Mary Beth Norton: The Years of Magical Thinking: Explaining the Salem Witchcraft Crisis

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mary Beth Norton is the Mary Donlan Alger Professor of History at Cornell University. She is the author of Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society, and In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.]

Most Americans’ knowledge of the seventeenth century comes from semi-mythical events such as the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Pocahontas purportedly saving Captain John Smith from execution in early Virginia, and Salem witchcraft. This witchcraft scare, and the trials that followed, have especially seized the popular imagination.

Separating the myths from the reality of the Salem witchcraft episode is the historian’s task. In large part, students learn about the Salem witchcraft trials from reading Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, frequently assigned in high school classes. Miller’s play is a work of fiction, not history, but its enormous popularity has effectively distorted what really happened in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692. Even though Miller drew on original legal documents, he gave his own twist to the evidence. Most notably, he transformed Abigail Williams, an accuser who was actually eleven years old, into an older servant who had had an affair with his hero, John Proctor, and who was seeking revenge for Proctor’s return to his wife. Although Proctor’s actual servant, Mary Warren, accused him and his wife Elizabeth of being witches, no record implies a romantic relationship between Warren and Proctor.

Miller’s play perpetuates myths about the 1692 crisis that were initially created in the nineteenth century. He begins the play with a dramatic scene of the later accusers dancing in the forest and dabbling in magic under the direction of Tituba, the African slave of the Reverend Samuel Parris. That scene is entirely fictional. No seventeenth-century source describes the teenaged accusers engaging in magic of any sort as a group, and no source describes any involvement by Tituba in conjuring with the accusers. In addition, Tituba was not African but rather Native American; she probably had been captured by England’s Indian allies in a raid on one of the Spanish missions in the region that is now northern Florida or southern Georgia, for one reliable source terms her a “Spanish Indian,” as such captives were known in New England. (Nineteenth-century authors concluded she was African or half-African because they knew she was a slave, and at that time historians did not realize how many enslaved Indians lived in New England.)

Even our common name for the crisis—Salem witchcraft—is geographically inaccurate. The accusations began in Salem Village, an area distinct from Salem Town and now known as the town of Danvers; and by the time the crisis had ended, more people had been accused of witchcraft in neighboring Andover than in Salem Town or Salem Village. Of the approximately 150 people formally charged during the crisis, only twenty-four resided in Salem Village. The witchcraft crisis in fact enveloped much of Essex County, the entire northeastern portion of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Therefore, an analysis of its origins and consequences cannot be confined to Salem Village alone, nor can the entire explanation lie (as it does for Miller and many others) solely in the accusations advanced by the “afflicted girls.”...

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