Salem Girls Are A Whole Lotta Trouble

by Rachel Gertz

Salem Witch Trial Memorial

Day 190

When I was little, I used to have terrible nightmares about a witch. Not a typical green faced, slovenly looking thing, but one with a bald bony skull and long gnarled fingers. In this dream I had (often on rainy nights) she would hover just outside my window sans broom, tapping the glass, the wind howling demonic slander. I knew it would happen every time, but I couldn’t make it stop. I would get up and pad softly to the window. My spine was a belt sander of fear. Every time it was the same. I would pull back the curtain —her haggard face would scream into the glass, and her ember yellow eyes burned into my little soul: “You…are mine.” 

Yeah, so I guess I have a little discomfort around witches. Some might even say a slight complex. Which is exactly why I prodded Travis to come with me to Salem. Home of Witch central. Gotta face those fears head on, right?

For those of you who know, some crazy shit went down in Salem in the late 1600s which resulted in a lot of bloodshed. But the world continued turning, and we are all fine to do this day, right?

Well, for those of you who don’t know, there’s a deeper story behind all this. Let’s just say it had further reaching implications at that time, than cyber-bullying has had on our young population today (not to dismiss the youngens experience with harassment via cell or computer). To think the massacre all started out because of a few bored pre teens and a little home grown hysteria.

The Not-so-Short Story

In the year of our Lord 1692, villagers of New England made their livelihood by breaking a sweat in the fields —gentrifying their recently acquired land and protecting their families from attack by the French and outraged Wabanaki Natives. Good villagers feared God. They interpreted crop failures and tensions with local government as a manifestation of God’s wrath.

To keep alive during the harsh winters and hot summers, men and their sons fished, hunted and toiled. Women and their daughters (to avoid being lustful, of course), sewed, cooked, cleaned and were slaves to their men. This was the Puritan age, folks.

Children were seen and not heard. Childhood was for suckers, really. Girls had no idle time. They did not play; nor did they laugh, nor talk unless bidden. Hard to believe that this repression, an intense fear of punishment from God, was sealed by the failure of the court and judicial system, which ultimately led to the deaths of 20 people, and imprisonment of 150 (five of whom died in their cells). Curious? I bet you are.

I won’t pretend to be the expert on the details, folks. You can get the full story if you’re interested. What you need to know is that in March of 1692, an eleven year old named Abigail Williams, and her nine-year-old cousin, Betty Paris, begin acting funny after listening to ‘magical’ stories told by a local servant named Tituba. The girls begin acting out, falling into catatonic states, shrieking, barking, crawling around, and collapsing into fits of shaking. And without a cause. Oh my!  

The local minister (who needs a medical doctor), being unable to determine the natural cause of their fits, immediately declares them a product of witchcraft. Soon the behaviour begins affecting other young girls in town. Now people are wondering if it might have been some mouldy bread or even a hereditary disorder. When asked who was tormenting these adolescents, the girls respond by naming several local women, saying that the women’s spectres are flying around and pinching them. Rather than investigate further, officials haul the older women into court. At first the ‘spectral evidence’ is dismissed and the women given a not-guilty verdict. But just as the verdict is entered, the teens begin acting out in court (of course they were invited to court as ‘witnesses’). Convinced, the judge determines the women to be guilty, and sends them to jail.

Day after day more women and men are accused, convicted, and sent to prison. They are told they must pay for every meal eaten —every day of shelter, once they finish their sentence. In total over 150 people are imprisoned, including infants of accused mothers. Five of these people rot and die in prison. The sentences for others are even worse: excommunication and death. In summer 1692, 19 people are hanged over a tree, their bodies tossed into a shallow grave. As well, one man is crushed to death because he will not confess. Those let out of prison years later are bankrupted and left to die.

These are not the green skinned, broom flying, evil witches that society and the media has carved out of history. This isn’t the witch in my dreams. These are normal folks; victims of poorly regulated government and social hysteria. These are bones in the earth. One of many stories that leaves a person feeling a different kind of discomfort.

In the aftermath (years later), some of the teen girls will apologize and say that the Devil made them do it. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone used that one. Nearly 300 years later, most of the victim’s bones are still unclaimed. The Salem memorial that was set up in 1992 and some hokey museums are a reminder of just how bad things can get when your religion allows for false accusations, and your court system for false imprisonment and unlawful deaths.

A few days ago we visited the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. It sits beside a cemetery with graves dating back to the early sixteen hundreds, holding the leftover hair and teeth of famous governors and destitute beggars. Gravestones so old, they’re paper thin and falling over. Their inscriptions blowing away like dust. Yet, the story of the Witches of Salem is still a dark smear on the face of humankind. 

Seems like I should be over my fear of witches now. Perhaps I should be more afraid of being a scapegoat in a world which still manages to do a bang up job of targeting people out of fear. Shoot first, apologize later.

This was an important day.

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