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      Connected | October 24, 2023

      Behind the Scenes of our latest Salem Witch Trials exhibition

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      PEM’s latest exhibition of the museum’s Salem Witch Trials materials is drawing record crowds this fall. Curated by PEM’s Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library, and Paula Richter, Curator, The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice looks at the various attempts to exonerate the victims that began shortly after the 1692 trials and continue to the present day. Below is an excerpt from interviews conducted with Paula and Dan for our PEMcast and behind-the-scenes video. The exhibition is on view until November 26, 2023.

      Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Q: What do we mean by the title of this exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice?

      Dan Lipcan: What we're looking at is how individuals, the community and the government have acted in the 330 years since the Salem Witch Trials to try to help heal the wounds of that injustice and that trauma. On view in the exhibition are many original and authentic objects related to the Salem Witch Trials and to many of the people who were involved in the trials, alongside reproductions of 21 historic documents from the trials. Together, they illuminate the facts of the trial, the personal stories of those involved in the trials and how the trials progressed.

      A lot of damage was done to these local communities. It took 300 years for Salem to build a memorial to the witch trials and the victims. That's a long time. It's really difficult to address these traumas and these injustices in a way that's effective and really does heal some of these wounds.

      Gallery section about the Putnam family. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      It's very difficult to face. Can these wounds ever be fully healed? No, but what we're trying to do is show that some actions have been taken over the 330 years since the trials to try to make amends, to try to make sure that something like this never happens again.

      Gallery section about the Putnam family. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Paula Richter: Some families with ties to the 17th century continued to pass down objects from their ancestors. They were certainly aware of their ancestors being involved in the Salem Witch Trials, and they may have held those objects in special regard, almost as a memorial, a testimony, a tangible aspect of the lives of the people who were lost as a result of the trials. In this exhibition, through these objects, we are taking a much closer look at the aftermath of the witch trials and how they wrapped up, and then where did that leave people? Where did it leave the community in Salem and nearby? It was a community that was deeply fractured, deeply polarized, and a lot of individuals suffered very serious trauma, loss and injury.

      Artist in Salem, Massachusetts, walking stick owned by George Jacobs Sr., 17th century. Oak. Gift of Allen Jacobs, 1918. 106960.2. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM.

      Blog Behind Scenes SWT 1600 2

      We're taking a look at what happened afterwards. How did the community come together again? How did people own their roles within the trials and the impact on others? There were people who came forward, made public confessions after the trials, that they realized that they had done something that caused great harm, including the loss of many lives. The process of exonerating the witch trial victims began almost immediately when the trials ended. There were people who were even petitioning that the trials be stopped in 1692.

      Q: Can you describe a couple of objects in this exhibition and what they teach us about the witch trials?

      Attributed to Joshua Buffum 1635–1705, Salem, Massachusetts, leaded window, 1670–1700. Wood, glass, and iron. Museum collection, before 1865. 5080. Peabody Essex Museum.
      Attributed to Joshua Buffum 1635–1705, Salem, Massachusetts, leaded window, 1670–1700. Wood, glass, and iron. Museum collection, before 1865. 5080. Peabody Essex Museum.

      Paula Richter
      : PEM has two windows that are associated with people who were involved in the Salem Witch Trials. One of these windows is at the entry area to this year's exhibition, positioned near a 17th-century door. I like the idea of visitors encountering these two objects together because they suggest a glimpse or a portal into the 17th century.

      In testimony that people gave about apparitions [supposedly caused by neighbors practicing witchcraft], some would suddenly feel like they were seeing something coming in the window. It could be an animal or it could be a person. People said they saw apparitions of specific people that they later accused during the trials. This is part of the spectral evidence, the unverifiable evidence that was given during the trials. Then, of course, windows inhabit what are sometimes called liminal spaces, a space in between. People can also hear through a window, so they can eavesdrop. They can talk to each other through a window. I think the fear that was associated with the spectral evidence is a particularly gripping and potent part of the testimony. It reveals an aspect of their fear that we might not understand, otherwise. It does give a window into their mindset.

      Artist in London, sundial owned by John Proctor Sr., 1644. Brass. Gift of Abel H. Proctor, 1907 100771. Photo by Jeffrey Dykes/PEM.

      We also have a beautiful brass sundial, passed down through the Proctor family, that came into the museum's collection just after 1900. It has the date inscribed on it: 1644. It was likely made in London. It's covered with a variety of design motifs. There's a pinwheel underneath the part of the sundial that would cast a shadow on the numbers on the face of the sundial. It has Roman numerals that mark the hours. The corners of this square plate that forms the base of the sundial have been stamped with stars.

      Artist in London, sundial owned by John Proctor Sr., 1644. Brass. Gift of Abel H. Proctor, 1907 100771. Photo by Jeffrey Dykes/PEM.

      In the 17th century, a sundial was something that you found in more affluent homes. They helped people organize their lives and how they spent their time. Puritans had philosophical views about time. In the Puritan world, they thought about making the best use of your time, how to use your time effectively and productively. It also, however, was a reminder of mortality, to make the best use of your remaining time however long your life might be.

