As you may know (I’ve said it before and it’s on the “About This Web Site” page of this site), I have ancestors who were among the accused of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. One of them, Martha (Allen) Carrier, was executed by hanging on August 19, 1692, three hundred and twenty-five years ago this weekend. Another, John Alden (son of two of the Mayflower passengers, Priscilla (Mullins) and John Alden, was charged and imprisoned, but escaped and was not killed. Anyway, I have made it a habit in recent years of taking this date (Aug. 19) as a day of remembrance of the injustice of the Witch Trials and to celebrate the need for sanity and rationality in our public discourse and actions. To me, that means refusing to pay attention to so-called “alternative facts” and be aware of the idea that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan is believed to have said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
I suppose that suggests a need to define the term “fact.” Wikipedia (not the strongest source, perhaps, but one that, I believe, may be appropriate for commonly used meanings and common information) says:
for a statement of fact is verifiability—that is, whether it can be demonstrated to
correspond to experience. Standard reference works are often used to check facts.
Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurement (by
experiments or other means).
Now, people do have the right to believe (and even repeat) whatever they wish to, as long as they do no harm. (Even “free” speech does have limits, the classic case being that of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.) That’s what the First Amendment is all about. But I take issue with those who insist that these beliefs are “facts” unless they can produce evidence which demonstrates that the idea meets the test indicated above. Is it verifiable? Is it repeatable? Does it, in fact, correspond to experience? If not, it is opinion, not fact! This is true even in matters of religious beliefs, which is why religious ideas are referred to as beliefs!
There is a problem, of course, in that knowledge is constantly being expanded, so what appears to be fact can, in fact, change as new information comes to light. There was a time when the ideas of the Earth being flat and the center of the Universe were accepted as fact. We now don’t accept those ideas as facts any longer because we have evidence (which does meet the above test) that they do not “correspond to experience.” There also was a time when it was widely believed that witches were alive and well in the world and were doing the bidding of Satan in North America (and in many other parts of the world).
Having a personal interest in the “witchcraft trials” at Salem, I’ve done a bit of looking into the scholarship which has studied the available evidence from these trials. There is, in fact, a considerable amount of primary source material which has survived and been studied. Recently, I’ve been reading Emerson W. Baker’s book, A Storm of Witchcraft, which is a fairly recent (2015) study of the available facts about the trials by a history professor from Salem State University (located in Salem, MA) and published by the Oxford University Press.
This book draws from original sources and much of the earlier scholarship and presents what strikes me as the most comprehensive look at both the facts and the various theories which have arisen to explain the Salem phenomenon. It suggests that this experience may be a bit more complicated than some of the other scholarship seems to think; a complex twist of social, political, religious concerns arising out of life close to a rather dangerous frontier, the difficulties of changing conditions in social structure, and the conflicting interests between various factions within the religious community. One must understand that the Salem colony was founded as a civic/social experiment in establishing a specific sort of religious community.
That community was, over time, challenged by a variety of factors including changing economics locally and by changes in the political scene in England (the parent country). Salem was founded as an attempt to create a Puritan “city upon a hill.” To them, that apparently meant that they had the right (perhaps they felt it was an obligation) to be intolerant of anyone who disagreed with their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, at least by the time they got to 1692, what had developed was somewhat less than universally accepted commonality as to those beliefs. There were also numerous private squabbles which had developed over property lines; other forms of debt; how to define church membership in a time when that was of considerable importance to one’s place in civic affairs and when the “younger generation” seemed to be less supportive of the idea of the community being religiously dominated; conflicts between the “town” folk, who were becoming more merchant oriented, and the “country” folk, who were more dominantly agrarian; and a number of other sorts of personal and public disagreements. And, on top of all this, there was the ongoing and overriding danger to the colony from the French and their Native American allies, which cost the community lives, property and high taxes.
It’s also worth noting that there were strong family ties among a fair number of (especially the earliest) accusers, a good many of the accused and certainly among those who were assigned to be the judges, who were not (at least for the most part) trained as lawyers, but were merchants and/or members of the clergy. It’s hard to say how those connections may have influenced the outcome, but it is worth noting that not one of those who eventually “confessed” to being witches was hanged (witches were, in fact, never burned in North America), but all those who refused to admit to witchcraft, were. This is, I have been led to believe, the complete reversal of the experience of witch-hunts elsewhere throughout the world. There are theories as to why this occurred, but there does not appear to be any clear explanation.
