Friday, April 2, 2010

The Trial of Salem’s Witches

"The Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692." By T. H. Matteson, 1855.
Oil painting. © Peabody and Essex Museum. From

The book What Happened in Salem? (USA, 1960) by David Levin (Stanford University) contains documents pertaining to the Seventeenth-Century witchcraft trials. Parts I, II, and III (exclusive of “Resolve of Massachusetts General Court, August 28, 1957”) of this book are reprinted from Handbook for English A, sixth edition, 1950. This book is a jewel for me, because it is not a novel, you can read the statements, the accusations, the letters related to the cases. The author warns the readers (mostly scholars, students) not to dismiss the episodes merely as a horrible example of “superstition”, as a curious delusion of a demented people: no one can reach a reasonable judgment without taking history into account, and that means trying to understand the ideas and beliefs which to people of the time seemed to justify the Salem executions.
Here, I reproduce some excerpts, the trial of the Tituba Indian, of course is much longer, but I wanted to show the “spirit” of the statements.

“Between June 10 and September 22, 1692, nineteen Massachusetts men and women and two dogs were hanged for witchcraft, and one man was pressed to death for refusing to plead to the indictment. When the executions came to an end, fifty-five people had confessed that they were witches, and a hundred and fifty were in jail either waiting to be tried or enduring, as several convicted women did, reprieves granted them so that infants they had already conceived would not be executed with them.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, belief in the reality of witchcraft was virtually universal. In European countries both Catholic and Protestant, thousands of “witches” had been executed. Despite important advances toward modern science, few people had thought of criticizing current theology in the light of the newest scientific discoveries. No one used Newton’s law of gravitation to challenge Cotton Mather’s remarks about the aerial activities of “legions of devils.” The “invisible world” was still, for most people, a real one. Even the few articulate critics of the Salem trials did not deny the existence of witchcraft; they attacked the methods used by the Salem judges. The intellectual leaders and, so far as we know, the mass of the people read their Bibles literally, accepting without question the Mosaic pronouncement (Exodus 22.18): “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
The crime of witchcraft consisted in entering into a contract of “covenant” with the Devil.
The New England Puritans and some other Englishmen believed, moreover, that the Devil’s last and most powerful stronghold was in the wilds of North America. This conviction was supported by the presence of “barbarous savages,” the antics of whose medicine men savored of witchcraft; and some Puritans reasoned that Satan and his legions would carefully patrol the heathen and Catholic frontier to defend it against any expansion of the Bible Commonwealth.
The puritans knew, too, that the Devil had little time left before the millennium; one minister estimated that Antichrist had only about twenty years more in which to win converts and torture mankind.
In 1692, the magistrates discovered a witchcraft conspiracy in Salem Village, and while the scope of the plot seemed to be growing the people learned that a devilish earthquake had killed seventeen hundred in Jamaica. The Devil seemed to be striking on several fronts at once.
When in February, 1692, Elizabeth Parris, eleven-year –old of the minister at Salem Village, and her cousin Abigail Williams began having violent fits, they behaved as had afflicted children in Sweden in 1669, and the Goodwin children who were bewitched in Boston in 1688.
Samuel Parris and the doctors he consulted could compare the symptoms of his daughter and niece with accounts of the earlier bewitchments. When they learned too, that the girls had been taking lessons in palmistry from Tituba, a West Indian slave in the Parris family, they were sure that the Devil had made some converts in Salem Village.

Some excerpts from the “Examination of Tituba Indian”.

Q. Did you never sep the devil.
A. The devil came to me and bid me serve him.
Q. Who have you seen.
A. Four  women sometimes hurt the children.
Q. Who were they.
A. Goody Osborne and Sarah Good and I do not know who the other were. Sarah Good and Osborne would have me hurt the children but I would not she further saith there was a tall man of Boston that she did see.
Q. What is the appearance you see.
A. Sometimes it is like a hog and sometimes like a great dog, this appearance she saith she did see 4 times.
Q. What else have you seen
A. two rats, a red rat and a black rat.
Q. What did they say to you.
A. they serve me.” 
Illustration from the book by Joseph Glanvill ¨Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, a Full and plain Evidence, Concerning Witches and Apparitions¨, London, 1681.Downloaded from Google images.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...