Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Modern day witch hunting, legacy from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692

As we write this, the street party of Halloween revelers in downtown Salem, Massachusetts, dubbed the Witch City, is in crazy fever despite the early autumn cold, the threat of rain or unexpected snow in October.  

Also known as the Jonathan Corwin House, the only remaining structure with direct links to the Witch Trials of 1692.  Magistrate Corwin served with the Court of Oyer and Terminer that sent 20 innocent victims accused of being witches to death between June and September, 1692.  (Photo by the author.) 

We've enjoyed this Halloween party each time we visited in Salem in early fall. The last day of the Haunted Happenings of October has all the state roads lead to the city, and parking would be a problem for visitors arriving in the afternoon.  Those in the know take the bus, ferry and commuter train because they can immediately jump into a boisterous crowd in colorful, absurd, funny and horrific costumes. It's one big holiday for camera buffs like us.

"Witch" is spelled in almost every visitor's sightseeing agenda in the, well, Witch City.  Those who are interested in witchcraft can go to the Salem Witch Village, which aims "to promote religious tolerance and participation in a positive society that encourages growth and acceptance of all its people."  They can walk with the Salem Witches and learn the truth about spells, love potions, herbal charms, among others.  These Witches celebrate the Witches' New Year on October 31! 

Salem derived it's nickname Witch City from the religious hysterical events of 1692, the Salem Witch Trials in American history. These events are recreated in the visitors' imagination in the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch House, and the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.  Since 1983, historian/author Jim McAllister has been conducting every October the popular one-hour outdoor candlelit tour that explores the sites and the story of the 1692 witch trials.

The Memorial was dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in August 1992 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Trials of 1692.  (Photo by the author.)

There is a "historically accurate live presentation" of "untold stories of1692" at the Witch Museum. Here, visitors meet Tituba, the Caribbean slave in the household of  the Reverend Parris, one of the three women that the girls Elizabeth Parris, daughter of the reverend, and Abigail Williams, his niece, blamed for their mad afflictions.  The three women were accused of witchcraft but it was only Tituba who confessed of having met "the Devil" and told the court that there were other witches out to destroy their community.  The witch hunt began with Tituba's "confession." 

At the Witch Dungeon Museum, visitors can watch a reenactment of the trial of Sarah Good based on the original transcript of 1692 (the court records are found in various documentary archives listed in the webpage Salem Witch Trials). 

There's also the long-running play, "Cry Innocent: The People vs. Bridget Bishop" mounted by History Alive! of the Gordon College theater department at the Old Town Hall.  The audience acts as part of the jury, listening to testimonies, cross-examining the witnesses and deciding the verdict.  The actors respond in character to comments and questions from the audience.

The Witch House is the only remaining structure in Salem that has direct links with the Witch Trials. It is also called The Jonathan Corwin House.  Corwin was the local magistrate who served on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which sentenced nineteen innocent citizens accused of witchcraft to death by hanging.  The 20th victim was pinned with stones to death. He was 24 in 1675 when he bought the house, which remained with the Corwin family until the mid-1800s. 

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial was designed by Maggie Smith and James Cutler. It was chosen from among 246 entries in an international competition.  Picture shows 20 granite benches jutting out from a low stone wall surrounding the area. Each bench is inscribed with the name of the victim and the date of his/her execution. Behind the wall on the left is the Old Burying Point. (Photo by the author.)

In August 1992, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel dedicated the Salem Witch Trials Memorial to commemorate the tercenary or 300th anniversary of the events of 1692.  This adjoins the Old Burying Point behind the Essex Peabody Museum in downtown Salem.  It consists of 20 granite benches jutting out from a low stone wall, and each is inscribed with the name of the innocent victim and his/her date of execution.  There were 14 women and 6 men who were executed on separate dates - 10 June, 19 July, 19 August, 19 and 22 September, 1692. 

Bridget Bishop was the first to go to the gallows.  She cried, "I am no witch. I am innocent. I know nothing of it." (Photo by the author.)

There were five of them who were hanged on 19 Jul 1692.  The other four were Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin and Sarah Wildes. Howe cried, "If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent..."  "Oh Lord, help me!," Rebecca Nurse implored, "It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in your hands...."   "I have no hand in witchcraft,"Susannah Martin professed. (Photo by the author.)
Four men and one woman--John Proctor, John Willard. George Burroughs, George Jacobs and Martha Carrier--met their death on 19 Aug 1692.  "I am wronged. It is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits," Martha Carrier cried.  (Photo by the author.)

Giles Corey, 80 years old, expired after two days of being pressed by stones piled on his chest. Till death, he refused to plead guilty before the court. (Photo by the author.)

Six women and two men were hanged on 22 Sep 1692: Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, Ann PudeatorMary Parker, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, Wilmot Redd and Samuel Wardwell. "Ye are all against me," Martha Corey told the jurors.  "If it be possible no more blood be shed," implored Mary Eastey, "I am clear of this sin." (Photo by the author.)

It would take years before the 20 victims were cleared of their accusation.  Many of those involved publicly confessed their error and guilt.  "On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem.  In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted £600 restitution to their heirs.  However, it was until1957--more than 250 years later--that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692 (Blumberg, 2007)."

Marker on the grave of Col. John Hathorne, one of the magistrates of the Court of Oyer and Terminer that tried and sentenced to death the 20 innocent victims of the Salem Witch Trials.  His grave is in the Old Burying Point that adjoins the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.  (Photo by the author.)

"Witch hunting" is the legacy of 1692 that survives today. During the McCarthy era in US history from after the second world war to the late 1950s, thousands of American government employees, entertainers, writers, artists, educators, labor unionists, etc. were suspected to be communists or communist sympathizers and accused of subversive activities based on questionable evidences.  There was a similar period in Philippine history when academicians from the University of the Philippines were accused by the Legislature's committee on un-Filipino activities of being communists. 

Other modern-day witch hunting can be discerned in the discrimination of one religious group against another (the Muslim and the terrorist tags after 9/11, for example), the gay bashing and the expired "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the US military, and the "trial by publicity" in a much-hyped controversial criminal or social case by tabloid journalists, usually.


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