Who Is It That Afflicts You?

illustrations by Yao Xiao

I didn’t fully realize the degree to which the Salem Witch Trials were the backdrop to my early life until I had left New England — I was 24 and playing bar trivia in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I don’t remember the exact trivia question, but my friends threw up their hands at it, totally lost. “Are you serious?” I asked. “Everyone knows this. It was Ann Putnam.” I wrote her name down and handed the slip of paper to the despondent nerd in charge of the event and considered that most people in the US don’t grow up seeing that name, all of their names, everywhere around them.

I didn’t grow up in Salem, by which I actually mean I didn’t grow up in Danvers, which is what Salem Village of the 1600s is now called. (The present-day city of Salem is technically totally different, although some of the accused did live on the outskirts of it.) But I was a stone’s throw from it, and even if I hadn’t been, the ripples of the hysteria and the deaths it caused have widened over the centuries to cover much of Eastern Massachusetts. I learned about the trials multiple different years in school; it feels like every year, although that can’t be right, can it?

My high school’s vice principal was an amateur Salem witch trials historian; he came into our history class and taught a special lecture on them. Most of the other kids I knew, regardless of what high school they went to, either read The Crucible in English class or had it performed in their theater department. I knew a girl who played Elizabeth Proctor in a production of it, and it messed with her for weeks — she couldn’t let go of the character’s traumatized headspace even when she wasn’t on stage. In other cultural contexts, I understand the text is taught as an allegory for McCarthyism; in ours, the allegorical reading was a secondary one. We visited Salem, which in the present day, especially in October, contains several cobblestone city blocks dedicated to Salem museums, gift shops, and more, even though little to no trial activity occurred there. We went for educational purposes but also for fun, for something to do. When people visited from out of town, it was a place you’d take them. To gawk at the confusion and horror through the comforting veil of several hundred years: witch hats, scary rubber masks, souvenir mugs.

If I had grown up somewhere else, I would have been incubated in some other framework of inexplicable terror, had some other way of being inducted into mortality. If I had grown up in Milwaukee, where I live now, it probably would have been learning about Dahmer and the attendant host of implications about what humanity is capable of, what humanity is capable of not seeing until it’s much too late.


I’m not sure why we were taught about the trials in school so diligently; was it a conscious effort to keep history from repeating itself? Warn us about the dangers of righteousness, of mob mentality? Or was it just an easy object lesson, something with local flavor that didn’t require much lesson planning?

The question of what there is to be learned from looking back at the trials depends in part on what you think happened. Some think the accusers suffered from ergotism from eating rye grains infected with a fungus that can cause hallucinations, or ate jimsonweed (which can be hallucinogenic), or a different biological illness with a cultural side effect. Some think it was true mass hysteria, a psychological epidemic perhaps triggered by living with constant paranoia about military conflict with the indigenous peoples of the area. Some think it was less mysterious than it may seem from our vantage point; that a fear of witches was a useful way to take out women (and some men) who were disliked, too powerful, or inconvenient for political reasons.

What we do know about what happened in Salem Village in 1692 is (more or less) this: A few young girls from well-to-do families allegedly experimented with trivial fortune-telling — the kind of folk rituals that claim to tell girls who their husband will be. Afterwards or around the same time, children in the village began to fall ill with alarming symptoms — convulsions, claims of pain all over their bodies, fevers and hallucinations. Witchcraft was suspected; religious figure Cotton Mather had recently published “Memorable Providences,” a book that claimed to describe an Irish woman in Boston who practiced witchcraft. Betty Parris, nine years old and the first child to fall ill, accused her uncle’s slave, Tituba, of afflicting her through witchcraft. (Or did adults accuse Tituba in her name? Good question.)

Tituba, whom Samuel Parris purchased in Barbados and may have been either Nigerian or West Indian, possibly with indigenous (Arawak?) ancestry, was an easy target in the village. Rumors already abounded that she practiced voodoo. Tituba denied the accusations regarding Betty Parris. She was then beaten by Samuel Parris, after which she admitted to having made a “witch cake,” a folk practice believed to help identify a witch (many sources claim that the witch cake was only made at the behest of a villager, Mary Sibley, who seems to have called upon Tituba for her exotic mystical associations, the same reason she would be targeted). Ironically, the first thing that seems to have condemned Tituba was attempting to help the situation by (allegedly) trying to find the witch. After her beating and her initial confession, Tituba began to confess much more: she said she had been visited by the devil, that she could fly through the air on sticks, that she saw ominous animals associated with witchcraft like black dogs, black and red rats, foxes and wolves. And she began to accuse others, providing the leaders of Salem Village with titillating stories borrowed wholesale from their own theories about witchcraft (signing of the Devil’s book, creepy animal familiars, etc), as did other ill girls, including Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard.

