Tag Archives: Salem Witch Trials

“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing…”

As a lover of the theater (and a lover of a good time, for that matter), I agree that it was fortunate that the Puritans stopped existing, although lately they seem to be rising from their graves to drag modern culture back to their narrow definitions.

But that is beside my student’s point.

“Stopped existing” is nicer than, say, “died out,” since it seems to give the Puritans some volition in the matter. “Life is getting to be a drag,” you can imagine them saying to one another; “Let’s stop existing.” They shut up shop and that’s that.

No, my student had a much more developed understanding of what happened to Bradford, Winthrop, Mather, Edwards, & Co.: they stopped existing “because of the Salem Witch trials.” Did she mean they were conscience-stricken at the wrongs they had done in God’s name, and so they rode off into the sunset or turned off their life force? Or their glee at beating the devil gave them all fatal strokes? Or they felt their work was done and moved on to viler pastures? The exact agency, process, and motive seem unclear, but she still goes on to offer an explanation:

“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing because of the Salem Witch trials. Luckily more Christians were rising so they didn’t last long after that.”

“Rising”? Rising out of the ground? Rising up from inactivity? Rising against the Puritans? Gaining in the popularity polls? You can see that she continues to be glad at the demise of the stern and rock-bound host (sorry, pun irresistible!), anyway; and I think she believes she is continuing in a line of exposition as well. They stopped existing because more Christians rose after, or as a consequence of, the Salem witch trials and so the Puritans couldn’t last.

Does this make sense to you? I wonder if, at last, it made sense to her. It happened, after all, back in Yore, that hazy past students love to allude to but almost never have much of a grasp of.…The statement ends like the Puritans in her narrative, not with a bang but a whimper (sorry, TSE).

She seems to realize she has embarked on a road that is becoming increasingly obscure, but she is unable to turn back. The repetition and amplification smack of desperation. There’s a hint of Oscar Wilde’s lovely line in The Importance of Being Earnest here: Algernon Moncrieff, in love with a country girl and therefore now impeded by the “existence” of the invalid (also in the country) he invented as an excuse to get out of social obligations in London, he now attempts to UNinvent him by telling his Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, that Bunbury, the invalid in question, has died. The dialogue goes on:

Lady Bracknell.  What did he die of?

Algernon.  Bunbury?  Oh, he was quite exploded.

Lady Bracknell.  Exploded!  Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?  I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation.  If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.

Algernon.  My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out!  The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean—so Bunbury died.

Lady Bracknell.  He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians.  I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice.

I think of this exchange because my student’s narrative has that same improvisatory feel to it, and the same ending note that “they stopped existing” because they realized they “couldn’t last.”

I have nothing against Bunbury, and so I have no feelings positive or negative about his passing away into the ether.

About the Puritans, though, I have to agree with my student. They had no tolerance for other faiths: they assumed that the native Americans were Satan-worshippers; and even other Christians they persecuted whenever they got a chance, at least in the early days, locking Quakers in smokehouses, putting non-Puritans in the stocks, driving them out of Massachusetts (that’s how Rhode Island got founded!). Maybe they knew that if these others “rose” sufficiently the Puritans would be crowded out and wouldn’t be able to “last.” But, perhaps because by 1692 the Puritans were giving more attention to killing suspected witches than to suppressing those Christian upstarts, somehow the others DID rise sufficiently to, what, jump them in dark alleys and do away with them.

However they “ceased to exist,” they were a dour lot when they trod the earth and we are fortunate that they no longer hold sway in our lives. If our luck holds, that is.

"Sample Puritan," by "Bill" Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.

“Sample Puritan,” by “Bill” Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.

“You see this fear in the past, present, and future around the world.”

My student was attributing the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 to a fear of the unknown, and certainly that’s a reasonable hypothesis. Then he goes on to remark that this fear was not limited to the people of Salem, or to the seventeenth century: “you see this fear in the past, present….” Again, he’s right about that: indeed, one might even speculate that many of those folks who made such bizarre choices at the ballot boxes last Tuesday were gripped by a fear of the unknown, the different, the alien. And social issues and politics are probably thus all around the world.

