Three hundred twenty-four years ago today, one of my ancestors was hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. While I won’t pretend that I think of this as a pleasant thing to remember, I like to note it because it’s a worthwhile reminder of what can happen when people engage in behavior which is fanatical, biased and “sanctioned” by forces greater than themselves. Make no mistake about it; religious beliefs were, and are, blamed for being at the root of the Salem witch trials, but it is almost certain that they were, to some extent, just excuses to silence, or eliminate, some members of the community for reasons which had little to do with religion and a lot to do with settling personal grudges, like land disputes, power struggles within the local church congregation, or simply having a scapegoat to blame for crop failure, smallpox, Indian raids, and the like.
I don’t pretend to be a true scholar of the Salem experience, although I have read several books about it and I’d like to think I have some grasp of the scholarly thinking about it’s causes. However, my interest isn’t really scholarly, it’s personal. One of my (female) ancestors was actually killed and another (male) one was charged, although he managed to escape from jail, flee the area and was, after the turmoil died down, cleared of all charges. (Actually, ALL of the accused were, eventually, cleared although it was more than a little late in the case of the 20 who were killed.)
Now, the reason this is on my mind at the moment is that I have been rereading two books by Kathleen Kent, a quite distant cousin of mine, The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife (originally published in the US as The Wolves of Andover). They, together, tell the story of Martha Carrier (Ms. Kent and my common ancestor)’s life leading up to the events of the trials, the trials and their aftermath. I like to reread them each August, both because I think they are well written (so I get some pleasure out of reading them again), and because I want to remind myself every year of the dangers of the sorts of actions which result in the suppression of civil liberties.
These books are, admittedly, historical fiction. They have to be because the documentable facts about the actual lives of most people in that time and place are few. I do know that Kathleen did a great deal of careful research on our common ancestor, Martha Allen Carrier (who was hanged on Aug. 19, 1692) and her family in preparation for writing her two books about her. My sister, Janet, has also done some research into the genealogical background of that side of our family. Based on that, and a bit of my own looking, it seems safe to say that, while there is much we don’t know about these people, there are some things we know and others which may be true, but are unproven. These, unproven, stories come through family and local Salem traditions and stories which were widely enough believed (or suspected) at the time that they have survived to the present. But, what do we actually know?
Well, the record indicates that Martha Allen was born in 1643, probably in Andover, MA. In 1674, she married Thomas Carrier (whose birth name may have been Morgan, as both names are associated with him), who was born in Wales about 1626. Thomas is as interesting as Martha as he (according to various family and local legends) served in the army of Charles I (as one of the king’s personal bodyguards?), then served with Cromwell’s New Model Army after the beginning of the English Civil War and, eventually, was the actual executioner of King Charles I, (that is, he actually swung the axe which took off the king’s head), but we can’t prove any of that. We do know that he immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony about 1655, (it is said that he may have been fleeing Royalist forces as the restoration of the monarchy was in the works and Charles II wanted anyone specifically tied to his father’s execution killed for regicide), but, again, we can’t prove that. Eventually, we know he married my ancestor, Martha, in 1674.
They had at least six children (some sources say more, but six seems to be the accepted number): Richard (1674-1749); Andrew (1677-1749) [I am descended through him]; Jane (1680-1680) [died shortly after birth]; Thomas (1682-1740); Sarah (1684-1772) (from whose point of view The Heretic’s Daughter is written); and Hannah (1689-1772).
Thomas was, reportedly, over seven feet tall (quite unusual for the time) and was known to be very strong. He lived to be about 109 years old and, according to Poor Richard’s Almanac (Ben Franklin’s paper) two “normal” coffins were required to be reconstructed in order to accommodate his body for burial. There isn’t really a whole lot more which can be established as documentary fact (and some of this isn’t really established as fact, although there are a variety of non-documentary sources). That’s not much to go on.
Wait a minute, though. We do have court records that Martha was accused by the “Salem Girls” in early May of 1692, arrested on May 28 and her trial began on May 31. We do have the court records of that trial. She was found guilty and sentenced on August 5 and the execution was carried out on August 19. That would appear to be fact. Of course, we don’t know how good the records actually are from the trial and the court wasn’t particularly interested in what we would call fact today, as it (in fact) relied on so-called “spectral evidence.” So what is THAT?
Spectral evidence is a form of evidence based upon dreams and visions. It was admitted into court during the Salem witch trials by the appointed chief justice, William Stoughton. The booklet A Tryal of Witches taken from a contemporary report of the proceedings of the Bury St. Edmunds witch trial of 1662 became a model for and was referenced in the Trials when the magistrates were looking for proof that such evidence could be used in a court of law.
Spectral evidence was testimony that the accused witch's spirit (i.e. spectre) appeared to the witness in a dream or vision (for example, a black cat or wolf). The dream or vision was admitted as evidence. Thus, witnesses (who were often the accusers) would testify that "Goody Proctor bit, pinched, and almost choked me," and it would be taken as evidence that the accused were responsible for the biting, pinching and choking even though they were elsewhere at the time.
Thomas Brattle, a merchant of Salem, made note that "when the afflicted do mean and intend only the appearance and shape of such an one, say G. Proctor, yet they positively swear that G. Proctor did afflict them; and they were allowed to do so; as though there was no real difference between G. Proctor and the shape of G. Proctor."