The next two accused were Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, both women in very shaky social standing. Osborne was a widow who hadn’t been to church in almost three years because of chronic illness; Good was a homeless beggar who villagers described as “bad-tempered” and was widely disliked. Are you seeing the trend?


There are more details, but they can be boiled down to this: by the time the trials were over, 20 people were dead, many by hanging. Most were women, but not all, like the notable example of Giles Corey, who was “pressed” to death by having stones piled on top of his live body until he was crushed. (If you visit modern-day Salem, you can see this event depicted with a life-size 3-D wax sculpture in a museum, complete with an audio track of Corey’s ragged voice crying out.) The trials ended in 1693, when a new court was convened, but the public discourse and concern about witchcraft continued; it wasn’t as though the whole community had cold water splashed on their faces and woke from hysteria overnight.

It wasn’t until 1695, two years later, that the trials were criticized in print — Quaker Thomas Maule’s text Truth Held Forth and Maintained claimed that “it were better that one hundred Witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a witch, which is not a Witch.” He was still imprisoned for twelve months for the claim, although he was eventually found not guilty. In 1697, Rev. Samuel Willard (who had previously been critical of the trials) read a public apology on behalf of trial judge Samuel Sewall out loud in Boston, and many jurors of the trial also apologized and asked forgiveness. Ann Putnam Jr, (reportedly) one of the most enthusiastic accusers of witchcraft, also asked forgiveness, claiming that she had been deluded by Satan when she pointed the finger at other villagers.

I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ninety-two; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several people for grievous crimes, whereby their lives was taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though, what was said or done by me against any person, I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan. And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humble for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, whose relations were taken away or accused.

The sense of shame and guilt around the trials lives on to this day in New England, alongside modern-day Salem’s spooky gift shops and our Puritan habits (you still can’t buy liquor on Sundays in Massachusetts). Perhaps most famously, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of classics like The Scarlet Letter, changed the spelling of his name to disguise his blood relation to John Hathorne, the only witch trial judge who never repented for his actions.

The broader cultural legacy of the trials often seems to me like a contradictory one: we feel both that the trials represent a base and common tendency of human nature that repeats itself over and over again, hence the concept of a figurative “witch hunt,” and simultaneously that the trials are unrivaled in history, a singularly horrifying period so dark as to be inexplicable. How can both be true?

Firstly, the Salem witch trials are demonstrably neither inexplicable nor an isolated event. Before any accusations were leveled in Salem, executions of women had already occurred elsewhere in Massachusetts and Connecticut for suspicion of witchcraft; there had already been an active and busy period of witch hysteria and executions in Europe, spanning whole centuries starting in the 1500s. Far from being inexplicable, there’s actually a surplus of explanations, an embarrassment of riches of theories and proffered narratives. The collective anxiety in Salem rose out of concern over the political situation with England, or the threat of conflict with local Native communities; it was really about a feud that the prestigious Putnam family was having with other villagers; it was a case of true mass hysteria, a group psychotic break; it was chemical hallucinations; it was good old-fashioned woman-hating. There are almost as many explanations as there were executions, and while we’ll probably never know “the truth” for sure, it’s likely that more than one of them is true. No matter how you spin it — historically, culturally, ideologically, religiously — there’s nothing that unique about what happened in Salem in 1692.

An easy counterexample to that belief is the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, which bears an incredible resemblance to what happened in Salem despite happening almost 300 years later (thankfully, there were no literal executions this time). A remarkable number of childcare providers, from daycare owners to babysitters, were accused (seemingly) by children of horrific Satanic ritual abuse. In retrospect, looking at the interrogation techniques used with the children in question (some were as young as three) makes it clear that the children were essentially fed these narratives by frightened, angry adults. One daycare which suffered a rash of accusations was in Malden, Massachusetts, less than 20 miles from Danvers/old Salem Village. In We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, Richard Beck expands on this parallel:

In Manhattan Beach, [daycare providers accused of Satanic ritual abuse] supporters ran newspaper ads reading, simply, “SALEM MASSACHUSETTS, 1692. MANHATTAN BEACH CALIFORNIA, 1985.” These ads were rhetorically powerful but also accurate in more ways than the defendants may have realized. The Salem witch trials were the first legal proceedings in American history to involve the testimony of child witnesses, and in both the seventeenth-century witch hunts and the day care investigations, the question of a child’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction was central… children were thought to have been abused by a secretive group of conspirators, and each time it was the adults who first began to suspect a conspiracy was at work. Initially the girls in Salem did not even report that anyone was harming them… the girls described visions of angels, celestial light, and God’s glory just as frequently as they talked of terror and witchcraft. But the adult villagers ignored these… just as 1980s social workers would ignore those children who described benign experiences at day care. Again and again they asked their children, “Who is it that afflicts you?”

