Friday, May 9th, 2008
L & A, Section 2, Govert
Expository Essay, Rough Draft
The Salem Witch Trials Of 1692
In the year 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts, nineteen men and women were slaughtered on the gallows under false convictions of witchcraft and black magic. One man who was over eighty years of age was not hung, but pressed to death beneath dozens of heavy stones for refusing to attend trial, after spending five long months in prison. Can you imagine, being a victim of this hate-crime campaign? No part of this historic tragedy was inevitable: The Salem Witch Trials were unjust, unfair, and could have been stopped if not for the darkly creative minds of eight adolescent girls.
I remember my one trip to Salem and how deeply moved I had been by the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, the only testament ever truly given to the unheard voices of the Salem Witch Trials' nineteen victims. The memorial, whose design was inspired by the Vietnam Memorial, took on a rectangular shape, consisting of twenty granite benches, all cantilevering from a low-built stonewall, adjoining with the memorial's neighboring graveyard. The stones, beautiful, antique and almost perfectly set, were organized by the execution date, beginning with July 19, 1692, moving on to August 19 1692, and ending with the Witch Trial's finale, September 19 and September 22, 1692. On each bench was the name of the accused witch, the exact means and date of their death, and if any statement had been by one of the convicted, it too was forever inscribed into the hard, cold granite. I had so many overwhelming feelings as I walked along the path, running my hands along the icy benches and feeling the indentation of the perfectly carved words. There was guilt and there was anger that such a tragedy, such a travesty of justice could occur so easily, and more than anything there was a need to recognize the statements of every victim, to hear each voice and listen to their desperate pleas of innocence, as no one had in the year 1692. Two of the statements haunted my mind more than any other, those made by Elizabeth Howe and Rebecca Nurse during their trials. The desperation of Elizabeth Howe's words was haunting, cold and clear even if they were only carved in a stone table. "If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent". That same haunting tone and that same desperation also lived in the terrified pleas of Rebecca Nurse. "Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in you hands…" Maybe someone would've listened to them, and the other seventeen victims, if not for eight young girls, their devious creativity, teenage boredom, and selfish love of the spotlight.
A few years before the murderous trials were to begin, John Putnam invited successful Barbados merchant, Samuel Parris, to preach in the Village church and merely one year later Parris agreed to become the official Village minister. Parris made the move to Salem Village with his wife Elizabeth, their six-year-old daughter Betty, their niece Abigail Williams and their eccentric Indian slave Tituba.
At first life, was good for Parris and his family; Samuel Parris was the Village minister, the family was widely respected, and the two young girls quickly acquired a close group of friends. It only a took a few short years for their perfect lives to crumble and spiral into a chain of events that history would remember forever. Sometime during the February of 1692, little Betty Parris fell extremely ill, acting strangely by diving beneath furniture, screaming of burning fever, contorting her body in severe pain, and having constant hallucinations. Science says Betty having digested the drug LSD, as a derivative of rye, caused her strange symptoms, but the folk of Salem had a different and far darker theory.
Cotton Mather, the minister of the Old North church in Boston and a firm believer in the existence of witchcraft, had recently published "Memorable Providences", a popular book in which Mather described the odd ailments of four Boston children, ailments quite like those of Betty Parris. Mather proclaimed that the illnesses of the children were caused by black magic and in a small congregational town in the 1600's supernatural happenings were easy to believe in. Whisperings of witches, devils and darkness rose greatly when three of Betty's closest playmates – eleven-year-old Ann Putnam, and seventeen-year-olds Mercy Lewis and Mary Walcott - suddenly fell victims to the same illness that plagued Betty. It wasn't long before a total of eight girls including Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, Mary Warren, Elizabeth Hubbard and Susannah Sheldon, were afflicted. The doctors who examined the girls found no ailments aside from their strange behavior, which only deepened the belief in witchcraft.
