Historical truths emerge only with time, after which they are ours, particularly on Halloween, to mangle. Early on, the Salem witch trials disappeared from the record; a hush descended over 1692 for generations. “The People of Salem Do Not Like to Be Questioned in Regard to the Witchery Affair” reads a Philadelphia Inquirer headline — from 1895. It fell to others to resurrect the “witchcraft,” as the South did during the debate over slavery. Then came Arthur Miller, who made off with the story, or at least a version of it. A lush mythology grew up around the trials, one that reassured us that these events took place in a remote land in no way resembling our own. In truth, they are deeply woven into the American fabric. They are more relevant than the lore suggests — our earliest instance of conspiratorial fantasy and reckless demonizing, of the brand of national distemper that grips us in anxious times.
Despite numerous debunkings, the idea that Salem’s “witches” burned at the stake persists everywhere from online forums to episodes of “The Simpsons.” Joan of Arc and tales of European witch hunts may flicker too brightly in our minds. Generally, French witches burned, while English witches hanged. (This posed a conundrum to the Channel island of Guernsey when three witches turned up there in 1617. The malefactors were hanged, then burned.)
The American South reinforced the burning-at-the-stake fiction in the 19th century. “The North . . . having begun with burning witches, will end by burning us!” screeched a popular magazine in 1860, after Lincoln’s election.
With one exception, however, all who went to their deaths in Salem hanged. (Giles Corey, an elderly Salem farmer, was crushed under stones for several days after refusing to plead guilty or innocent. He remains the only individual in American history to be pressed to death.) No one burned.
Every October, Halloween confirms what we learned from “The Wizard of Oz”: Witches are women. Pop-culture depictions of the trials, such as the show “Salem,” focus almost exclusively on the female accused.
Indeed, misogyny powered the European witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries, but Salem was different. Of the 19 who hanged in Salem, four were men, including a feckless, fortune-telling carpenter and a 42-year-old Harvard-educated minister. Accused witches came in every variety, from the richest of Salem merchants to the dutiful wife of a blind farmer. The terror was all the greater for its very arbitrariness; no one, noted a letter to authorities from a group of men late in the summer, had cause to think himself safe. The youngest accused witch was a 5-year-old girl. Having spent most of 1692 in miniature manacles, she wound up insane.
Gender did play a vital role in the hysteria. Women would not incriminate husbands, while a number of men eagerly informed the court that they had long suspected their wives to be witches. Family fingers pointed in all directions, although no son ever accused a father, or father a son. The wizards, however, attracted more attention in contemporary accounts, both for their supernatural powers and for their dignity en route to the gallows. Even skeptics assumed the worst of the Harvard-educated minister. From the start, he was thought to have been the diabolical mastermind, a role for which no woman, however nefarious, seemed qualified.
Indeed, it began in Salem village, today Danvers, Mass., where two little girls convulsed. And indeed, the accused stood trial in the town of Salem. But witches turned up across the Massachusetts Bay Colony, ultimately in 24 communities.
One of the Salem girls named a total of 62 names; the bewitched denounced people in other towns who did not even know of their existence. They seemed to enjoy visionary powers. At his arraignment, a bluff Boston sea captain, a son of Plymouth’s founding family who was accused by someone in Salem, challenged the logic: Why would he bother to enchant people he neither knew of nor had ever met? Though he had done business with, sailed with and prayed with several members of the witchcraft court, they had no patience for his query. He went to jail.
Salem remained the epicenter of the crisis, but Andover, Mass., about 15 miles away, would be most severely affected. Nearly 1 in 10 of its residents were accused of witchcraft, often by their own family members, many of whom themselves confessed to having signed satanic pacts and flown over the treetops to a diabolical meeting. Andover’s senior minister discovered that he was related to no fewer than 22 witches.
As a Philadelphia reporter put it in 1895, “blind, senseless superstition” accounted for the trials, an idea that persists to this day.
In fact, piety played a greater role in Salem than superstition. The idea of witches came straight from scripture ; those who knew their Bible best believed most fervently in witchcraft. Not coincidentally, it tended to turn up in more pious homes.
The best minds in New England interpreted and adjudicated the epidemic. Those ministers and civic authorities pondered the cases scientifically. They read and reread the witchcraft literature, to which several of them had contributed. They parsed legal code. They knew their history. They worked in the sterling name of reason. The trouble was that the most literate in 1692 also happened to be the most literal. They were not so much out of their depth as they were swimming in information — “poisoned,” one critic later sniffed, “in their education.”
The Bay Colony may have qualified as the best-educated community in the history of the world in 1692. Piety correlated with literacy; rarely had so many been able to read. The majority of the adolescent girls in Salem village could read, even if they could not sign their names. Erudition and piety played greater roles in the crisis than did ignorance and superstition.
Behavioral scientist Linnda Caporael proposed this elegant theory in 1976: A contaminated rye supply introduced ergot poisoning to Salem, causing convulsions and hallucinations in the accusing girls. Debunked, revived and debunked again, Caporael’s theory nevertheless continues to pop up in articles about Salem and in footnotes in books about psychedelic drugs. And for good reason. If we could blame the rye, we could exonerate nearly everyone else. We would finally have a diagnosis for what might have caused a Salem girl to complain of prickling skin, to fling herself across a room, crash to the floor, fall into a trance — and report that she could see a fellow parishioner perching in the church beams above the congregation’s heads.
Some of the 17th-century symptoms do appear consistent with ergot poisoning. But the hallucinating girls shared meals with non-hallucinating adults and siblings. The girls were often symptom-free, lucid and robust. Their health did not deteriorate. And in the absence of any such convulsions, plenty of grown men reported winged beasts in the fields and goblins in their parlors. The bewitched girls also vouched for a coordinated set of hallucinations, which speaks to an unusual form of imagination. Nor does ergot explain the girls’ sermon-interrupting or their inability to pray. In an earlier case, a bewitched girl could read without trouble but seized up when handed a religious text. Ergot poisoning, or St. Anthony’s fire, was moreover not unknown at the time.
The tenacity of the theory makes sense. Unresolved mysteries annoy us. When it comes to assigning blame, none of us draws a blank. If we could write the whole crisis down to ergot, we would at long last have a simple explanation for a host of oddities. We would also fall prey to the same kind of thinking that led a 17th-century New Englander — equally perplexed, equally intent on a tidy answer — to write ambulatory trees and flying neighbors down to witchcraft.