The way we’ve used the trials as the basis for what we now call a “witch hunt” — the practice of choosing a person or group as a scapegoat for a feared or undesirable phenomenon, and publicly identifying and then punishing them for it — feels inaccurate to me. It’s more or less true that that’s an aspect of what went on in Salem, but leveraging the trials in that way ignores and erases lots of other specific elements of what happened that seem crucial to me.

It’s true that there was a scary and unpleasant thing afoot in the village — the mysterious illness of several children — and that a group was brutally punished for it. But there are so many other elements of the story that seemed like static history textbook stuff when I was growing up and now seem urgent and fascinating. I’m hypnotized by the image of girls — young girls! Twelve years old! Nine! — pointing the fingers that would condemn other women to death, and equally hypnotized by the idea of their parents and elders guiding the pointing fingers for them. I’m drawn to the letters that the esteemed reverends exchanged on the subject, how even in the old, stilted English speech their thrill is legible, how delighted they were to be on the forefront of a battle against the Devil, how much they enjoyed the power and authority, legal and spiritual, the trials conferred upon them. I’m preoccupied maybe most of all with Tituba — Tituba, who has had the least power over her own narrative and whose story has had the most hands forming it for the historical record. Tituba who was the first accused, and who, against all odds, survived the trials.

The modern cultural narrative of the trials and of “witch hunts” that I was always fed held a moral lesson about fear: how dangerous it can be to let fear determine one’s actions. It’s certainly a fair point. But today in 2015, the events in 1692 seem to be more about power: who was denied it, by what methods it could be possessed, how it was used by the people who had it, who it hurt and who it saved. Obviously there are plenty of points of illogic in the substance of the accusations and the worldview of the people who believed them — how were so many women flying through the air by night with no one noticing? If so many witches had been present for so long, why did they suddenly mount an attack only in 1692? Why against children, and not village leaders? — the one I can’t get over is this: If Tituba had really been a powerful witch backed by Satan and his minions, why was she enslaved? If Sarah Good had supernatural powers, why was she homeless and dependent upon begrudging charity to eat? If the people who were executed were full of the power of the Devil, why couldn’t they save themselves from hanging?

It makes perfect sense that the least powerful in Salem village society would be targeted and scapegoated, but to the extent that people really believed that witchcraft was at work — and I think many did — I keep coming back to how they justified these inconsistencies, or more accurately, didn’t feel the need to.


We tend to leverage the trials as a framework for understanding punitive measures — Arthur Miller’s allegory with The Crucible was criticizing the harsh and unwarranted punishment of HUAC; when a celebrity accused of sexual misconduct complains they’re the target of a “witch hunt,” they mean that they’re being castigated unfairly. But what rings most dangerously prophetic about Salem is the ideology that suggests imagining the most helpless and vulnerable in our communities as the most powerful, in a kind of 1984-esque doublethink that provides a rationale for causing as much harm as one wishes to that group. The kind of doublethink that would allow Samuel Parris, for instance, to believe that Tituba could be imbued with all the powers of supernatural evil and hold the life of his niece and many others in her hand, while at the same time believing that she was literally his property and could not even lay claim to the powers of full personhood.

Clearly at least part of what’s at play is a radically reimagined rhetoric of power and victimhood, one that allowed Parris (and a village) to see themselves as being victimized by a woman who was entirely at their mercy, and was without the barest legal or social measure of recourse to protect herself from harm. It’s notable that Tituba seems (from what we’re able to understand about her through the veil of hundreds of years of racist, sensationalistic history) to have understood right away what kind of manmade devil was really on the loose in Salem. She understood, for instance, well before anyone else did that those who confessed survived.

She was imprisoned, but considered central to the investigation; and when the dust settled, she was alive. There’s no record of what happened to Tituba after the trials were over; there’s very little reliable record of her at all. To the contrary, the same practice of inscribing cultural fears and a presumed level of power she was never granted in real life continued; she is consistently depicted as being the person who exposes the children of Salem to folk magic and/or voodoo, even though no documentation from Salem says anything about Tituba practicing voodoo, only confirming for village leaders their own European beliefs about witchcraft. (To be clear: even if Tituba was practicing some kind of magic, it still wouldn’t justify the witch trials or the persecution against her; it just seems significant that so many allegedly objective modern-day commentators make the same assumptions about her, despite a lack of evidence, that the original Salem villagers did.)

