Age of Witch Hunts: Salem Trials and the American Experience

Emerson W. Baker
Emerson W. Baker

Tucked away in a corner of the Peabody Essex Museum in the City of Salem sits one of the great artefacts of early American history: a small oak valuables cabinet.

Its elaborate carvings, turnings and geometric shapes speak to its beauty and craftsmanship. The centre panel features a sunburst that surrounds the inscription “I&BP 79.”

The initials refer to its owners, Joseph and Bathsheba Pope (the letter J was not yet utilized in the seventeenth-century, so the I did double duty for it). The Popes were married in 1679, and the cabinet, presumably a wedding gift, was likely made by James Symonds, a master furniture maker.

It was passed down in the family until the museum acquired it at auction in 2000. The Popes were Quakers who lived in Salem Village, members of a small but significant minority of religious dissenters who had been persecuted by the Bay Colony.

In 1692 the Popes turned the tables. Like some of her neighbours, Bathsheba said she was afflicted by witches, explicitly claiming that the spectres of John Procter, Martha Cory, and Rebecca Nurse tormented her. Joseph Pope added his testimony against Procter. The court convicted and executed all three of the accused.

A rare early piece of locally made seventeenth-century furniture with an impeccable history of ownership and a strong tie to the Salem witch trials, the cabinet is a remarkable relic — a status reflected in the formidable $2.4 million that the museum had to pay to win it at auction in 2000.

Yet what makes the cabinet truly a treasure is rarely noted: the Popes’ nephew was Benjamin Franklin. Specifically, Bathsheba’s youngest sister, Abiah, was Franklin’s mother.

In one generation, one Massachusetts family would go from victims of witchcraft to producing one of the leaders of the American Enlightenment. While his aunt and uncle would join the frenzied call for witch executions, Ben Franklin would make the reasoned case for a new nation, dedicated to liberty and freedom.

The Pope cabinet shows just how soon after Salem that the American colonies would turn their back on the Age of Witch Hunts and embrace the Age of Reason.

The story of the Popes and their cabinet also reveals the complexities behind witch trials in Salem and elsewhere in New England, as well as some of the inaccuracies in how these events are often portrayed.

Traditional textbooks and popular tales make the trials sound like a Puritan affair, yet the Popes were Quakers.

The afflicted in Salem were almost all female and are usually referred to as “girls,” yet Bathsheba was forty when she made her accusations. Furthermore, men had made up the majority of accusers in New England witchcraft cases before 1692.

Bathsheba and her cohorts suffered “spectral attack” — that is, they were assaulted by a spirit that was invisible to everyone except the afflicted. This, too, was rare before Salem. Typically a witch was accused of maleficium, or harmful witchcraft. Maleficium could cause injury to livestock and crops, destruction of property, or even illness or death, but a witch need not employ a spectre to cause such evil.

Though what happened in 1692 is often portrayed as a local affair, Bathsheba Folger Pope was born and raised on distant Nantucket Island.

As the circle of accusation grew in Salem Village, the afflicted would even point the finger at people they had never seen in person. These are but a few of the contradictions behind what happened in 1692 during a witch hunt that in many ways was an aberration from earlier proceedings.

The striking design motifs of the Pope cabinet provide some insights into life in 1692 as well. The decorations are an interplay of classical elements, geometry, and S-curves. Like the chest, early Salem was a rich mosaic of ideas and influences. Its settlers came from different regions and backgrounds and held a range of beliefs.

Darkened with age, the cabinet now appears sombre and drab — just as the Puritans are all too often depicted. Yet, constructed from different types of wood with contrasting colours and highlighted with black and red paint, in 1679 the cabinet, as well as the people of Salem, were far from dull. Instead, they were complicated, vibrant, and bright.

Like the Pope cabinet, the story of the Salem witch trials is both a relic and a living piece of history.

Little wonder that it has drawn many to it. In 1970, John Demos began an article on witchcraft in the American Historical Review with this statement: “It is faintly embarrassing for a historian to summon his colleagues to still another consideration of early New England witchcraft. Here, surely, is a topic that previous generations of writers have sufficiently worked.”

Since then authors have published more than thirty books on the subject, including two outstanding ones from Demos himself. Scholars have explored the Salem story as well as many smaller episodes in early New England through a variety of perspectives.

There is an equally impressive output of scholarship on witchcraft in England and Europe. In the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a native son of Salem who was preoccupied by the trials, it is the ultimate twice-told tale.

