcraft charges began.
The Williams’ girl, Parris’ 9-year-old daughter, Betty, and several girlfriends began naming their bedevilers in February. The first was Parris’ Barbados slave, Tituba. Then Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Soon the conspiracy spread to neighboring Andover, where the “inflicted” girls were taken to diagnose a sickness in one woman.
The first woman named in Andover, Martha Carrier, wife of Thomas and a 38-year-old mother of five, was sentenced to die on the same day as the Proctors. She was hanged with Proctor and three other men, her body thrown into a shallow, unmarked grave with two of them, a chin and foot and hand showing above the dirt thrown in on them.
Martha Carrier was the matriarch of thousands of Carriers in the US., including the founder of Carrier air conditioning.
Among witch experts Martha is the unrepentant “queen of hell,” for her fiery rebuff of the wildest charges of the Salem witch trials: murder, broom flying, killing cattle. Two children were tortured to forced testimony against her, according to a jailhouse letter from Proctor.
After her death the Rev. Cotton Mather engraved Martha as “that rampant hag…who would be queen of hell,” a ringing epithet repeated in poems, witch tales and Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.”
Jim Carrier, Denver Post 1996
Witchcraft goes kitsch
Salem, Mass – It took 200 years to turn sorrow into spoons, commemorative, silver demitasses issued on the bicentennial of the infamous witch trials.
After 300 years, the sellout – witch to kitsch – is complete. A hag on a broom flies on the doors of police cars beneath the logo, “The Witch City.” The high school teams are the “Witches.” The Salem daily newspaper flies one on its masthead. On Gallows Hill Park, where bones of accused witches lie unmarked, Little Leaguers play below the baby-blue Salem water tank, which boasts another black flier. Her nose, like all of Salem’s witch noses, has been graphically improved.
Salem, which has world-class history from sailing, whaling and the Massachusetts colony, emphasizes witchcraft in its tourist brochures. The biggest ads are for the Witch Museum, the Museum of Myths and Monsters, and Dracula’s Castle. At Cry Innocent, a summer drama, tourists can “cross-examine the characters; vote on outcome.”
A solemn stone memorial, erected in 1992 to commemorate the 20 deaths in 1692, lies back-to-back with the old burying ground – and the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers.
Across the street from the Peabody Essex Museum, with its unparalleled collection of original witch hunt documents, sits Crow Haven Corner, “A Witch Shop,” with crystals and candles to light a city, and lines of people waiting in the rain for time with Salem’s official witch, Tarot Card reading morning till night.
“Oh, they weren’t witches back then,” said a beringed-in-nostril-and-elsewhere man. “But we are.”
At the Broom Closet (“Salem’s largest witch shoppe”), black-draped manager Lois DeVine points to Celtic incense. “We have an exclusive line, from ancient recipes.” Among her big sellers, the book “To Ride a Silver Broomstick,” a guide for the “solitary witch.”
There are 2,500 Wicca believers in Salem, it is claimed. “The police are very tolerant of us,” said DeVine. “We are able to go outside and do ceremonies.”
The holiest day for witches, of course, is Halloween, when 100,000 people cram Salem for “haunted happenings.” Among the spooky events: “the Kahlua Witches Brew Taste Off.”
Jim Carrier, Denver Post Dec. 29, 1996