Fictional works like The Crucible, The Devil in Massachusetts, and even the recent (and obviously heavily fictionalized) show Salem all portray Tituba as someone who does practice some level of folk magic, even if it’s not with evil intent. Even in texts that are primarily dealing with the tragedy of Salem, how horrific it was that women totally without agency were killed for the sake of ideology and relief of group anxiety, Tituba still gets figured as a player with an angle, not a victim, not someone who had no choices available to her and somehow managed to make it anyway.

I’m not an expert on Tituba, or the trials, or really even on Salem, despite growing up there. I say that not just to disclaim but because there are many, many actual experts on 1692 Salem, people who have based books and academic careers on it (although they’re only human and have their own subjective lenses, too). If you want expert historical explanation or analysis, this isn’t the best place to look. I don’t know everything that informed the incidents of 1692; just what they look like from 2015. I’m thinking about Betty Parris, sick and scared and surrounded by adults out for blood and righteousness. I’m thinking of Tituba, vulnerable and without recourse in ways that I can’t begin to appreciate from my vantage point in time and identity. I’m thinking about these women and thinking about the witches of 2015 — my friends who are making crystal grids to try to heal themselves and hexes to keep their rapists away from them, Brooklynites rewatching The Craft and instagramming their full moon ceremonies on rooftops, people of color practicing traditional magic and spiritualities that have survived intergenerational trauma, people who are ill and poor and scared paying folk healers and lighting candles to get rid of their back pain and go back to work because they can’t pay for a real doctor. Brujas hexing Donald Trump, using magic to try to keep fascism at bay.


illustration by Yao Xiao

Suzy X of Shady Hawkins was quoted by Jezebel as saying “The central essence of the witch is and has always been political resistance… Witches were born out of their natural resistance to patriarchy, to the level of greed and entitlement that produces scumlords like Donald Trump. We need to re-politicize the witch, the way feminists did in the ‘70s. Let’s take advantage of their existing fear of women, of immigrants, of black and brown folks. And let’s have a little fun with it.”

I don’t disagree with this assertion, and I think actually embrace it, personally — regardless of whether “magic” “works,” I think my friends who have rituals and mystical protections on their side seem happier and healthier than when they didn’t, and it’s appealing to me in the sense that it sort of declares “You think I’m scary and evil, you want to persecute me for power I’ve never even been granted? Fine, I’ll inhabit this identity — you’re going to castigate me either way, aren’t you?” Truthfully, I hope the hex on Donald Trump works. I hope my cynicism is foolish. I still wonder about power, though, and fear. We’ve hexed Trump six ways from Sunday: who, at the time of this writing, has power? And who is afraid?


There’s another kind of cultural narrative about dark powers, albeit one that we see less often. In the X-Files episode “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” it seems that Satanic activity is afoot — a teen’s mutilated body is found in the woods, seemingly the victim of a dark ceremony; frogs rain from the sky in a gesture towards the plagues of Egypt. When the Satanic cult members of the town are discovered, it’s revealed that they’re not the scuzzy teens everyone has suspected, but the upstanding citizens of the community — the PTA members, the soccer moms. In other words, the ones who have made a covenant with the devil are the Putnams of Salem Village, not the Titubas or the Sarah Goods. It reminds me of the rumors — always unsubstantiated, always will be — of high-profile finance executives paying astrologers to find the best days to make stock trades, advertising firms hiding sigils and magically charged symbols in their ads designed to compel consumers to buy, buy, buy. World leaders relying on occult figures (Rasputin!) to ensure the success of their empires, Hitler’s famous occult obsession. The intimation that magic isn’t what the underdogs resort to — at least not exclusively so — it’s also the currency of the most powerful.

Whether these things are true or not isn’t really the point. The point, I guess for me, is my friend’s rapist who saw virtually zero repercussions despite video evidence showing what he did to her; “experts” claiming that the death of Tamir Rice was “reasonable” on the part of the police officer who shot him. If that isn’t evidence of supernatural power — the power of whiteness, the power of male privilege, the power of state authority, the power of rape culture — at least as much as Cotton Mather finding a “witch mark” on someone’s scared and shaking body, what is? I’m thinking of how there’s mountains of hard evidence that Planned Parenthood has never “sold dead baby parts,” and is in fact just a beleaguered healthcare provider, but there are still many in power who have the ability to roadblock them over and over regardless. Is that not a kind of malicious witchcraft? I’m thinking of how many major names and national leaders are products of secret societies, Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key, what have you. These are men (and they are all men) who we know essentially for sure crept around in crypts having solemn ceremonies and laying down in coffins to later be inducted into immense power, and have for generations — yet it’s feminists that Pat Robertson famously claimed practiced witchcraft.

