PEMcast Episode 019: The Legacy of Salem’s Witch Trials Transcript
[Recorded sound from Cry Innocent]
Kristina: Yes, well, it's a mixture of people waiting at the top of the square for Bridget Bishop to be arrested. They’ve heard that’s going to happen.
Chip: Kristina Stevick is the Artistic Director of History Alive Incorporated, an immersive theater company in Salem.
Kristina: So, because it's happening on this Essex Street pedestrian mall, there are plenty of people just passing by that have no idea what's about to unfold.
Dinah: During the summer and fall tourist season, History Alive performs their show, Cry Innocent, on the streets of Salem several times a day.
Kristina: They'll hear Puritans singing or bantering and, you know, see people gathering. So they might wonder and stick around for that. The bell rings, the town crier hops up on his stool and he announces the news of the day.
[[ More sound from Cry Innocent ]]
Kristina: And Bridget Bishop, in the course of that, gets arrested.
[[ More sound from Cry Innocent ]]
Chip: She is brought down to Old Town Hall where a pre-trial examination takes place.
[[ More sound from Cry Innocent ]]
Kristina: Often those passersby will get swept into the energy of that and become endowed as jury members and decision makers. The audience decides collectively whether Bridget gets sent to trial, which happened historically, or whether she should be released.
Dinah: Kristina explains that because audience members are cast as jurors the show can be unpredictable.
Kristina: There's always the surprise out of nowhere person in the audience who will like stand up and give testimony. Or, say they're the Devil . You know you sort of figure out how you are going to address this. Whether you're going to incorporate this or whether you're going to try to ignore it.
Dinah: Kristina shared with us one performance that really stuck with her.
Kristina: We were arresting Bridget Bishop, bringing her down Essex Sreet. I turned around and I saw this guy, probably in college with a bunch of his buddies, and he had a brick like over his, you know, up above in his hand. And he was yelling, “Burn her, hang her, kill her.” And I was just thinking, oh my gosh, this has the dangerous potential of allowing people to play on their misogyny, to play on their anger instincts. And that was pretty frightening. Nothing really dangerous has ever happened, but you do see the potential in humanity to just lose it. You know, we have a tendency to think, like, oh those dumb Puritans. They were so, you know, they were so bloodthirsty. But we are clearly just as capable in our time and place of doing things like that.
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin
Chip: And I’m Chip Van Dyke. Most everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials.
Dinah: It’s the reason that more than a million tourists flock to Salem each year.
Chip: They purchase witch kitsch at local shops, get their tarot cards read, maybe take a spooky walking tour. But not before getting a photo taken with the statue of Samantha, from the classic TV show, Bewitched.
Dinah: Our small city has undoubtedly been shaped by it’s past. There’s a witch silhouette on our police cruisers. On the masthead of the Salem News. The Salem High School football team? The Witches.
Chip: And PEM holds the largest collection of witch trial documents in the world.
Dinah: In PEM’s new exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials, 1692, this collection will be on view. Starting September 26th, visitors can see the official court documents detailing the deaths of innocent men, women and children.
Chip: Also on view will be related objects like architectural elements from the old Salem Jail and personal possessions of the accusers, as well as the accused.
Dinah: Objects like the walking cane of George Jacobs. There is also an oil painting detailing the chaos of his trial. In the center of the pandemonium, his own granddaughter points the accusing finger.
Professor Baker: Every generation has its Salem, has that time when people try to, in their fears, pick on individuals who are different from them in some way and see them as the root of their problems.
Chip: That’s Professor Emerson Baker of Salem State University. He consulted on our exhibition. And has written extensively on the witch trials. Today on the episode, we talk to people closest to this story, like Professor Baker.
Dinah: And peel back the layers to examine why it remains relevant today.
Dan: I feel the heavy weight of history. Real people from over 300 years ago were writing these documents and dealing with these issues of this crisis and this miscarriage of justice.
Dinah: This is Dan Lipcan, Head Librarian at PEM’s Phillips Library. We are in the reading room of PEM’s collection center, sorting through PEM’s documents related to the Salem Witch Trials.
Chip: Indictments and death warrants. Jail keepers invoices.
Dinah: (tape) Could I get you to read one death warrant?
Dan: Sure. Box Two, Folder Thirty One.
Dinah: He carefully opens the box and removes the death warrant for Bridget Bishop. She would become the first person in Salem executed for the crime of witchcraft.
Dan: You see here that there's actually a wax seal on it, on the left side. And that's the seal of Wiliam Stoughton, who is the Chief Justice.
Chip: Dan notes the handwriting at the bottom of the document.
Dan: And this is George Corwin. He is the sheriff of Essex County. And he is basically reporting, “I have taken Bridget Bishop out of the jail in Salem, conveyed her to the place for her execution,” and I quote, “cause the said Bridget to be hanged by the neck until she was dead.”
