Friday, June 2, 2017

Salem Witch Trials -- the hysteria and terror begin


First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

On this day in 1692, the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Town, Massachusetts, beginning what would become known as the Salem Witch Trials. The hysteria had begun in Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) in January of that year; a few preteen and teenage girls, including the daughter of Samuel Parris, the village's minister, began acting strangely and having fits, insisting that they were being poked and pinched. The local doctor was at a loss to explain the behavior, and concluded that they must be bewitched. When the girls were pressured to name their tormentors, they blamed Tituba, the Parrises' Caribbean slave, and two eccentric social outcasts, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Paranoia mounted, with more teenage girls suddenly joining the ranks of the afflicted; they were no longer expected to be "seen and not heard," but were now the center of attention, even crying out and disrupting church meetings without being punished. They began accusing reputable churchgoers, often people their parents had feuded with for years. Alibis were useless because the afflicted girls would say that the accused had sent her specter to torment them, and anyone who spoke out against the proceedings soon found the accusing fingers pointing at them.

Within a matter of weeks, warrants were issued for dozens of accused witches, and the jails were full to bursting. Governor William Phipps ordered the formation of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer - which meant "to hear and determine" - to try the backlog of cases. The first case brought before the grand jury was that of Bridget Bishop, a tavern owner, who had attracted the negative attention by virtue of the fact that she played shuffleboard and dressed in unsuitable clothing. She was found guilty and sentenced to hang on June 10, the first of 19 executions that took place over the next four months. A 20th victim, Giles Cory, was tortured to death when he refused to enter a plea. The hysteria spread to nearby towns, and feuding neighbors began to see it as a handy way to get revenge. Many of the accused people confessed to witchcraft to escape execution, because confession meant you were repentant, and it was up to God to handle your punishment. Those who refused to confess - either on moral grounds or because confession meant they would forfeit their property - were executed.

In October, Governor Phipps abruptly dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer and prohibited further arrests, maybe because Puritan ministers were calling for an end to the trials, or maybe because the afflicted girls had accused Phipps's wife of witchcraft. Over an eight-month period, more than 200 people had been accused and imprisoned, and several had died in jail. Some of the judges and examiners later expressed remorse. Examiner John Hale wrote in 1695, "Such was the darkness of the day, and so great the lamentations of the afflicted, that we walked in the clouds and could not see our way."

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And there is this personal postscript:

The foregoing "chapter" from American history disturbs me, and it leads me to confess to you that I am unable and unwilling to abandon my passion for American literature even though I might have suggested such an abandonment in my previous postings about Vietnam and American history. I guess literature is somehow a part of my brain's DNA architecture and chemistry. Indeed, there is perhaps still room enough in my disorganized Swiss-cheese mind to read and study both literature and history.

So, as the foregoing "chapter" is an undeniable and inescapable catalyst, I am allowing myself to be catapulted back into reading about Hawthorne and Melville, two American authors whose own DNA included more than a few bits and pieces from the Salem witch trial hysteria and terror. There is something about Hawthorne and Melville that draws me like a moth to the light. There's irony for you: in the two authors' darkness there is light. Moreover, each author was able to do brilliantly what Thomas Hardy said is the author's task: "The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things."

Now, however, back to the foregoing "chapter" from American history. What happened in Salem, I think, has some contemporary examples. After all, such parasitic nonsense seems to find hosts in every generation. I have several examples in mind (e.g., "free speech" suppression based on political correctness; political polarization and marginalization; demonization of Christianity by secular progressive liberalism), but I defer to you for your examples of latter-day witch-hunters.

Tell me what you think are recent or current reincarnations of irrational craziness similar to the Salem hysteria.



11 comments:

  1. The Salem witch trials capture the imagination, Tim. I'm not surprised that you find that time fascinating, too. Arthur Miller's The Crucible really, I think, depicts that hysteria well.

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    1. Of course, Margot, Miller's play, ostensibly about the witch trials, was a thinly disguised indictment of McCarthyism in the United States. We are, I think, cursed still with species of McCarthyism in the U.S. in 2017.

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  2. Mark Twain didn't say it, but it remains true: History doesn't repeat itself. It rhymes. McCarthy was a boorish demagogue. The McCarran-Walter Act — which limited immigration as a step to preventing communist subversion — was named for its two Democratic sponsors. Walter chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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    1. Frank, I like Twain's understanding of the problem. Rhyme versus repetition is perfect!

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  3. Tim,

    You forgot to mention demonization of atheism by Christians.

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    1. Yes, Fred, you're quite right. Belief systems spawn lots of problems.

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    2. Tim,

      That's an understatement and I think it holds true for all belief systems.

      A sense of humor and humility are the only antidotes.

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  4. As you know I have been very interested in Witch Trials lately. They had such an important, but tragic impact on both European and American History.

    As a result I have also been thinking a lot about Hawthorne and Melville too. I may read or reread some of their works soon. I will be posting one more blog on another non - fiction book relating to the subject.

    Folks tend to make a lot of comparisons between modern day events and the Witch Trials. Though certainly some comparisons are valid, I think that many of these comparisons are a bit of a stretch.

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    1. Ok, no more contemporary comparisons.

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  5. I guess that I prefer to remember that people like Major N. Saltonstall and Francis Dane stood firm against the trials, no matter the cost. And it did cost them.

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    1. Marly, the heroes do get overshadowed by the villains.

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