Adherents to Darren Wilson’s account of Michael Brown’s death believe that Brown was capable of literally supernatural feats, that he charged forward through a rain of bullets and wasn’t felled by them for several yards, but see no dark forces at work in Wilson’s continued freedom or the profits he’s made from his celebrity. I’m thinking about how history has furnished to me every minute detail of Tituba’s life, as much as is possible to know through the centuries, and yet I know very little about Samuel Parrish or Thomas Putnam, powerful men in the village and major accusers in the trials, whom popular history has swathed in flattering obscurity. Were the young girls and women who accused others of witchcraft in Salem actually driven by hysteria or malice, as is often implied or outright reported, or were they manipulated and used as mouthpieces by men in power, much like the bewildered children of the Satanic Panic were manipulated by the adults in their lives? How much of our long, long history of witchcraft and witch hunts has been about intentionally obscuring the mechanics of power — falsely conferring it onto those who are utterly without it just long enough to pull off Vegas stage-show style misdirection, just for the second it takes to switch out the props on stage and saw a woman in half for the crowd?


illustration by Yao Xiao

My father used to live in Topsfield, Massachusetts, a mere five miles from Danvers. Topsfield had some involvement in the trials, too; five miles isn’t much distance. For most of my teen years I spent one weeknight and three out of five weekends with him, and his house was a short walk to the town center, where you could buy gross snacks at the Cumberland Farms convenience store and other teens (not me) would buy weed from the employees at the dry cleaners. To get to the town center, you had to walk by the green, where there was a gazebo and also a large rock that had a plaque embedded in it memorializing the women killed in the witch hysteria.

Around Halloween, we used to put up an outdoor decoration that was a cloth stuffed witch — Wizard of Oz-style, with a pointy hat and striped socks — who had run into a tree. We’d nail her up by her hat and her body would be flat against the tree trunk, the back half of her broom sticking out. It wasn’t as original as the people on the more central street who created elaborate seasonal structures out of old tractor tires (how did they find the time?) but we liked it. Her little witch shoes curled up at the toes. Splat!

There are a number of memorials and public structures essentially apologizing for the New England witch trials (as there should be), stones and benches and plaques and the like. Reading one of them is how I first found out that one woman was hanged on my birthday, August 17. I don’t think there are any statues — I’m curious about what and who would be depicted. A crying white woman in an old-timey dress and bonnet? Tituba, whatever imagination of her inconsistently reported race and phenotype the artist felt most drawn to? Cotton Mather or Judge Hathorne, impassive and righteous?

There are very few primary source documents attributable to women at all from those times, let alone women accused of witchcraft. There are innumerable texts about the trials, but they each have their own bent and subjective take on the major players — in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, John Proctor and 17-year-old Abigail Williams are having an affair, but in real life Abigail Williams was only 12 years old in 1692. Marion Starkey in The Devil in Massachusetts says snidely of Tituba, “It is only fair to add that if Salem Village contained anyone at all who deliberately practiced the black arts, it was she.” (Alongside several offensively sensational and negative descriptions of her race.) Ann Putnam Jr’s apology stands out as one of the only statements that comes to us relatively unchanged from one of the accused or accusers. I desire to lie in the dust. I desire to lie in the dust, and beg forgiveness.

So we remember them not really as they were but as we think they might be, as we find it convenient for them to be, as would be most satisfyingly morbid to imagine them. I would like to think that aspect of the tale as old as time has changed, at least — that those who are the subject of reactionary persecution today at least have the possibility of documenting their own experiences, letting the record show what really happened. Maybe that doesn’t matter as much as I’d like it to, though — after all, does it help change anything in the moment, or only after the fact?

In the Salem Witch Trials Museum, the same one where you can see a reproduction of Giles Corey’s grisly death, and Rebecca Nurse hunched in a cell, they also have a sculpture of the Devil. Seen in context — you’re in a pitch-dark room, with a booming sinister piped-in voice narrating the events of the trials, a spotlight illuminating the appropriate wax figure in gruesome detail every few minutes — it’s genuinely pretty scary. I remember it being bright red, with a shiny, stiff torso that looked almost like a carapace and a wild grin. That sculpture stuck with me especially because it is, I think, the only one that’s representational of a concept, not a real person or event. It’s off to the side, in a corner; the Devil seems to be looking on but ultimately separate from the goings-on in Salem, hovering beside them and laughing to himself, disappearing back into the darkness when he’s not being directly mentioned by the audio narrator. And after the whole show is done, you walk back out into the world, squinting in the sunlight, leaving the Devil to his devices as you pick your way over the cobblestones to get back to your car and go.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. This was truly great to read!