Dinah: (tape) So he's saying at the bottom, I did it, it's done?
Dan: That's right. That’s exactly what he’s saying. He's saying I've done what you ordered, she's dead and I attest to that.
[ MUSIC ]
Steven: So this room of the house, which is currently displayed as a kitchen, was added onto the house in the summer of 1692. And we know that because of the scientific analysis of these timbers.
Chip: This is Steven Mallory, Manager of Historic Structures and Landscapes at PEM.
Steven: The builders worked throughout the summer of 1692. And so it's kind of an interesting point that life still went on despite the terror of 1692.
Dinah: We are being led through the John Ward House. Erected in 1685, it is one of the oldest homes on the museum’s campus.
Steven: This room was all plastered in 1692 so it was fairly bright. And then the furniture fairly dark, painted deep reds, blacks. And the reason for that was when you have white walls and dark furniture in minimal lighting, you can get through the house much more easily.
Chip: Steven has been studying the Ward house for several years. He’s able to find a story in just about every aspect of its design.
Steven: This house was moved here in 1910 to 1912. It was on Saint Peter Street, directly across the street from the original prison where the accused witches were incarcerated and awaiting trial. The people who lived in this house most likely would have heard the cries of people who were living in terrible circumstances, some of them even dying in prison. It was daily conversation around the dinner table.
Chip: Imagine what that conversation would have been like.
Steven: Everyone just accepted that witches were real. Everyone knew that the spirit world existed. And so it wasn't a question of believing in the supernatural or not. It was more complicated questions like, spectral evidence. You know, can you harass your neighbor by inhabiting their house cat and talking to them.
Dinah: But like Steven says, life goes on.
Steven: The house, the people still needed to be fed, they still needed to earn a living.
Chip: And then there were the endless domestic chores. These responsibilities were usually left to the young women of the house.
Dinah: ( tape) What would the chores of a thirteen-year-old girl be at that time. Pretty intense?
Steven: Yeah, it would have been spinning, breaking down wool and getting the seeds and tangles out of fibers, and keeping things cooking on the stove, and lugging firewood, Weeding vegetable gardens. And it was six days a week. And then that seventh day a church service that went on for ghastly amounts of hours. You know, Samuel Pariss' house would have been fairly similar to this.
Chip: Samuel Pariss was a fiery Puritan minister of Salem, He was also the father of Elizabeth Pariss.
Dinah: Elizabeth is most famous for accusing the family slave, Tituba, of witchcraft.
Chip: Her accusation would be the first of hundreds.
Steven: Now, if you are a thirteen year old girl living in those circumstances ...
Dinah: Hours of chores. Long church services. Fire and Brimstone at the dinner table.
Steven: Where you can throw chairs and accuse other people of bad things, and then that person could even die. Now that's an amount of power that you suddenly seized that you had none of the day before.
Baker: There's no single answer to what happened in 1692 in Salem.
Chip: Professor Baker of Salem State University again.
Baker: Part of it certainly is this terror about what was going on not far to the north
Dinah: Professor Baker says a significant piece of Salem Witch Trial history happens to be in the woods behind his home in York, Maine. So I went to visit him.
Baker: Come on, Lu! Hey, we're going to go for a walk. Go for walk?
Baker: She loves coming out here and kind of pull us into the woods if you let her. All right. I don't think they had any basset hounds here in the seventeenth century.
Baker: We're headed towards Snowshoe Rock
Chip: Snowshoe rock, Professor Baker explained, was a raiding party encampment in January of 1692.
Baker: Dead of winter raid, where they piled up their snowshoes on this rock and camped out. And they could also climb up on top of the rock and from up there, look down into the sleeping village of York and prepare their attack for the next day. The next morning they went into town and killed or took captive over a hundred citizens.
Dinah: York was nearly burned to the ground.
Chip: At the time, France was trying to prevent England from expanding into Maine. And since England had recently laid claim to Massachusetts Bay Colony, York was a threat.
Baker: And it was one of the most devastating raids in New England's history.
Chip: There are many references to this attack on York in - of all things - the Salem witch trial documents.
Baker: The judges were all major property owners in Maine who lost the equivalent of millions of dollars worth of real estate investments. It absolutely terrified people because they realized that if a fairly important coastal community like York could be destroyed, that no place, not even Salem, was immune from attack.
Dinah: Add to that the political instability of the time, freezing cold weather, food shortages and a recent smallpox scare.
Baker: You know, this war story is something that really is a big part of the story that I think we're realizing increasingly is one of many, many factors that contributed to the outbreak of witchcraft in 1692.
Chip: Back at the collection center, Dan is examining the yellowed pages of what looks to be a very old book.
Dinah: (tape) Go ahead and show me what you've got there.
