Connected \\ November 23, 2021
PEM’s Phillips Library unlocks challenging 17th-century language and penmanship of the Salem witch trial documents
The original 1692 witch trials documents — the legal records of the trials — are the closest thing that exists to the truth of the matter. PEM’s Phillips Library cares for 511 documents, the largest concentration of them in the world, and most are owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our state’s Supreme Judicial Court Archives deposited them for safekeeping with the Essex Institute in 1980.
However, reading these documents can be challenging, particularly to an untrained eye. Standards for spelling did not exist in 1692. And for any group of people, penmanship varies in quality and legibility — not to mention that these are 330-year-old pieces of paper. It is miraculous that they have survived!
The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, exhibition documentation showing in-gallery iPads with digital document transcriptions. Photo by Diana DiRamio/PEM.
So, to help visitors read, understand and interpret this important component of the exhibition we created a set of transcriptions of the documents in the exhibition. We offer three ways to access them: online through a subsection of pem.org (freely accessible from anywhere with internet, and thanks to the inventive work of PEM’s Digital Media Designer Caroline Herr), paper packets of the transcripts in the galleries and two iPads in the gallery for visitors to browse the online version.
The University of Virginia hosts a site with complete transcriptions and images of almost all documents related to the trials, along with other useful resources for the study of the crisis. For many years, this was the most comprehensive source of information about the documents, and it remains very useful. In 2009, a team of researchers who had worked for a decade published Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, the first complete “record of all legal documents pertaining to the Salem witch trials, in chronological order.” These 977 documents — plus three determined to be unrelated to the trials — were newly transcribed, annotated, arranged and indexed. We relied heavily on Records (also referred to as “Rosenthal,” after its editor) for our exhibition research and for the in-gallery transcriptions.
At the same time it was important for us to make photography upgrades. The images on the Virginia site vary widely in quality; some are still black-and-white scans of a microfilm copy. Those you can see now on our site are newly captured, high-resolution photographs, and the library is carefully working on re-photographing all documents under our care — those that belong to the state and the 31 owned by the Phillips Library.
The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, exhibition documentation. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
This year, the Salem witch trials exhibition team had another opportunity to breathe new life into familiar materials, and we settled on two contemporary responses to the trials by artists with familial links to people involved in the 1692 events. This collaboration between curators representing different aspects of PEM’s collection proved very fruitful and invigorating. For example, I would not necessarily have thought to partner a high-fashion ensemble with 17th-century manuscripts. Co-curator Paula Richter covered much of our process beautifully in her recent blog post. We worked out conceptual and emotional links — strong threads, centuries long — that give each component object in the gallery richer and deeper meaning.
Detail of An act to reverse the attainders of George Burroughs, et al. for witchcraft, October 17, 1711 and its transcription, from http://swtdocuments.pem.org/documents/14/.
As a library director it is gratifying to witness visitors’ responses to material from our collection. These documents are over 300 years old, and they remain relevant today — both in their dialogue with the contemporary works and in their relationship to current social issues. I hope you experience as much enjoyment as I do in looking at them, reading them and thinking about them. And be sure to stay tuned as we ramp up our digitization program, and exponentially increase access to these and many other treasures in our collection!
The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view at PEM through March 20, 2022.
TOP IMAGE: Detail of Statement of James How Sr. for Elizabeth How, June 28, 1692, indicating a few examples of challenging reading: carfull = careful, conseintes = conscience, and sarue = serve. Phillips Library, on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives, DEP 01, box 8, folder 24.