    I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had a particular fascination with learning as much as I can find about the Salem Witchcraft Trials. I HATED reading The Crucible in high school, because even though I understood that the point of the play was to draw parallels to McCarthyism, and I recognized it as fiction, it bothered me SO MUCH that it was so historically inaccurate. (Surprisingly and to the contrary though, Hocus Pocus holds a strange place in my heart, even though it literally has nothing to redeem it w/r/t historical accuracy.)

    Reading this was also highly relevant for me this week, as I just purchased Stacy Schiiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 (released yesterday, can’t wait to get into it tonight!) and listened to Stuff Mom Never Told You’s podcast on Feminist Witchcraft–linking in case anyone else is interested!

  2. OH.

    I really don’t know what else to say.

    This is something I needed to read – on witches, ancestry, fear…I needed this.

    Thank you.

  3. Great article – I lived in Salem, MA for 5 years and there are constant reminders of the witch trials everywhere. It was hard to ignore and even harder, for me, not to imagine how horrible the torture those women (& men) who were accused endured. Very scary to think how little we’ve changed in the few hundred years since the witch trials occurred.

  4. That was an amazing ride of an article, how history and power and feminism were all tied up in one event. I’ve read so much about the Trials, but this was the new perspective I needed.

    On a lighter note, I think I grew up right down the street from you. I remember that witch smashed into the tree! I lived across from the big graveyard, but I somehow never noticed the memorial on the common.

    • ah, that’s so neat! i think we may not have actually been quite that close — the house where we had a witch decoration is actually different than the house near downtown topsfield, although i realize now it sounds in the piece like they’re the same. my dad used to live on deer run, pretty close to the fire station!

  5. I’ve reread this five time in the last week and it gets me in a new way every single time. What a singular piece of writing this is!

    • In a strange bout of good timing, I stumbled upon this article through a tab I’ve had open for ages today – only a few days after I went to the Witch Trials Memorial in Salem for the first time. I didn’t grow up in this area, but have lived in Boston for five and a half years now, and somehow this was my first time making it up to Salem. My ancestor was hanged as a witch there.

      Growing up and on into adulthood, it was just a cool family fact to bring up when it seemed relevant. But being there, by the cemetery, seeing her stone with her name and date of death, “hanged as a witch,” it made it so real for me in a very serious, sobering way. I cannot imagine what my ancestor and all the others must have gone through. It’s been on my mind on and off ever since.

      Rachel, this is truly an amazing piece of writing. Thank you for it. It was just exactly what I needed and wanted to read right now.

      And, unfortunately, four years after you wrote this, the Witch Trials feel more and more relevant to our society right now with each passing day.

      • Ugh, this is exactly what I was afraid was going to happen when I hit submit on this comment. I’m going to copy/paste again below. Sorry, Heather!

  6. This is incredible! Everything about the witch trials has captured me and fascinated me for years but I was also terrified by them…

      • yes, that’s such a terrifying aspect of them! it feels looking back like the more reasonable someone’s reaction to the trials was, the more likely it was they would be targeted. super scary.

  7. Great piece! You really captured the often difficult-to-describe essence of growing up in eastern Massachusetts and feeling the weight of so much history around you (I grew up in New Bedford and it was all Moby Dick, all the time, but we definitely had the Salem field trip.) and the lingering flavor of Puritanism that influences the culture even today.

    I think liquor is legal to buy on sundays now though? Google tells me as of 2003 or ’04, stores can open at noon, and as of last year, 10 am, at least. It’s still very recent, though, so your point stands and I suppose this is pretty irrelevant.

    • You can definitely buy alcohol on Sundays in MA. I remember my dad being super excited and not understanding why. (Now I am a real adult and I understand)

      (Great piece, Rachel!)

  8. I would love to see more writing like this on Autostraddle! This was real, thought-provoking writing with substance.
    Great read, Rachel!

  9. This is a fantastic piece! Thank you Rachel!

    I moved to Salem in 5th grade and stayed there until my freshman year of college. I also remember being frightened by the Salem Witch Trials Museum. And buying little silver pentacles at Pyramid Books. When we first moved there my mom was working psychic fairs to make money. We rented part of a house from a witch. Her daughter and I would very occasionally sneak into her ritual room because it was sunny, quiet, and smelled amazing. It was an interesting place to grow up.

