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In 2014, WGN debuted a new television show, Salem, based, predictably enough, on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. When I say “based on”, I mean “faintly suggested by”, because the series bares hardly any relationship to the actual events, people, or places. There’s so much wrong with the series, and the historical Salem Witch Trials (and the scholarship on them) are so complex that it’s going to take a number of posts to unpack everything.


The basic premise of the series is that there actually were witches at Salem, and that they intentionally caused the witch panic for their own reasons. (I’ll comment on that in a later post.) But the coven is rife with interpersonal conflicts in good night-time soap opera fashion. John Alden, Cotton Mather, and his father Increase are all hunting the witches, but the head witch, Mary Sibley, is in love with Alden, which seriously complicates her evil plans.

The series has lots of problems, chief among them the lurid and erratic writing. Characters regularly contradict themselves. Early on, John Alden becomes a selectman, but that gets forgotten almost immediately after he’s done it. Increase Mather can’t decide whether trials are important or if summary justice is ok. Mary Sibley gets upset because one of her fellow witches arranges for an occult artifact to be delivered to Salem, but the next episode she says the artifact is critical to the plan she’s been pursuing all along. Early on, Mercy is terrified of Mary and has a perfect opportunity to denounce her in public as a witch, but chooses not to for no apparent reason. Cotton Mather is trying to find the witches of Salem, but when he questions an actual witch in a situation where she can’t lie, it never occurs to him to ask her who the other witches are. The witches have whatever random collection of powers the script calls for them to have; sometimes their magic requires chants and ingredients, but other times it can be performed silently. Cotton veers from religious fanatic to lust-driven emotional cripple and alcoholic. The whole community is supposed to be deeply religious, and yet no one ever seems shocked by immoral actions like fornication and adultery. But that’s script stuff, and this blog is about history stuff, so let’s start looking into the details.

The Physical Setting

In 1692, Salem was about 60 years old, a prosperous town on the Naumkeag River. But Salem at the time was really two communities, Salem Town and Salem Village. Salem Town was on the river and was the larger, more prosperous region, with a comparatively developed economy based on fishing, shipbuilding, and maritime commerce, with a population of around 2000. It had a thriving system of taverns and inns for travelers, merchants were able to borrow money on credit, and it was quite wealthy; residents of the town seem to have owned roughly 10x the wealth that residents of Salem Village did. Salem Village (today known as Danvers) was located on the northwest side of Salem Town, about 7 miles west. It was smaller and more rural, with its economy focused more on farming, and a population of perhaps 600.

The House of Seven Gables at Salem

The House of Seven Gables at Salem

Modern scholars agree that this division was fundamental to understanding the dynamics that produced the Witch Trials. Salem Village was a rather contentious place, with numerous internal quarrels over property rights, as well as disputes with Salem Town; the tensions with Salem Town primarily took the form of disagreements about taxation and church governance. Salem Town had already lost three outlying regions to political independence, and its leaders worried about its declining tax base, so they were reluctant to permit Salem Village to separate completely. In particular, the residents of Salem Village had voted in 1672 to establish a separate church from that of Salem Town. This allowed them to allocate their local church taxes to their own church and select a minister who was more to their liking. It also greatly reduced the distance they had to travel for church. But the Town had refused to allow them to establish a full church; sermons could be preached there, but communion could not be offered in the Salem Village church, and new members could only be admitted through the Salem Town church.

The Salem Town Square from the series; note how rural it seems

The Salem Town Square from the series; note how rural it seems

The series can’t seem to decide how large Salem is. The woods seem to be just beyond every house we see, and the set looks a lot like the colonial version of a Renaissance Faire where the whole cast dresses in black instead of chainmail and doesn’t sing and dance at the drop of a hat. So the town is shown to be quite small and rather rural. But the town has a large brothel with at least a half-dozen women working there. (Highly unlikely.) It has a public orphanage where unwed girls regularly give birth. (Wrong. Orphans were routinely taken in by private families as an act of Christian charity; most were employed as servants rather than adopted.) There is a nearby ravine filled with the dozens of corpses of everyone who is not a good Christian when they die. (This last disgusting detail is absurd; the colonists knew that unburied bodies were a health risk. Even the executed witches were buried, just not in Christian cemeteries.) It has considerable numbers of very ugly or physically deformed men and women who somehow avoid attracting notice despite having no eyes, or being covered with boils, and people can be kidnapped off the street with no risk of anyone seeing it. All this suggests a much larger community.

Just the local brothel at Salem

Just the local brothel at the Renaissance Faire Salem

The series also has no understanding of the geographic division between the Town and the Village. All the major characters seem to live very close to the river, placing them all in Salem Town. There’s no sign that any of the characters are farmers. Most of the characters have no discernible source of income, although George and Mary Sibley’s wealth is based on maritime commerce. Salem appears to have only one church attended by everyone, with Cotton Mather as the minister. The church also seems to serve as the courthouse, which is roughly correct; the trials became too crowded to meet in their original venue and so were moved to the Salem Village church


The Political Situation

Massachusetts was a Crown colony, meaning that its government was based on a charter issued by the English monarch. Its governor was appointed by the Crown. In 1685, King James II voided the original charter, issued an unpopular new one, and appointed a new governor, but in 1688, James was deposed during the Glorious Revolution, which led to the ouster of his appointee and the return to office of the previous governor, whose legal authority was uncertain, because there was no charter in force until the new king, William III, issued a new one. As a result, the courts had no authority to deal with major crimes. A new governor, William Phips, arrived with a new charter early in 1692. Phips immediately established county justices of the peace, sheriffs, and a Court of Oyer and Terminer (Law French for “To hear and determine” [legal accusations]) that had authority to deal with the backlog of cases that had occurred since James II’s charter had been voided. But the series never mentions the colonial government at all. Salem seems to be entirely autonomous.