New books comes out regularly, each with their explanations of what happened: it was a religious crisis, an outbreak of ergot poisoning (or encephalitis or Lyme disease), the result of a land squabble in Salem Village, an outbreak of frontier war hysteria, a misogynist statement of patriarchy.

So it is not without considerable humility that I now offer this book. It would be impossible to do so without drawing up on this deep well of knowledge and inspiration by these historians, as much of my work builds upon and synthesizes their labors.

While each book puts forward its own theories, most historians agree that there was no single cause for the witchcraft that started in Salem and spread across the region.

To borrow a phrase from another tragic chapter of Essex County history, Salem offered “a perfect storm,” a unique convergence of conditions and events that produced what was by far the largest and most lethal witchcraft episode in American history.

Seventeenth-century observers themselves often likened what happened to a storm. Cotton Mather described the Salem phenomenon as an “inextricable storm” as well as “inexplicable storms from the invisible world.”

He was right on both counts, for it has seemed almost impossible either to disentangle all of its component parts or to fully explain what happened. What we can do is synthesize the many interpretations and explanations and put Salem’s “storm” into its broader context as both a turning point and part of an ongoing narrative.

Were the Salem witch trials a pivotal moment in American history? The great scholar of American Puritanism Perry Miller called them a non-event. “It had no effect on the ecclesiastical or political situation, it does not figure in the institutional or ideological development.”

Few scholars have challenged him. Instead, most have focused more on the cause than on the long-term consequences. They stress the fact that Salem was a small part of a much larger pattern.

Although England and her colonies saw fewer cases of witchcraft accusations than on the Continent, they were still common and long-standing.

Between 1645 and 1647, at the height of the English Civil Wars, more than 250 people were accused of witchcraft in East Anglia (the area to the north and east of London known for its commercial farming of wheat and other grains), and more than one hundred were executed — fifteen in one day.

In Salem, a total of twenty-five people lost their lives. Nineteen were executed, one was pressed to death, and five died in prison. The great age of witch hunts in Europe and America spanned roughly the period from 1400 to 1775. From Russia to Bermuda, from Scotland to Brazil, witch hunts took place throughout the European world.

During that time about a hundred thousand people were prosecuted for witchcraft and at least fifty thousand people were sentenced to death. In fact, while many Americans still feel a sense of shame about the Salem witch trials — because of their large size and particularly their late date — a European perspective eases some of the angst.

By European standards Salem was not even a large witch hunt, nor was it the last. In terms of size, a series of witch hunts in the German Electorate of Cologne that started in 1626 and continued for a decade resulted in approximately two thousand people being executed. And in terms of date, some persecutions continued in “enlightened” eighteenth-century Europe.

In Hungary, about eight hundred people were executed for witchcraft between 1710 and 1750. The Szeged trials of 1728–1729 claimed twenty-one victims.

Three of the accused drowned during the swimming test (people who floated were witches, while those who sank — and often drowned — were innocent). Three more of the accused died in prison, apparently during torture, and sixteen people were convicted and burned at the stake.

The more scholars study witchcraft accusations, the more they realize that witchcraft accusations seem nearly universal and have occurred throughout recorded history. There were major witch hunts in fourteen nations on three continents in the second half of the twentieth-century, resulting in the death of hundreds of people. Yet no place has acquired such infamy as the Witch City. Why is it that only Salem is synonymous with witchcraft, and not such places as Cologne or Szeged? Clearly, some unique factors were at work to give the trials and the community such a lasting reputation.

The fact that there is only one Witch City suggests that the Salem trials had significance far greater than Perry Miller recognized. Indeed, even he acknowledged that immediately after the trials, the word witchcraft itself “almost vanished from public discourse” and that “this silence speaks volumes.”

There is no arguing that what happened in Salem and throughout New England in 1692 and the following years has haunted us ever since. Most histories of Salem stop once the trials and executions end, however, and in the process, they miss its lasting significance.

One reason that witchcraft disappeared from the public record was that the government of Massachusetts Bay insisted upon it. Engaging in one of the first cover-ups in American history, Governor Sir William Phips banned the publication of any account of the witch trials.

Even before the trials ended, people realized that something had gone horribly wrong and that some innocent people had died.

According to Puritan theology, someone who committed a sin had to confess it before God. The state failed to acknowledge publicly the sin of arresting, trying, and executing people who were innocent of any crime. Failure to do so jeopardized the Puritans’ covenant with God and the very foundation of their belief.

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