    There’s an engaging YA novel that’s sort of about the Trials and a lot about being a teenage girl that came out last year. It features Ann Putnam Jr’s apology prominently. I highly recommend it, especially if you grew up in the area. Conversion by Katherine Howe – http://www.worldcat.org/title/conversion/oclc/861208269 (apologies for my lack of properly linked URL)

    • Oh yeah! I just recently read Conversion and loved it. It was really interesting, especially how it focused on how historically inaccurate The Crucible is, with leaving out Ann Putnam Jr. I liked how it went back and forth between the present day and the past.

  10. This was a beautifully written article. And I love how you tied the concept of witchcraft to fear of and need of power by vastly different groups and how its history has been skewed to give more attention and accuracy to certain groups. The concept and practice of witchcraft, especially in a modern context, fascinates me, so I am really enjoying Autostraddle’s discussion of witches past and present. Great contribution.

  11. I took a class on the history of Witch hunts. I recommend “Witch Craze” by Lyndal Roper, “The Enemy Within” by John Demos, and lastly, “Witch finders,” by Malcolm Gladwell, which focuses on English witch hunting; Witch Craze focuses on the much more prevalent German witch hunts, as well as psychosocial aspects.

  12. Thank you! This is so good and interesting and my dog is very confused because I kept saying “daaaaamn” at increasing vocal pitch while I was reading it.

  13. Susannah Martin is an ancestor of mine. I made the mistake of reading the Wikipedia page about her halfway through this essay, where it talks about her being forced to submit to a physical examination twice during her trial, and how they used the difference in the appearance of her breasts during the second one as “clear evidence of guilt.” I’m sickened by this, especially in the context of your analysis of the power dynamics of the entire situation. As someone who has felt drawn to paganism/feminist spirituality from a young age, I used to feel proud (maybe? Not sure if that’s the right description) of my connection to Susannah and the witch trials. Something about the idea of fearlessly and defiantly embodying the “terrifying, powerful woman” idea. But there’s nothing powerful about a 70 year old woman being forced to reveal her body against her will and being condemned to death.

    Thanks for writing this, Rachel.

    • wow this is very powerful to hear! i’m glad that you got something out of reading this but i also hope that it does not make you revise your idea of your ancestor into one of being disempowered or take away the pride you feel from being related to them! i didn’t know how to create a space for it in this essay but i hope that there is a way to both acknowledge the fear and injustice that people face/d because of cultural phenomena like the salem witch trials while also honoring their courage, and i guess drawing strength from the knowledge that they did and do their best to balance survival and authenticity. thank you for sharing this, it means a lot to me!

  14. Rachel! This was definitely one of the most incredible things i’ve read in a long time! I found myself reading and re-reading paragraphs because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a single thing. This makes me think about the Salem Witch Trials in a way I’ve never done before, and it makes me appreciate my own modern day witch sisters even more. Thank you for writing this.

  15. The comparison to recent events was powerful, Rachel. I wish I could have a reading group and sit around and discuss this one in person because this one gives you a lot to think about it.

  16. Thank you for this. I have been doing a fair amount of research on the subject as I am currently in the process of creating a (very abstracted) dance adaptation of The Crucible and have made some similar connections re: power and current events. You have articulated these connections in a way that has brought additional clarity to my research. To extend your logic a bit, I’m thinking about the excuses made for mass incarceration in POC communities, how the attribution of “problem” is shifted to the disempowered. How in Act 4 Cheever mentions all the cows “wanderin’ the highroad” because their owners are imprisoned. It’s a bit poetic, but this image speaks to me about the effects of imprisonment, separated families, and the responsibility communities should have to all its members. There is so much allegory in there beyond McCarthyism.

  17. Great piece! It really rings so true today, when MRAs are both claiming that women are weak and incompetent but also that we live in a matriarchy that they rule. Which is it, boys?

  18. So many feelings this stirs up.
    My childhood as a pariah, as someone on the bottom of the social pecking order who fairly soon left the order and god behind.
    What’s like scream because there’s nothing else left to access and how terrifying it is for an adult to witness that much fury in a child.
    Those girls in 1692 has such little agency in their strict lives, so much unquestioning obedience was expected of them. It’s no wonder to me they’d go after those with even less and once given such power eventually go after those with high standing. It’s how the patriarchy works to this day and why I can’t condemn the people that confessed and accused other to escape the noose.