I have no quarrel with my student’s thinking so far.

But don’t you know it, he HAS to go on: there’s something irresistible about a sentence with a series of three items, isn’t there? And so he adds “and future.” Now, we may very well be safe in saying we WILL see this same fear, this horror of the strange or sudden, in the future, human nature being what it is, education having as little effect as it seems to have had and all. Using the present tense to describe the future is the confusing part. We DON’T “see” this fear in the future; we’re not there yet. We don’t see anything in the future. Everything we actually see we see in the present, and in the present we can read about the past and see something there too.

I am discounting the possibility that my student is clairvoyant, or that I am (he is, after all, addressing me when he writes “You,” no?). That would be one way to see something in the future, now. “I see a tall, dark stranger.” “I see a ship sailing.” “I see money.” “I see hard days ahead…” says the exotically-gowned-and-bangled dark woman in the shadowy tent, and we believe her (or not, depending on how much we like what she “sees”). Whether such a woman is likely to say “I see fear of the unknown in the future” I don’t know; certainly no such vision has been described by clairvoyants and fortune-tellers in the novels I’ve read and television shows I’ve seen.

I honestly don’t think my student had clairvoyance in mind. I doubt that he even meant the “future” part. I think, as I said at the outset, that he simply felt the sentence wasn’t finished with only two items in a series, and the future just plopped itself down there before he could think. And he didn’t think afterwards, either. So there I am, reading about witches and suddenly giving them visiting aliens (the space kind) and carnival “gypsies” for company. That’s the kind of strange world reading will take you to.

But you can only get to it if YOU don’t have that fear of the unknown.…

“In Salem the witch trials consisted of crude and unusual punishment.”

Salem never fails to provide us with bizarre student commentary.

I know what he meant. The urgent examination of people suspected of witchcraft often took the form of what we would certainly call torture: chaining head-to-heels, sleep deprivation, trial-by-ordeal (the sink-or-float trial by water, for instance, where drowning would prove Satan wasn’t helping you out), pressing, nonstop interrogation. I’m not sure we would call this “crude,” but it certainly seems cruel. The Puritans would also point out, I’m confident, that “punishment” can only follow a trial; the trial itself may be hard on the accused but isn’t itself punishment. They would also argue that since God’s forgiveness was contingent on confession and contrition, forcing a confession was benevolent on the examiners’ part: execution would follow, but the soul would not be damned.

Before we discuss crude punishment, let me hasten to exculpate Autocorrect and Spellcheck. I just typed “crule and unusual punishment” into a Word document, and Bill Gates gave me “cruel” right away. I had to go down four choices to get to “crude.” Of course he might have typed “crued” (I know whenever I try to type my friend Sam’s name, my fingers make him “Same,” and maybe my student’s fingers figured a letter following “e” and ending a word had to be “d”), in which case Bill would have supplied “crude.” Well, I’m going to assume that the intended word was “crude.” My young man may believe that the Constitution, written long after  the witch-trial craze had passed, protects us against “crude and unusual punishment.”

Of what would crude punishment consist? I suppose no methods we would consider sophisticated would be eligible; but a lot of the punishment (and torture) methods that strike us as weird or horrid or medieval or barbaric are perfectly sophisticated in their way. The Iron Maiden? The rack? The wheel? These were finely structured mechanisms that could be applied with exquisite precision.

Does “crude” mean “obscene,” as “crude language” usually means “obscene language”? By that definition, any of the approaches mentioned so far are “crude.” But that’s not the definition we generally associate with “crude” in relation to anything other than language.

We usually say “crude” when we mean “primitive” (snobby application that, as any artist would tell you), or “rough-hewn,” or “makeshift.” Piling rocks on the chest is a pretty crude substitute for, say, the Iron Maiden.

