19 June 2010

Drop an egg white into water, and see the future.  Rub a sprinkling of herbs into a flame and will the cow produce milk for your family?  Put a brick at the edge of your property that marks the boundary, and carve a specific figure on it, and no one will even think to cross that invisible line.  They just KNOW, they can sense that they shouldn't go past it.

I learned a little bit about the Salem Witch Trials as a kid in school, but I am pretty sure the very first book that I ever read about it was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare.  And in this book, in 1687, Kit Tyler, a young girl moving into Connecticut, becomes friends with an old woman who goes on trial for being a witch.  You'll find this book in the kid's section.  Talk about introducing you at a young age to how "crazy" the New Americas were and the reaction to anything that seemed otherworldly.  Of course, that's me in the 21st century, snobbishly looking back and shaking my head in utter sadness and disbelief on the widespread panic that ensued.  After all, dropping an egg white into water to see the future sounds nuts now, but in the 1600s, what really did they have to compare that with to know it wasn't possible?  (Or is it?)

I love the idea of anything "witchy" to read about.  Yes, I profess to also love vampires and werewolves as well.  But of course, there is something about the Salem Witch Trials that strikes a chord in me, and it's simply due to the fact that it really, really did happen.  What made you a witch?  Did you have a dog or a cat around (a familiar)?    Did you have a birthmark?  Were you popular or not in the town?  Did you have a good harvest, but your neighbor didn't?  Were you gazing in thought at something one day, but could it have come across as you staring at someone and bewitching them?  A group of girls begins to point fingers and proclaim random townspeople to be  witches and that they were forced to write their name in the Devil's Book.  Men, women, and children were exposed to the gossip, and at that time, gossip killed.  A town divided and torn by panic and fear, culminated in the hangings of innocent people.  One man, Giles Corey who was 80 years old, was even slowly executed by one stone being laid on another, ultimately crushing and suffocating the man.  It is said that his last words were, "more weight," a request to hasten his death.

These events happened, people horrifically and unnecessarily died.  Today, the gorgeous town of Salem, Massachusetts hauls in quite a bit of dough each year in tourism.  Is it exploiting the terrible reality that 19 people were hanged during an hysterical moment in that town's history?  When you read all of the books, and then you walk around the town, a part of me did feel bad that 400 years later, modern day Americans were profiting from this.  But, at the same time, the town provides you an amazing glimpse truly into what life was like at that time.  In the 1600s, would you really have the strength to go against the group of young girls who were pointing fingers at everyone and state that they were making things up?  Wouldn't that have put you in a position to be judged and potentially hanged as well?  I'd like to think that I would be noble and stand up against them, but at that time period, how frightening would it have been, and would I have had the strength?  Would you?

What I loved about The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent, is that the author is the descendant of Martha Carrier, the central character in this novel.  She tells Martha's story, the dialogue written in a complete Puritan-esque manner, from the point of accusation through the trial, and subsequent execution.  It is a heartbreaking story to maneuver through as it takes the real people from that time and their real events, and the author thoroughly establishes the very true aspects of life in that time and how people dealt with a family member in prison -- did you know that they had to pay the jailer for keeping someone in prison?  Chained to a wall, provided a bucket to share with a dozen other prisoners to use for a toilet, and no window to provide sunlight or air to pass through...  When I visited Salem a couple of years ago, it's a wonder anyone made it out of the jails to even get to their execution.  Kathleen Kent's novel is education and sadness, and it's like taking a history walk through Salem but immersed into the life of Martha and her family.  The book even delves into what life was like after the trials, how the flame of the panic was put out, by Cotton Mather's father, Increase Mather, who went against his own son to end the hysteria, & put a stop to using "spectral evidence."

And I just turned the last page on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe.  Set in 1991, and flashing back to the 1600s, Katherine Howe's main character, Connie, has been accepted into the PhD program at Harvard University, as an expert in American Colonialism.  Her earthy and New Age mother, now living in New Mexico, asks her to care for the old family house near Salem and throughout that summer, Connie comes across key family history that links her to the Salem Witch Trials.  Compared to The Heretic's Daughter, it's a lighter read, but still shocking.  And how did a family deal with the stigma of having a family member executed?  What legal steps could you take to repair the family name in the history books in the 1700s after the hysteria?

So on this Saturday, surrounded by my own familiars (my dog and cat), I wonder why I love stories on all things otherworldly?  Is it just because I have an imagination that I love to feed?  Or is it more of a sociological fascination?  Is it because of the reality that even today, society can still be so blindly led by one popular idea and get swept up, caught up in that moment, that thing, whatever it may be, that has to be believed?  On a smaller scale, there are things I'm sure that you've experienced in your life that fall under "peer pressure."  And in a bigger sense, have you ever been swayed solely by public opinion, and haven't really thought of whether it's true or not?  Which side of the fence would you have been on 400 years ago in Puritan New England?  With all of that, I wonder if it's fair to look back on the Salem Witch Trials and think that the town's responses to witches were really "crazy?"  I'm sure all of us can find stories in the news that are similar in "public opinion," or "unfounded widespread panic," right?  For myself, I'm going to think good thoughts and believe that I would have been strong enough to fight the hysteria at that time...I hope I'm not being naive...


  1. Very Eloquent Writing!! I also am fascinated about the awful and often ignorant things, the masses can do and have done in the past. I know it is odd to be intrigued, about such horror and hardship, but it happened and the sociological impact is interesting. It is true, there is strength in numbers even when it doesn't make sense. History will probably repeat itself, but hopefully we learned from the past(yes an odd contradiction, but accurate). Thank you for your insight!

  2. Thanks, Kelly! I always am struck by how mass hysteria is triggered, even mass hallucinations -- count me in as one of the people that watch those types of documentaries in complete and utter fascination!

  3. I think you might love The Probable Future or Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman. I have read all of Ms. Hoffman's books but those two vie for first place in my heart. Try "The Probable Furture" if you had to pick one... great story.

  4. Worker Bee - Great suggestions, thanks so much! I will definitely check them out!


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