    I went to that Salem Witch Trials Museum as a kid, I think at eight years old, because we were visiting family of my father’s in Massachusetts.
    Giles Corey’s death stuck with me not because it was horrifying to me, no it was because he inspired the defiant little being I already was. At that age I could already describe Aztec human sacrifices, what they were for, and how those humans were obtained. Some guy getting crushed to death rather that give in to the bullshit of others was delightful.
    Years later I’d get even closer to Giles Corey’s example because I back-talked someone when I should have been meek, but it was an event that was perhaps unavoidable consider how much hate my sibling had and still has for my existence. How much rage that a person like me continues to foul up the world by existing and wasting resources conjures in him.

    Finally there’s all the random things I know about witch hunting across Europe and some of the shit that passed for evidence.
    Like the appearance of one poor woman’s birth scarred vulva and the ignorance of the the men inspecting it.
    Or how if convicted in certain places one’s lands, properties ect. became forfeit and up for grabs, no matter if you had heirs to inherit.

    Fantastic piece Rachel, I don’t think it can be said enough.
    I’ve read many things on Salem and Tituba often becomes an aside, but you woven her through the whole thing.

    I could have just posted a thunderous applause gif, that’ve been less messy an…stuff.

  19. I love the thought and care and craft that shines out from this.

    I have
    been thinking a great deal about witches, apparently.

    Which seems like a strange sentence, but:

    reading this reminded me I dreamt I was one
    both the last two nights.

  20. This was a really great, fascinating piece. And a timely one, at that–I probably wouldn’t have thought to connect the Salem trials to Donald Trump, yet it’s done so well here. Thank you for writing this.

  21. Wow this was supremely interesting. Makes me want to read a whole lot more about all of it. I’ve always been kind of scared to, but I think it would be a good thing to do.

  22. When I was in the 7th grade my mom was my history teacher (small town Iowa at a very small school), and we did a lesson about salem and its witch trials and we had to do skits. and I remember finding it all fascinating and reading my mom’s “grown-up” history books about it because I was so intrigued. I really enjoyed the questions you asked about power- things I certainly wasn’t thinking about when I was 12. Makes me wanna go to the library and get some books about witches.

  23. In Evolution of God: The Origins of Our Beliefs, Robert Wright says that in prehistoric hunter-gatherer times (and may be today too in hunter-gatherer societies since much of the research on what people call primitive cultures comes from observation of existing hunter-gatherer tribes), Shamans used to accuse women, for whatever reason, of witchcraft and similar evils. The women were not sentenced to death. Rather they could redeem themselves by sleeping with the shaman because the shaman’s power would apparently erase the evil. The shaman also accused other people in a similar manner with remedy being something that was of advantage to him.

    In Tom Holland’s “Persian Fire”, Holland says that the Spartans were most scared of their slaves (helots); more than Persians, Athenians or anyone else. And because of their fear, most of the time they refused to leave their homeland to help out others. That Athenians (unlike, apparently, the rest of the Greeks) used to condemn their woman to never leave indoors because one of their sages (Solon) said that any woman who is seen outside is a prostitute. It became so bad that many of these guys prevented their women from evacuating during the Persian invasion because they found the sight of their women on the streets trying to board the ships uncomfortable.

    Athens also condemned the best among them (although, mostly aristocrats, so not necessarily powerless) to exile whenever they were helped by these guys the most. Militiades, the hero of Marathon, was condemned to fine based on trumped up charges shortly after the Marathon win. Themistocles lost his post as the main general of Allied navy after he successfully took Greece and the allied powers to victory at Salamis. (I actually like Ostracism because it seemed to give much power to the not-so-powerful non-aristocratic citizens to hang a sword over the powerful; but it had its downsides.)

    It appears that 2000 years later, the West was much the same. (East too probably; after all, class segregation and patriarchy are not just the West’s prerogative).

    I had never heard of the Salem Witch Trials (except may be obliquely referred to in Harry Potter); The Crucible I know by means of its mention in The Good Moon Rising; and I found just the description so scary that I never actually read it.

    Anyways, this is a wonderful article, and raises so many questions; mainly about why the powerful fear those without power so much. (May be because they fear what would happen to them if these folks whom they have exploited ever really gained power. They fear vengeance whereas probably the powerless may merely just want to live a happy and healthy (and free) life. At least, vengeance seems to be what scared Spartans most.) And also, why some people are so threatened by power of others that they cannot understand and hence, tries to hurt it.

    Thank you Rachel.

  24. Found this again via Heather Hogan’s tumblr, reading it on a train to London Kings Cross. Thank you, Rachel, I think this part is my favourite:

    How much of our long, long history of witchcraft and witch hunts has been about intentionally obscuring the mechanics of power — falsely conferring it onto those who are utterly without it just long enough to pull off Vegas stage-show style misdirection, just for the second it takes to switch out the props on stage and saw a woman in half for the crowd?

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