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      Connected | August 26, 2020

      Learning from 1692

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      Each year thousands of people come to Salem to learn what led to the witch trials of 1692. The official court documents, as well as personal possessions of those directly involved, will be on view this fall for the first time in more than three decades. The Salem Witch Trials 1692 opens September 26.

      PEM’s Phillips Library holds the world’s largest collection of original documents from the Salem witch trials with about 550 in total, most of which are on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Court Judicial Archives. They recount the true events that led to the deaths of 25 innocent people — men, women and children — between May 1692 and March 1693.

      Examinations of George Jacobs Sr., May 10–11, 1692. Phillips Library, on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. DEP 01, box 6, folder 1. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      “I feel the heavy weight and the heavy responsibility of history,” said PEM’s Head Librarian Dan Lipcan while examining some of the yellowed documents at the museum’s Collection Center. “Simultaneously it’s incredibly exciting to see these documents in person, to realize that real people more than 300 years ago were writing these and dealing with this crisis and this miscarriage of justice. It’s really an honor.”

      Examinations of George Jacobs Sr., May 10–11, 1692. Phillips Library, on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. DEP 01, box 6, folder 1.

      Paired with 20 of these documents are personal possessions relating to those involved, such as a trunk that once belonged to Jonathan Corwin, the magistrate who resided at the 17th-century building known today as the Witch House. There are architectural fragments, such as two original wall planks from the Salem Jail. An 1855 oil painting from PEM’s collection, Trial of George Jacobs by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, details the pandemonium in the courtroom as the complex drama unfolds, including the man’s own granddaughter pointing an accusing finger. Two canes that Jacobs, a sufferer of arthritis, used to walk will also be on view.

      These objects emphasize the human scale of this tragedy” . . . At the same time, they shine a light on Salem’s rare 17th-century furnishings and material culture.
      — Dean Lahikainen, curator
      Thompkins Harrison Matteson. Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692, 1855. Oil on canvas. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of R. W. Ropes, 1859. 1246. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton/PEM and Jeffrey R. Dykes/PEM.

      A team of curators and outside experts collaborated on the exhibition, which includes the background of key players in history, as well as a memorial wall dedicated to the victims, where visitors will be asked to reflect on the loss, as well as the ignorance, intolerance and fear that led to the tragedy.

      The crisis that overtook Salem in 1692 threatened the very core of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It has fascinated artists and writers around the world and inspired thousands of academic dissertations, hundreds of books, plays, movies and podcasts. For her 2015 book The Witches: Salem, 1692, Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff did much of her research at the Phillips Library. In the book, she describes nighttime in 17th-century Salem as “crow black, pitch-black, Bible black.”

      In addition to the dark streets and woods surrounding Salem, tensions ran high at the time with harsh winters, failed attempts to grow food and fear of Native Americans living to the north. A new charter had just arrived from England, confusing how laws were to be applied and enforced. Quakers moving into Salem were soon persecuted by the Puritans. The residents of Salem Town and Salem Village, now known as Danvers, argued over church leadership.

      The 17th century Jonathan Corwin House, which belonged to one of the magistrates in the Salem Witch Trials, later became known as the Witch House. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      “The tension in the world makes people afraid, and fear is a powerful motivator,” said Lipcan. “Fear can cause you to dehumanize others and target them as the cause of your problems. I hope that people can look at the documents and the objects and realize that these were real people, people like you and me.”

      The 17th century Jonathan Corwin House, which belonged to one of the magistrates in the Salem Witch Trials, later became known as the Witch House.

      Anyone could be accused and perceived as a threat to the Utopian Christian society being created in Salem. In general, midwives and women were targeted, as they were seen as the weaker sex and more susceptible to the devil’s temptations. Blatant intolerance and a malfunctioning justice system are to blame for what took place in Salem.

      Accusing fellow citizens of witchcraft took place in both Europe and the American Colonies. Visitors to the exhibition will see several books that contextualize the documents, like the Malleus maleficarum, a 15th-century guide to finding and executing witches, written in its original Latin. PEM’s copy was acquired in 2019 to help contextualize the collection of witch trial documents.

      Seeing the handwriting of the accusers and the accused emphasize the human scale of the tragedy. The words of Mary Esty, who was hung in the last group of murders, is written in a careful script, conveying her plea that the court have mercy on others falsely accused: “I petition to your honors, not for my own life, for I know I must die. And my appointed time is set. But the Lord, he knows it is, that if it be possible, no more innocent blood may be shed.”

      The death warrant for the execution of Bridget Bishop, the first of 19 people to be eventually hanged, is also on view. There are also petitions from the accused, invoices from the jail keeper, direct testimony from accusers and the physical examinations of the accused.

      Salem Witch Trial Memorial. ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum.

      Blog Learning1692 1600 005

      Though these light-sensitive materials cannot be displayed year-round, Lipcan says this exhibition is long overdue. “We’re presenting the truth and not the cartoon version of the story. These people had emotions and fears just like we do,” says Lipcan. “They were innocent and they knew it and there was nothing they could do about it.”

      Salem Witch Memorial. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM
      Salem Witch Memorial. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      In just a few years after the trials, Salem residents sobered and fear was replaced with shame. They had created a legacy hard to shrug off, as well as a widely used phrase used to denote a rush to judgement — the witch-hunt. It took 300 years for an official memorial to finally be built in Salem, a short walk from PEM. It was dedicated in 1992 by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and The Crucible playwright Arthur Miller.

      Thomas Maule, a Quaker and Salem resident, published Truth Held Forth and Maintained, just three years after the trials ended. The book was published despite a suppression campaign launched by the Massachusetts government in an attempt to hide the trials and executions from the ruling British. Maule reasoned on page 185: “For it were better that 100 witches should live than that one person be put to death...”

      The PEM curatorial team extends thanks to the community advisors who helped shape this exhibition: Emerson W. “Tad” Baker, Kerry Anne Morgan, and Richard B. Trask.

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