The Madness Of Salem 1692: The Day The “Witches” Came To Town


When I was in secondary school in the 70s, one of the English assignments was to read Arthur Miller’s brilliant play THE CRUCIBLE. It dwelt with the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s in the small Puritan village of Salem, Massachusetts.

What was not made known to us at the time was that Miller’s play had a secondary commentary on what was happening in the USA in 1953 when he wrote the play.  McCarthyism, which has been discussed in previous posts, was like the Salem Witch Trials.

Arthur Miller was one of the 120 artists suspected of being in league with the Communists.  His play displayed a historical event of madness and hysteria with allegorical layers of what the junior senator from Wisconsin was doing at the Capitol and on television.

On a cold winter February morning in 1682 a group of girls (Betty Parris, Ann Putman, Mary Walcott, and Mercy Lewis) would start a commotion which would lead to the deaths of over 30 people and continual misery for many others in this small hamlet near Boston. Their physical and mental “affliction” would be attributed to Satan and his agents in the village.  Of course the “agents” were the ones who were different and a bit strange.

It seems human history always demonstrates how the ones of society who are nonconformists and individualistic are branded as dangerous and, in Christian times, children of the Evil One. When a religious community expects uniformity and conformity to strict doctrinal and behavioral beliefs, those who dare to challenge or ignore these standards are the ones who must pay the price.

The focus was on Tituba, the Barbados slave of the Revered Samuel Parris. Tituba told the girls stories of her childhood, evil spirits and other cultural trappings of the islands.  She did strange incantations and other behaviors.

Tituba was accused of being a witch along with Sarah Good, a poverty-stricken woman, and Sarah Osborn, an old woman who had decided that Revered Parris and the other good church-going folks of Salem were not worth the energy to join them for Sabbath meetings.  Sarah Good’s daughter Dorcas, aged 4, would spend eight months in jail as would other children.

More children would join the afflicted cause.  More people would be accused as witches and wizards.  Even the dogs would be viewed with suspicion since many believed that they were the devil’s “familiars” along with certain colored birds (yellow for example) and cats.

The first woman to be hanged was sixty-year-old Bridget Bishop, tavern owner, Sabbath breaker and an oddity in the sense that she liked to tell stories and spend time with the men in her taverns.  On June 10, 1692 she was hanged.  She maintained her innocence until the final moment.

A few weeks later on July 19 Sarah Good, Sarah Wildes, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Howe, and Susannah Martin were hanged.  The persecution of the innocent would continue.

One of the saddest accusations was the former pastor of the village, George Burroughs.  Burroughs had left Salem years before over disagreements with some of the fine men of the community.  As he sat at his dinner table in Maine, armed churchmen burst into his home and carried him forcefully back to Salem to stand trial as the “ringleader” of the witchcraft plaguing the town.

He was hanged on August 19, 1692 along with Martha Carrier, John Willard, John Proctor, and George Jacobs. It is reported that Burroughs proclaimed his innocence before his God and recited the Lord’s Prayer, but the bloodlust frenzy of the town leaders could not be abated.

Eighty-year-old Giles Corey refused to stand trial and was sentenced to death by peine et fort, pressing to death.  On September 19 Corey was stripped naked and a board was placed on him.  Rocks were added until he took his last breath.

On September 22 his wife Martha was hanged with Samuel Wardwell, Mary Eastey, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Wilmott Redd, Ann Pudeator, and Margaret Scott.

These were the last public hangings in Salem on Gallows Hill.  Others would die under harsh jail conditions—Ann Foster, Sarah Osborn, Roger Toothaker and Lyndia Dustin.  There were probably others as well which the recorded pages of history have forgotten.

What the young women began on that cold February day was carried out by the leaders, especially the spiritual leaders of the community.  Their own prejudices, self-righteous blindness and superstition led them to commit heinous acts in the name of their God and religion.

Innocence on this planet traversing the cosmos has been taken by those in power, be it political power or ecclesiastical tyrants.  Religion in its basest forms when united with political powers has produced untold misery, suffering and death to millions over the centuries.

When a religion is so tightly conformed and uniformed in belief that it allows no deviation from its orthodoxy, it is a dangerous religion because it will persecute all those who defy its authority.  The Nazarene Teacher and the apostles who followed after all suffered the political and religious tyranny as they each were tortured and murdered for the sake of orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy always demands the ultimate allegiance and sacrifice.  Religion divorced from justice, compassion and mercy is just evil incarnate.

I will close with a quote from a book that I found recently on a discount bookshelf:

The people of Salem have no conscience.  They drink up every word and action of the hearings as if they were drinking human blood.  They are raging wolves, and the innocents have no protection.  There is no sanity, no reason. Good friends now watch each other with hooded, suspicious eyes.  No one speaks to each other for fear that they might offend someone and be branded a witch. If you dislike your neighbor because once she refused to give you a half-cup of sugar, then she must be a witch.  If a friend’s hog once got loose and trampled your property, that friend is a wizard.”

THE MADNESS: A Story of the Salem’ Witch Trials, Kyla Marden-Steinkraus

G. D. Williams © 2014

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Arthur Miller:

American Masters

Overwhelmed by post-war paranoia and intolerance, Miller began work on the third of his major plays. Though it was clearly an indictment of the McCarthyism of the early 1950s, “The Crucible” was set in Salem during the witch-hunts of the late 17th century. The play, which deals with extraordinary tragedy in ordinary lives, expanded Miller’s voice and his concern for the physical and psychological wellbeing of the working class. Within three years, Miller was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and convicted of contempt of Congress for not cooperating. A difficult time in his life, Miller ended a short and turbulent marriage with actress Marilyn Monroe. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote very little of note, concentrating at first on issues of guilt over the Holocaust, and later moving into comedies.

Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692

“Accused Children in the Salem Witchcraft Crisis”

During the course of the crisis, at least eight children under the age of twelve were accused of witchcraft, and most were indicted.

The Crucible Photo