Tituba, the Indian slave who had been known for telling the eight adolescents tales of voodoo, of magic, of omens and of psychics, was the first to be suspected of witchcraft. She was an easy target with her native tales and foreign background and on February 29, 1692 an arrest warrant was issued for Tituba and two other neighboring women. It was on this day that the imaginations of the seemingly sick girls truly sprang into action and the witchhunt really began. Betty Parris and Abigail Williams named their malevolent cursers with surprising ease. Only a short while later Betty, Abigail, Mercy Lewis and Ann Putnam all reported seeing women flying through the mist on broomsticks, at nighttime. The girls named likely and easy to accuse targets such as Tituba, the obvious choice, Sarah Good, an embittered beggar and social outcast, and Sarah Osborn, an old village crone who hadn't been to a church service in many years. This was considered a true sin in the eyes of the Salem folk and played a strong role in Osborn's conviction.
The next to be accused were less disreputable than their predecessors. The girls' now named Martha Corey, Sarah Cloyce, Elizabeth Howe, and Rebecca Nurse - all three of them known as being kind, quiet and pious Salem citizens - as witches, stating the three women attacked them by pinching, slapping and burning them "with the devils fire". The performances of the eight once sweet and innocent and now ever-so devious circle of friends became more polished with each accusation and they were able to give very detailed and vivid accounts of what the accused had done to them. The girls even landed four-year-old Dorcas Good, Sarah Good's daughter, in prison for eight months with these colorful descriptions when three of the girls stated they'd each been bitten twice by Dorcas Good's specter. Deliverance Hobbs was the next victim of an unjust trial and she immediately confessed to pinching three of the girls then flying off on a broomstick to attend the Devil's Sabbath. Following Deliverance Hobbs was Bridget Bishop, accused of torturing and using a specter against many of the village people and pinching Ann Putnam before demanding that she sign the Devil's book. Bishop, Corey, Cloyce, and Nurse were then hung at Gallows's Hill.
Those who criticized the trials became suspects as well, as was the case of John Proctor. Proctor, who openly denounced the witchhunts, was testified against by Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, a slave of Samuel Parris, and eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Booth; Booth claimed that she had been approached by ghosts who revealed Proctor to be serial killer. John Proctor was promptly hung at Gallows's Hill. His wife, Elizabeth, was granted mercy for her pregnancy. Even more shocking than the execution of respectable John Proctor was that of Salem's ex-minister, George Burroughs's. Burroughs recited the Lord's Prayer even as he stood on Gallows Hill with a rope wrapped around his neck, and witches were said to be completely incapable uttering the Lord's Prayer. A large crowd had come to witness Burroughs' hanging and after his recitation many of the spectators stood and argued for the mans life at risk of their own trial and execution. These last attempts to save George Burroughs were counteracted by Cotton Mather, who stated that Burroughs had had his chance to prove his innocence in court and failed. Giles Corey, another denouncer of the Salem Witch Trials, was pressed to death beneath large and weighty stones for refusing to attend trial, after spending five months in the village prison. Three days after Corey's death his wife, Martha, was hung along with eight more convicted witches. These were the final victims of Salem's brutal witchhunt.
In the end, responsibility for the four-month-long witchhunt must fall upon eight adolescent girls, eight selfish, irresponsible and conscienceless girls. It was the vivid imaginations, skillful acting and convincing lies of Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, Mary Warren, Elizabeth Hubbard and Susannah Sheldon which brought on the historic massacre, and there is an abundance of theories as to why the girls would cause and commit such atrocities. Which of these theories is correct, you may wonder? They did it because they could. As women in a 1600's congregation, they were handed many rules and restrictions, and no power, no voice, in their strict society. So, when they found themselves standing before a court with a voice louder than all the rest, a voice that could be listened to and followed, a voice with power, these young women grabbed the chance to matter and they ran with it. It was a selfish act with horrific consequences and nineteen innocent lives were lost because, to put it quite bluntly, the girls were attention whores. The Salem Witch Trials were a devastating tragedy that never should have occurred and never again should such a murderous rampage happen like that of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.