Please welcome Eleanor Kuhns, who will describe how witches and witchcraft are not just found in Salem, and how that ties into her new Will Rees mystery:
Witches and Witchcraft – Not just Salem
While I was researching Death in Salem, I visited this city several times. Since Will Rees, my amateur detective (and traveling weaver) visits Salem in the mid 1790’s, a full one hundred years after the trials, I did not write about the trials. I alluded to them of course, but by 1796 Salem is a wealthy and cosmopolitan city, the wealthiest in the new United States and the sixth largest.
But I couldn’t get the witch trials out of my head. Why did it happen? What happened to the people afterwards, especially to the people who saw their loved ones accused and, in some cases, hanged? That question formed the beginning of The Devil’s Cold Dish
The facts of Salem’s witch trials are these: In 1692, a group of girls, including the daughters of the village minister Samuel Parrish, claimed that they were being tormented by witches – and the girls accused some of the women in Danvers (this did not happen in Salem but within a small village just outside). Before the fury ended,150 people were imprisoned and 19 people – and two dogs- were hanged.
One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. He cursed all future Sheriffs of Salem to die of some chest (respiratory) illness. Apparently most have, but in an era without antibiotics (forget about good hygiene or healthy food) I don’t think that is surprising.
What happened? Reasons given for the explosion of belief and hangings in Salem are many.
This event occurred in Massachusetts after several centuries of the trials and burnings in Europe. Probably everyone is familiar with the Biblical injunction about not suffering a witch to live. In 1200, Pope Gregory IX authorized the killing of witches. In 1498, Pope Innocent VIII issued a declaration confirming the existence of witches and inquisition began. Thousands, mainly women, were burned at the stake during the 1500s and 1600s. (Accused witches in this country were never burned. They were hanged instead.)
This was a superstitious age, and belief in magic was widespread. Girls used spells to try and see the faces of future husbands, and superstitions regarding illness, birth, and harvest were rife. Harelips were caused when the mother saw a rabbit, birth marks because the mother ate strawberries, for example. One of my favorites: to protect a mother and child during birth, an ear of corn was placed on the mother’s belly. But I can’t believe EVERYONE believed in the supernatural. In fact, one of the essayists of the time, Robert Calef, suggested that the trials had been engineered by Cotton Mather for personal gain. (I doubt that. Evidently fighting out different opinions in print is not a new phenomenon). And anyway, other motivations for accusing someone of witchcraft have been documented. Sometimes it was for gain: the old biddy hasn’t died and I want her little farm, for example. (No surprise there, right?) Sometimes it was to settle scores. Apparently at least part of the reason behind the accusations directed at the Nurse family had at the bottom resentment and the desire for payback.
Tituba, a slave owned by Samuel Parrish, and her stories that she told the girls played a part. Variously described as an Indian or a black slave, her testimony apparently drove much of the content of the stories and was a direct cause of the eventual hangings of women described as her confederates. (Ironically, Tituba was set free.) A shadowy character, she has been also described as practicing voodoo. Her testimony, at least to me, reads more like the Christian belief in demons and the devil. Once she was released, however, she, like the girls whose fits started the terror, faded into obscurity.
Then there are the girls themselves. To modern eyes, the easy belief in the veracity of a group of girls is incredible. Samuel Parrish believed in the truth of the accusations until the end of his life. I suspect there is another explanation. Women, and young girls especially, at this time were supposed to be quiet, meek and submissive. The claims made by these girls, and the charges against others in the village, put them on center stage. I do not wonder that they kept ratcheting up their stories; anything to keep that attention.
Then there is the possibility of ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye during wet and cool summers. It releases a toxin similar to LSD. So it is possible that people were genuinely suffering hallucinations.
The hysteria ended in 1693. After 1700 reparations began to be paid to the surviving victims and families of the executed. But belief in witches and the trials did not end. In the new United States, a trial and a judicial solution to perceived witch craft became unlikely (and I imagine that the uncritical acceptance of spectral evidence by Samuel Parris in Salem had a lot to do with increasing skepticism) but accusation and hanging by mobs could still happen.
In Europe women were still attacked and in some cases executed for witchcraft: in Denmark-(1800), in Poland
(1836) and even in Britain (1863). Violence continued in France through the 1830’s. Accusations continued in the United States as well. In the 1830s, a prosecution was begun against a man (yes) in Tennessee. Even as recently as 1997, two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured members of her family for the use of folk magic against them.
There were two incidents of note in New York State. In 1783, Ann Lee, the spiritual heart of the new faith now commonly known as the Shakers, was arrested and charged for blasphemy. One hundred years earlier she might have been hanged as a witch or devil worshipper. But she was released. Persecution of the Shakers continued, however. And Lydia, my primary female character who is a former Shaker, would have been a target.
The final trial for witchcraft took place in 1816 in Nyack. Jane Kannif, the widow of a Scottish physician, lived in a small house on Germonds Road in West Nyack. An herbalist and widow of an apothecary, she treated neighbors that came to her with herbs and methods she learned from her late husband. But she was eccentric. According to the people at that time she dressed oddly, was unsociable and wandered around talking to herself. She was regarded as insane, or worse yet, a witch. It was decided to take her to Auert Polhemus’s grist mill and using his great flour scales, weigh her against the old Holland Dutch family Bible, iron bound, with wooden covers and iron chain to carry it by. If outweighed by the Bible, she must be a witch and must suffer accordingly. She was taken to the mill, put on the scales, and weighed. Since she weighed more than the Bible, the committee released her.
So what happened in Salem? It seems as though the town lost its collective mind.
Despite the attention paid to the accusations and the trials and hangings, for me the real focus lies with the rest of the village, those who saw family and friends turn on them. Think what it must have been like living there at this time. Salem was a small community. Those accused were friends, family and neighbors of their accusers. How could you forgive the ones who hanged one of your family members as a witch and terrorized the others? Especially since the accounts make is clear that some of the charges sprang from the worst of human nature: greed, revenge and malice. What kind of amends would be enough? Would financial reparations ease the grief? I know this is something I could never forgive. And I would guess that, despite the end of the witch hunts, this village remained troubled for years. In fact, many of those whose family members had been accused or hanged moved away to a new village called Salem’s End. After those experiences, how could anyone ever trust again?
Although PTSD is not a term they used, I am certain those who survived their experiences in Danvers suffered from it the rest of their lives. People on both sides: the accused and the accusers, changed their names. One of the hanging judges was a Hathorne; Nathaniel Hawthorne added the w. And the Nurse family, right in the thick of the storm, moved away and became Nourses.
That brings me full circle, back to The Devil’s Cold Dish. Rees has a history with several people in his hometown and Lydia, a former Shaker, would surely be suspect. What if -?
Eleanor Kuhns wrote her first story at the age of ten and hasn’t stopped since. She won the 2011 Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Crime competition with A Simple Murder. The Devil’s Cold Dish is the fifth in the Will Rees series. A lifelong librarian, she is the Assistant Director at Goshen Public Library in Orange County. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and dog.