Rev. Cotton Mather argued that it was appropriate to admit spectral evidence into legal proceedings, but cautioned that convictions should not be based on spectral evidence alone as it was possible for the Devil to take the shape of an innocent person. (from Wikipedia)
Obviously, spectral “evidence” would not be considered acceptable today, at least in a court. However, as Arthur Miller points out in The Crucible, (a play ostensibly about the Salem witch trials) it is all too easy for people to get sucked into believing that a lack of clear proof that something isn’t true can be taken, by some, as evidence that it is. Of course, Miller does take considerable dramatic license with accepted, established facts in his play, but, it can also be said that he wasn’t really writing about 1692, but the early 1950’s. (More about this some other time.)
Still, a witch hunt is a witch hunt, whatever the reasons behind it. I think Martha, herself put it pretty well in her testimony when she said; “It is a shameful thing that you should listen to these folks who are out of their wits.” I’m afraid that I see far too many people paying far too much attention to people I suspect are “…out of their wits.” today. It’s sad to contemplate, but just because someone or something, a politician, some web site, the National Enquirer, etc., says something is true, doesn’t make it so, no matter how many times it is repeated.
Martha couldn’t prove that the spectral “evidence” against her was phony, so the people who counted (the court and the jury) decided that it had to be true. How does one defend oneself against things which can’t even be seen by all, but are reported by a “select” few who insist that they are true. The answer is, you can’t. When you combine that with an attitude that insists that you can only prove your innocence by naming others as being
guilty of some sort of crime and you have a completely out of control, witch hunt sort of
The idea that one can be assumed to be guilty simply because she/he is charged (legally, or not) and that only by “naming names” (implying the guilt of others) so that those people can then be charged, or convicted, can “clear” one is absurd. I am reminded of the Wizengamot hearing of Igor Karkaroff where testimony against others is suggested as a means for him to receive lighter punishment, but that may be too strong a Harry Potter reference for some.
In my “cousin” Kathleen’s book, Martha actually tells her children to testify against her because she knows that their lives will be spared if they do so. And it can be established that this was the case. This is a fact (it’s in the court records); Richard and Andrew were tortured to get them to “confess” to their knowledge of their mother’s guilt and Sarah (age 8 at the time) also testified against her. And all of them were freed. As Kent tells it, Martha gave her life up to save her children.
Now, we can’t actually prove that Martha took this step, but is it likely? Personally, I don’t doubt it. Parents will do almost anything for their children. I’d like to believe that it was true, but I have to be at least somewhat skeptical as I can’t confirm it. There are FACTS involved here, however. The children did testify that their mother made them become witches, and they were, in fact, freed (seemingly) in exchange for their testimony. I, personally, am skeptical that one can really expect them to have told the truth (whatever that might have been) in the face of this sort of situation, although, apparently, the court and jury didn’t have a problem with this idea. So were they, in fact, witches, or did they just testify to that in order to be spared? Personally, I don’t know. I also don’t really care. What I do care about are the completely stupid actions of the court. Of course, there is much that is stupid about the “trials.” The record is available, read it for yourself @ http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html.
Unfortunately, the same sort of stupidity which led to the acceptance of spectral evidence in a court of law is still around, if one looks at the news, especially political news. Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean that it’s likely, let alone true. Even if something is likely, that doesn’t mean that it’s true. We all need to question most of what we hear, read, even see. (The police will tell you that eyewitnesses are, in fact, notoriously inaccurate.) We need to check the sources, consider where those sources have gotten their information, what the agenda behind their reporting is, etc. If reportage doesn’t tell us all of this (quite clearly and directly), we need to be skeptical. We should probably be skeptical, anyway. One source proves nothing! Three sources (different ones) suggest some degree of likelihood. Lots of sources means that there might be some reason to accept it.
One should also consider whether a source has some sort of an agenda. A political operative is a poor source about anything related to his/her opponent’s campaign and even what is said about the campaign he is running should be questioned, as anything said is going to be “spun” to suggest a desired message. Even the major newspapers and networks have an editorial policy and are (in my opinion) more concerned about having the “best” story first than they are about fairness and accuracy. The FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” was revoked in 1987, so the story which is most likely to gain readers, watchers or eyeballs is the one which is promoted the most, just as if it were true (which it MAY not be). Web sites are especially notorious for spreading false, misleading information and conspiracy theories because it’s so easy to put anything on the web. After all, I can post pretty much whatever I want to with no compulsion to provide any sort of “proof” and it’s there for anyone to read. That’s why I have never suggested that I was posting anything more than my own opinions, nor have I wanted anyone to consider them more than that.
However, I think it’s important that we be VERY skeptical about almost anything we are told, especially by people who have a reason to wish us to support them, or take some sort of specific action which they support. There are far to many people talking far too loudly about things they may, or may not, really know anything about for any of us to be very sure who is “…out of their wits.” Skepticism seems wise. A lack of it would seem to lead towards the sort of thing which led to something like 165 people being accused of witchcraft and the actual death of 20 of them in Salem in 1692.
I try to be skeptical even of those people with whom I agree, perhaps especially of them. I think that’s a safer way to proceed. Once I have done my homework and think I have established the facts, then I may take some sort of action. Until then, I’m pretty skeptical and I think I should be. Perhaps you should be, too.
If you don’t believe me, I have a nice bridge in NYC I’d like to sell you cheap…