Dan: The title is the Malleus Maleficarum. The English translation of that is commonly The Hammer of Witches.
Chip: The Hammer of Witches was a manual for identifying witches and witchcraft.
Dan: The main author Heinrich Institoris was known as a little bit of a fanatic.
Chip: It was written in Latin, nearly 200 years before the events in Salem.
Dinah: Witchcraft trials swept Europe long before it was all the rage in Colonial America.
Chip: The book is organized in three parts.
Dan: The first part explains, and verifies, that witchcraft is real.
Chip: Part two describes what witchcraft is and its effects.
Dan: And then the third part is essentially a manual for how to prosecute witches in court. This book is very anti-woman.
Dinah: An English translation of the text reveals the argument that women are simply weaker and therefore more susceptible to the devil's temptations.
[Reading in German accent]
Therefore, let us now chiefly consider women; and first, why this kind of perfidy is found more in so fragile a sex than in men. And our inquiry will first be general, as to the general conditions of women; secondly, particular, as to which sort of women are found to be given to superstition and witchcraft; and thirdly, specifically with regard to midwives, who surpass all others in wickedness.
Roberta: There is one that says, “O Lord, help me.” There's one that says “I am wholly innocent of such wickedness.” These are the words of victims. These are words that the victims spoke out during their trials.
Dinah: This is Roberta O’Connor, a board member with Voices Against Injustice, the organization that established and maintains the Witch Trial Memorial in downtown Salem.
Chip: The memorial is located right behind PEM. It’s a small intimate park with a series of granite benches around the perimeter. Each bench memorializes a victim of the Salem Witch Trials.
Roberta: These benches are a place where you can sit with these victims and consider their lives and what they went through.
Chip: The memorial was dedicated on August 5, 1992. Those present include Arthur Miller who wrote The Crucible, based on the Salem Witch Trials.
Dinah: And Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor, and author Elie Wiesel, who noted, “If I can’t stop all of the hate all over the world in all of the people, I can stop it in one place: within me,” adding, “We still have our Salems.”
Chip: Roberta moves over to the Rebecca Nurse bench. The engraving reads that Rebecca Nurse was hanged on July 19, 1692.
Roberta: She was an elderly woman and poor. Poverty was a big common ground amongst the victims. To me, I imagine her in a jail in 1692 with no heat. You know? And you’re vulnerable and elderly and you're wondering what is happening? My world is being turned upside down. Which is a sentiment that we're all feeling right now as our worlds have been so affected. So, yeah she really speaks to me.
Dinah: Aside from maintaining the memorial, Voices Against Injustice gives an annual award to an individual or organization who is fighting injustice in the world.
Roberta: To see the example of the victims who stood up for themselves and do the same for themselves and for others. Currently, we are so polarized as a nation, and there is so much suspicion, accusatory behavior and antagonism. It is easy to see how things escalate and could lead to a true witch hunt.
[ MUSICAL INTERLUDE ]
Dinah: Proctor’s Ledge is nestled in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
Chip: It had been determined long ago that this was the site of the executions. However no official dedication happened until 2016.
Dinah: Professor Baker again.
Baker: No one's thrilled to learn this, right? But I think that they recognized that the site did need to be identified and marked in some way.
Dinah: As soon as the dedication was announced, people began to reach out to Professor Baker.
Baker: Calling to thank me, to thank Salem, to thank the Gallows Hills Team. And they all said, I am the ninth great grandson/granddaughter of such-and-such who was executed on such-and-such a date.
Chip: People were calling from all over. Texas, Alaska, Europe. All of them interested in coming to Salem for the dedication of this important landmark.
Baker: And to them it was unfinished business. It absolutely was. And they wanted to have their story told, to be able to give their testimonial. I think Gallows Hill and the witch trials has cast a large deep shadow over Salem and her history.
Dinah: Professor Baker sees it as a point of embarrassment. Of shame.
Baker: Frankly, for generations, the town was not really ready to even try to cope with it...Salem is known as the Witch City. You can go anywhere in the world. It has taken a very long time to accept that we are the Witch City. And I think it's something that the community has worked very hard to try to replace that image as being open, fair minded. We are concerned about human rights. We welcome everybody.
Tina: The community has really grown into welcoming people who are different. has We are a “No Place for Hate” community.
Chip: This is Tina Jordan, Executive Director of the Salem Witch Museum. Tina estimates that the Salem Witch Museum receives about 60 thousand visitors in October alone.
Dinah: This October will obviously be a bit different. The staff have made sure that people can still visit from home.
Chip: On their site, they offer a virtual tour of all Witch Trial related locations – in Salem and beyond.
Tina: There's so much we can learn from the Witch Trials. When you tour our exhibit, you'll notice our Witch Hunt Wall.