Cruel or crude: I don’t want it, and I certainly don’t want it before I’m found guilty of anything. If a trial consists of punishment, what could come after it? If we follow the Salem pattern, first comes suspicion, then arrest, then torture, then trial, then execution. Seems to me that the whole process is punishment, especially when the accused is actually innocent of the suspicion/charge. After those successive forms of agony, enhanced by the vicious scowls and howls of former friends and neighbors, the execution must have felt more like relief than punishment.

Unfortunately, left to themselves most humans will apply crude forms of trial and punishment on the grounds of mere suspicion. It isn’t easy to hold human hounds at bay; and once we do have a legal system that is designed to do so, we must make sure we don’t trash it when the next scare comes along.

“If the accused pleaded innocence…”

This is a good weekend to talk about unjust trials, scapegoating, and persecution of “outsiders.”

Yesterday was, after all, Good Friday. And the investigation of the killing of Trayvon Martin goes on (still with no arrest).

It’s also a good time to celebrate Connecticut’s decision to abolish the death penalty (the Senate has voted, and the House and Governor have already announced their intentions to concur). Certainly the residents of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-3 would have been better off without it.

And here is my student, writing about the fear of witches in New England, including the Salem Witch Trials (in history and in Cotton Mather’s accounts).

Here’s the whole thing, a remarkable piece of what may have begun as reasonable thought but staggered through some misunderstandings and partial information and finally turned into garbled prose:

“If the accused pleaded innocence they would be ruled with an iron fist and sentenced to death or trial. If they were sentenced to trial they would either be drowned or crushed by boulders because in theory a witch was able to both breathe underwater and withstand the weight.”

We begin with his impression that “trial” is a kind of ordeal, which in some contexts of course it is but not when we’re talking about legal proceedings. He means “trial by ordeal”; the alternative is not a death sentence (at least not right away), but trial by process of court—evidence, testimony, judgment. The Salem trials did not include trial by ordeal; all the accused faced their accusers, or at least faced the “evidence,” in court; no one was thrown into the horse pond to see if the devil would enable her (or him) to float. (The court did admit “spectral evidence,” though—witches’ power could be “proved” via observable phenomena.)

I’m not really sure where the “iron fist” comes into the picture. The cases seem to have been pretty much decided in advance, and the judges meted out the death penalty with inexorable virtue (there had, after all, to be some way of stopping the devil from bringing the godly down). Perhaps the fist that piled rocks on the chest of Giles Corey could be called “iron.” The pressing of Corey was not, however, a trial by ordeal: it was torture plain and simple, intended to “persuade” him to enter a plea of either Guilty or Not Guilty of Witchcraft. If he pleaded Guilty, he would be executed and his lands and goods would be confiscated, but his soul would have a chance at God’s forgiveness; if he pleaded Not Guilty and was found guilty (pretty strong odds), he would be executed and his goods would be confiscated, and his soul would probably go to hell. BUT if he refused to plead, he could not be tried and so the government could not take his property; and that was what he was fighting for, for his descendants’ sake. Anyway, my student seems to think that the “boulders” were a test to see if Corey was a witch; my student is wrong. And certainly nobody, including the devil, helped Corey “withstand the weight”: he was crushed to death, still refusing to plead.

My student’s confusion of “trial” (which in ordinary parlance can of course mean “ordeal”) with “trial by ordeal” gives his statement a nice irony that he didn’t intend, since he seems to think that someone who claimed to be innocent would automatically face one of two fates: summary execution by that iron fist, or death in water or under boulders. In his version, there is no chance at a hearing in court: sentence follows plea. I would like to think he presented the situation in this way because he realized the actual trials were, to our modern eyes, farcical exercises in “proving” foregone conclusions; but his statement doesn’t make room for or hint at any possibly tacit commentary, and the confusion in the actual statement suggests that he had a hard enough time trying to say what he meant, without grappling with subtle implications.

Well, the arc of the universe bends SLOWLY towards justice. Seeing clearly what has been done in the name of justice in the past, we should be inspired to try to bend the arc more quickly. It’s not there quite yet.