Ultimately, largely on the basis of “spectral evidence,” nineteen people were hanged and one, who refused to accept the validity of his trial, was pressed to death. An additional five died in prison. The use of “spectral evidence” is, at least to me, the most damning part of the entire Salem experience. This was, of course, based on the “ability” of some people (the accusers) to see the spectres (phantom, wraith-like figures) of those they accused of doing them harm. This would often end up, however, as an assumption of guilt on the part of the judges, based on the premise that the accused must be guilty because it was so often stated by the accusers that they were the ones doing the “harm” (which may have been faked). One doesn’t have to look far into the trial records to find the judges asking the accused questions along the order of “Why do you hurt these children?” or “What spirits are you familiar with?” which (obviously) includes the presumption that the accused could answer such questions because they were, in fact, hurting the children or were familiar with spirits, which was supposed to be the point of the trial to discover.
It’s hard to believe that well-educated people of the time would engage in such activities, but they did, just as educated people today believe similar things in spite of a lack of any supporting evidence, simply because they have heard such things repeated so often that they must be true, right? Personally, I agree with my ancestor, Martha that “It is a shameful thing that you should listen to these folks who are out of their wits.” But, when respected, educated people get caught up in a frenzy of fanaticism, strange things happen and go unchallenged. After all, one of the leading religious figures of the colony, Cotton Mather (the son of the President of Harvard), maintained that Martha was a “rampant hag” and had been promised by Satan that she should be the “queen of hell.” He said that these things had been reported to him by “confessed” witches. My question to Mr. Mather would be “Why should we believe them?” “You are the one making the statements, how do you know them to be true?” “If others produced this sort of evidence against you, would you be convinced?” Of course, no one posed such questions at the time, but I certainly wish someone had. It might have led to a different ending.
Still, the lesson of Salem, it seems to me is that we must strongly consider the difference between fact and opinion. Facts can be proven on the basis of other facts (as we understand them) and/or can meet other tests intended to demonstrate their veracity. Opinions probably should be based on facts, but don’t have to be and may NOT be. Salem should, I think, teach us to question almost everything we hear, especially from sources which have an agenda. Various news sources can (some do) have an agenda besides simply reporting the truth as they can discover it. That doesn’t make them wrong, even if we don’t like their agendas. But, it doesn’t make them factually accurate! All too often, our society seems to wish to take interpretation (opinion) as fact. It is not! The political history of the world is filled with examples of people using these sorts of tactics to strengthen their hold on power. After all, if “we” can make “those people” out to be “wrong,” then “we” MUST be “right,” right? This seems to be an especially persuasive argument when it can be tied in some fashion to religion. Perhaps it was to discourage this that the Founding Fathers put freedom of religion as the first right in the First Amendment. It’s also worth noting that they placed no barriers to practicing any religion (or not practicing any religion) as well as forbidding the establishment of any religious preferences in the First Amendment.
If we wish to act in the way that our Constitution seems to demand, we must be willing to listen to all sides of an issue and make an honest attempt to determine what are the facts. Only then can our opinion (and our vote) show that we are not listening “…to these folks who are out of their wits.” I think this is important. It’s probably more important today than it was in 1692. The actions at Salem cost some lives and eventually contributed to the destruction of the very society which those actions were intended to save. Why? Largely because intolerance, bigotry, pettiness and a refusal to accept that their behavior was based on a sort of fanaticism for their cause blinded them to the idea that they could be making a mistake. It’s worth noting that one of the “judges” actually resigned from the “court,” apparently because he was opposed to the procedures being followed, but the other eight went right along condemning people to death.
It would be nice to think that we, as a country, won’t make such mistakes again, especially when nuclear codes are at stake. Still, it’s hard to be sure that this isn’t going to happen when so much of our national rhetoric is based on bullying and braggadocio. It’s not really comforting….