      [Sundial owners] John and Elizabeth Proctor’s stories are really quite gripping in a lot of ways. John Proctor was a very active man. He petitioned on his own behalf but also on behalf of others who were being falsely accused. He wrote to Boston ministers. He asked them to intervene. Many people came to the defense of the Proctors. Their neighbors, other family members came forward at great risk to themselves to stand with the Proctors and say that they could not imagine that this couple could have been accused of what was a capital crime in the 17th century, the crime of witchcraft. [As his execution] John Proctor “pleaded for a little respite of time…but it was not granted.” The fact that the one object we have related to John Proctor is also related to time – it's a very compelling. A very potent, but also very sad end to his life.

      Q: Why do you think people continue to care about the tragic events in Salem in 1692?

      Dan Lipcan: The witch trials were such a complex set of events. There are so many personal stories interwoven throughout this crisis. Twenty-five innocent people were murdered. About 170 people were accused of witchcraft. Hundreds of others were involved. They're shrouded in mystery. Some of the details and facts are lost to the sands of time. We can't be entirely sure of what really happened in the courtrooms, in the jails, and in the interactions between people. That's a big part of it. Another reason why these trials are evergreen is because of the actions of the millions of descendants, who are alive today, who are interested in keeping alive the stories of their ancestors and what happened in the trials. There's a big push by descendants to honor their ancestors and the victims of the trials. Many legal scholars identify the Salem Witch Trials as the genesis of the freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. These events happened essentially at the birth of what was to become America. That is really, really compelling.

      Tompkins Harrison Matteson, Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692, 1855. Gift of R. W. Ropes, 1859, 1246. Photo by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey R. Dykes/PEM.

      : What was it like for the victims and their families when these accusations were levied against them?

      Paula Richter: The accusation of witchcraft was very, very serious. Immediately, people were separated from their families. They were jailed. Their [personal] property, because of how the laws were written at the time, was seized, and it could be used to pay for their meals while they were in jail. Their families not only had to live without the incarcerated person’s presence, they also had to provide monetary support for food, lodging, and travel to the site of the trials, as well as all the emotional and the physical separation and loss of income that goes along with that.

      After they were executed, some people who were part of the Puritan churches here on the North Shore were excommunicated. Their position, whatever their social standing was in the community, was destroyed. Their families also bore the burden of suspicion and anguish about what was happening within their family and community circles. Because of the dire nature of what happened, the trauma and the loss was really huge to the individuals.

      Q: Did people know at the time that those accused were innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing?

      Dan Lipcan: We see some actions in 1692 of people begging the court to recognize the injustices that were happening right in front of them. We see family members and others petitioning the state for reparation payments, for damages, for formal exoneration of the condemnations for these invented crimes. We see generations of scholars and community members reinvestigating the trials and looking at them again. Thinking about what happened, and why, and how it affected family members and our local community. We have actions by the state over time to formally exonerate and lift the condemnations that were perpetrated on the victims. I think, to a certain extent, one of the big ones is that it was essentially the first government cover-up in American history. As 1692 progressed and as the trials progressed, people realized that this whole thing was a sham. In October, the trials were halted by the governor. There actually was a ban on publishing anything about the trials themselves. There were efforts made by the Puritan government to cover up what had happened because they were afraid if people found out about these injustices and about these fake crimes that the state would be taken down by the populace.

      Massachusetts Archives Collection, 135:124. SC1/series 45X. Massachusetts Archives. Boston, Massachusetts.

      Paula Richter: It does stand in American consciousness as one of the primary instances of injustice and of a community imploding, and then having to find a way forward after it. For the families involved over long periods of time and others who are still shaken by what happened in 1692, and all of the various reasons that contributed to that, people wanted to learn how to avoid that in the future and assure that it would never happen again.

      Massachusetts Archives Collection, 135:124. SC1/series 45X. Massachusetts Archives. Boston, Massachusetts.

      Q: How is justice still being restored in Salem?

      Paula Richter: Local families and others who study the witch trials realized that not everyone had been exonerated, because there were many accusations that were never concluded in any way. In the 1950s, there were additional petitions. In the early 2000s, a Massachusetts governor, Jane Swift, signed legislation that was thought to cover all of the remaining people who had not been exonerated previously. After that, yet more individual stories came to light as the continuing scholarship and the continuing interest has gone right up to the present time. In 2022, a final person, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., was exonerated, and her exoneration came about through an eighth grade class in North Andover, Massachusetts. They approached their local representative, who presented a bill to exonerate one last name. It was finally passed in the late fall of 2022. We are telling this story of how the witch trials have been remembered over a long period of time, but the activism that has also gone along over the past 300 years to offer a measure of redressing these wrongs from the long-distant past.

      Q: What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?

      Dan Lican: My hope for visitors, as they go through this exhibition and think about some of the things they're seeing and that we have on the wall, is that they think about these concepts of compassion and shared responsibility and tenacity and really bring those to bear on instances of injustices that they come across in their real lives.

      That's one of the great things about the Salem Witch Trials – it continues to relate to our contemporary society. We continue to see injustices locally and throughout the world. If we look at how the victims and their neighbors acted on behalf of those who were unjustly accused, we can use their approaches and their actions as a template for our own and try to fight the injustices that we see today.

      TOP IMAGE: Salem Witch Trial Memorial. ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum, Photograph by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Experience the Salem Witch Trials Walk, a self-guided, curator-narrated audio tour of Salem Witch Trials materials in three galleries, plus key historic sites around downtown Salem.

      The Salem Witch Trials Walk iPhone view

      Listen below to our PEMcast on this exhibition or find it on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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