When my husband and I decided to visit Salem a few years ago, it was surprisingly his idea. Part of it was the proximity to Boston, since he wanted to visit Boston University (where he got his Master's Degree...so proud!), but part of the choice of Salem was because he knew I would enjoy it.
Ever since I first taught Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, I have been fascinated with this period of history. It amazes me how it could have all went down...
In 1692, Salem was divided into two distinct sections: Salem Town and Salem Village. Salem Town was a bustling port; for a while, it was the main trading destination in the colonies. The people of Salem Town were largely wealthy merchants and they largely lived an easy lifestyle for that time period. The people of Salem Village tended to be poor farmers of low standing compared to the merchants of the town. The villagers were very pious and strict...and in many cases, quite jealous and judgmental of the lives led in town.
Rev. Samuel Parris was the village minister. In his care were his daughter, Elizabeth, and his niece, Abigail Williams, both of whom were under the age of twelve. They were largely cared for by a slave named Tituba, as Mrs. Parris was often infirm. To entertain the girls, Tituba would tell fascinating tales from her homeland and would teach them voodoo tricks.
Voodoo tricks would have been considered witchcraft to the strict Puritans of the village. And witchcraft was punishable by death.
One evening, a group of young girls gathered in the kitchen of the Parris household. Tituba was teaching them how to drop an egg in a glass of water in order to divine the occupations (and identities) of the girls' future husbands. As Betty Parris dropped her egg in...perhaps from an overactive imagination or from subconscious guilt...she saw the shape of a coffin. She believed this to be a sign that God was angry and that Satan wanted her soul.
The girls became terribly ill in ways for which the village doctor could find no cause or cure. Finally, three women were accused of bewitching the girls: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were outcasts within the community; they made easy targets. Both women refused to confess to a crime they had not committed.
Both women were hanged.
Tituba not only confessed but she spun elaborate tales of Satan's visits to the village. More so, she planted a seed of doubt and fear in the villagers. According to her, nine people had signed the Devil's book. The authorities had captured three...Who were the other six?
The Meetinghouse (Reconstructed)
The Salem Witch Trials were soon underway and very quickly spiraled out of control. Soon joining the young girls in making the accusations were men and women in the village. And very quickly, the accusations shifted from "reasonable" victims like Bridgit Bishop, who had been accused of witchcraft years prior, to "unlikely" victims...upstanding members of the Salem Town community.
No one was safe. Wealthy landowners. Pious grandmothers. Even a four-year-old little girl.
There are many theories as to why the accusations spun so far out of control. Some think the girls truly believed in their accusations and that witchcraft was present in Salem. I think this may have been true at the start, in those initial days. Some think that, as time went on, the girls liked the attention that they received and used the trials as a way to keep that glowing attention upon themselves. I think that this, too, is likely. Many think that the trials were used as tools of revenge and religious persecution and methods of stealing the land of wealthy neighbors. These, too, I think are likely scenarios...
But what I don't understand is why so many people stayed. Why those who suspected or knew they would be accused didn't disappear in the middle of the night. Did they feel that would make them look guilty? Or did they have such a strong faith that they believed the truth would come out and they would be found innocent?
And if that last is the case, then why did so many people break one of God's laws and give false confessions in order that they may escape the gallows?