Chip: The Witch Hunt Wall is a wall dedicated to the history of the Americans ostracized for their differences. It compares the witch trials to Mccarthyism and the AIDS panic in the 1980s.
Dinah: They even ask visitors to contribute witch hunt stories observed in the world today.
Tina: How can this keep happening? In different ways? We need to learn from the past. And history matters. I know that’s the Salem Witch Museum tagline. But it’s the tagline for history. We’re just using it right now. It’s for everybody. It does matter. It matters.
Mayor: I hope people understand the history that this actually happened. It was a real thing that took place in the community that you are in. Not some story or a just play.
Dinah: Kim Driscoll has been mayor of Salem since 2006
Mayor: And so I do think it impacts how people think about Salem and this responsibility we have to never let anything like that happen again.
Chip: These days, in addition to working on Salem’s 400th anniversary (coming up in 2026) the Mayor is spending a lot of time on Salem’s current crisis, the pandemic.
Mayor: This city always found ways to support each other. Whether it was a fire in 1914 that wiped out large quadrants of the city, the pandemic of 1918 also. This pandemic has provided a chance for people to lean on each other.
Dinah: The Mayor detailed the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who have dedicated themselves to assisting Salem seniors, picking up prescriptions, groceries, and helping with doctor’s appointments.
Mayor: We had an initiative where we called every senior in Salem over the age of sixty-eight. That's a lot of seniors and it was terrific. That's when you really see what your community's made of.
Chip: You know, listening to Tina and the Mayor, Dinah and I really felt the need to take a walk around the city a bit. To see how Salem has affected us as people who live here. So it was a beautiful day and we met up in front of PEM and took a walk around.
Chip: So I’m just waiting for Dinah. There she is.
Dinah: Hey, Chip.
Chip: Hey there. This is funny. This is something that’s happened since March. We haven’t been able to record the podcast in person together.
Dinah: So we’re always working remotely, sending files back and forth.
Chip: We’re forcing ourselves here now to go outside and hang out with one another in person.
Dinah: It’s good to be out. The tourists are here. It’s September 1.
Chip: Tuesday morning, but there are still people taking advantage of the weather and trying to see the sites. I see that they are following their red lines.
Dinah: So when I`m walking, I often look down on the red line and think about, a few years ago, the city repainted it.
Chip: It seems like they added some. It used to guide tourists all around the city to find the historic spots in town.
Dinah: Right. I actually worked for the Salem Gazette at the time. We did this fun illustration, where we showed it going everywhere. It was like an exaggerated criss-cross all over the place.
Chip: It just goes to show you can paint red lines all over this town because history is everywhere.
Dinah: It is absolutely everywhere. Just walking over here, I went by the Grimshawe House, where Hawthorne, the famous 19th century novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, proposed to his wife Sophia. It is just everywhere.
Chip: Yup. Right over there. You know Tina says that history matters. I think it’s much easier for people who live in towns like Salem, like us, to be reminded of history because it is all around us. We’re always looking at a piece of history.
Dinah: The architectecure and the cobblestones. A lot of people here feel a responsibility to understand more and more of it. When you understand how these pieces connect, it really is such a rich history that we’re fortunate to live with.
Dinah: We know that this is not only in Salem. There are other old places in America too. What happens is you feel this sort of curiosity that just continues and as long as you're curious, it comes to you.
Dinah: Back at the collection center, Dan shares with us one final document.
Chip: It’s a petition from a woman named Mary Easty of Topsfield, Massachusetts.
Dinah: (tape) In what situation would she have written this? You're calling it a petition, was she in jail when she wrote this?
Dan: This is something that Mary would have written to the court to plead for her innocence and to plead for a stay of execution.
Dan: I'll need a second to find the passage here…
[paper flipping sounds]
Dan: “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 blood, innocent blood, may be shed.”
Dan: That’s actually very moving and very powerful. And I’m hoping that when people can see the handwriting, and when people. . . . The hope is that visitors can identify with the people that are behind these documents and that they can realize that this happened to real people and that these people had emotions and fears, just like we do. And that they were innocent.
Chip: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. Thank you to Dan Lipcan and Steven Mallory, Salem State professor and vice provost Emerson Baker, Kristina Stevick of History Alive, Roberta O’Connor of Voices Against Injustice, Tina Jordan of the Salem Witch Museum and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.
Dinah: Special thanks to Akiyo Nishimiya for transcribing many hours of interviews. And to Patrick Oberholtzer for his reading of the Malleus Maleficarum.
Chip: The Salem Witch Trials 1692 goes on view at PEM September 26 and runs through April 4, 2021.
Dinah: Due to light sensitivity, this part of PEM’s collection cannot be on permanent view and has not been seen in a generation.
Chip: So don’t miss your opportunity.
Dinah: If you have comments or story ideas, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chip: Keep in touch with us through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Stay tuned for more episodes of the PEMcast.