Under the charter, the colony had a bicameral legislature; the lower house was representative, although only those colonists who qualified as “freemen” could vote in elections, and the franchise seems to have been rather restricted; among other things, only full church members were permitted to vote and churches restricted membership. Town government was based on open town meetings in which anyone could speak and all males (including non-church members) could vote. The community was administered by a committee of elected ‘selectmen’. In other words, the towns and Massachusetts colony as a whole enjoyed a substantial degree of democracy, although, as with all democracies, there were limits to who was includde and there were problems in how government was administered in practice; over the course of the 17th century the system drifted toward oligarchy.

In the series, the town government is based on a committee of 14 selectmen, who seem to hold their office by hereditary right, because John Alden claims what he says is the “Alden seat” among the selectmen, and no one challenges his right to do this, nor is there an election. George Sibley has been incapacitated by sorcery, so his wife Mary exercises his authority for him and no one seems to object to this. George Sibley appears to outrank the other selectmen, because Mary is described as controlling the town. The selectmen of the series seem to have complete authority. In the pilot, George Sibley has the power to impose punishment on fornicators, and at various points later in the series the selectmen have the authority to quarantine ships, order people arrested, decide who will be charged with crimes, and more. There is no clear division between the political system and the legal system.

Magistrate Hale and Mary Sibley, the town's major leaders

Magistrate Hale and Mary Sibley, the town’s major leaders

So as usual with historical films and shows, there’s a sense that colonial Salem was undemocratic, governed by officials of almost absolute authority who were not in any clear fashion responsible to their communities or limited either by law or by higher authorities such as the colonial governor, the English Parliament, or the English king. There’s no notion that American democracy began its evolution during the colonial period. In part, the choice to gloss over the complexities of town government and law is surely to allow easier storytelling; the more vague the political and legal details, the more freedom the writers have to plot their stories.

But this also fits into the American tendency to both represent the past as less free than the present and to allow bad guys to demonstrate their villainy through their autocratic tendencies. George and Mary Sibley and Magistrate Hale all show their evil side by imposing arbitrary punishments, refusing to show mercy or kindness, and giving orders, whereas John Alden demonstrates his heroic status by speaking out boldly in different situations, by interrupting Cotton Mather’s sermons and the trial proceedings, and generally displaying the independent streak that good guys usually have in film and television.

A Word about Clothing

In the first half of the season, nearly all the characters and extras dress in black, although Alden is normally clothed in brown leather, and a few extras are shown in dark green or burlap brown. Mary Sibley occasionally wears red dresses, but usually in private. The women sometimes wear white or tan shifts under their dresses.

This plays into the widespread notion that the Puritans only dressed in black with white ruffs or aprons. This overlooks two things. First, not all of the residents of Salem were Puritans, since many were Anglicans or even Quakers, and in some cases no specific Christian creed at all.

Second, and more importantly, the Puritans did not dress all in black. That’s simply a myth. Black was actually a fairly expensive color for clothing and tended to be restricted to those wealthy enough to afford it. Puritan clothing favored modesty over expense and fashion, and dressing all in black would have struck many Puritans as being immodest because it represented a claim to wealth and high status. One 16th century Puritan author, William Perkins, maintained that clothing ought to reflect the social hierarchy so that the wealthy could be distinguished from the workers, artisans, and other lower classes. Thus George and Mary Sibley and Magistrate Hale could have dressed in black as a status symbol. Black or grey would also have been suitable for church, since one wanted to look somber and respectable.

Instead, Puritans dressed in a wide range of colors: blue, brown, tawny, green, murrey (a reddish purple), and burgundy being very common. The dyes were generally vegetable dyes, so the color tones would have been softer rather than brighter.

A wealthy Puritan woman and her baby

A wealthy Puritan woman and her baby; note the number of different colors in the clothing

Late 17th century fashion called for lots of lace on both men and women’s clothing, wide collars, and for women, off-the shoulder styles with low necklines that allowed some cleavage. Puritans found such clothing immodest, so they favored narrow collars, high necklines, and only small amounts of lace if at all. Shiny fabrics were avoided in favor of wool or linen. If a woman’s dress had a lower neckline, she wore a shift underneath with a high neckline; exposing the sternum or cleavage was unacceptable. Jewelry was small and modest when it was worn at all, although on special occasions pearls were acceptable, especially in the hair. Women tended to wear a white apron over their dress.

Look at all the slutty Puritans

Look at all the slutty Puritans

Men’s hair was longer than is fashionable today, and women’s hair was expected to be shoulder-length. But it was unacceptable for Puritan women to have their heads uncovered, so hair was worn under a simple cap.

Fortunately, at the start, the show avoids another cliché, the false idea that everyone wear enormous buckles on their shoes and hats. Buckles were an expensive accessory, and so only the wealthiest people would have worn them on hats or shoes, and even then probably only on fancy occasions, sort of the way that American men wear tuxedos.

So the series generally gets the clothing wrong. In addition to way too much black, the women nearly always have exposed cleavage and exposed hair. Most of the women wear jewelry. John Alden wears entirely too much leather, just like the guys in Reign.

I’m a little conflicted about Mary Sibley’s clothing. She is the wife of a Puritan and so ought to follow Puritan dress codes, but she’s also apparently the richest person in town and the wife of a selectman. In public she typically dresses in black with some cleavage showing, her hair uncovered, and adorned with a necklace and dangly ear-rings. Sometimes she wears rather silly hats with ostrich feathers on them. By Puritan standards she is dressing very immodestly, calling attention to her social status, which is acceptable, but also exposing her breasts, throat, and hair in an inappropriate way. So the Puritans ought to be offended by her clothing. However, an argument could be made that by dressing her this way, the show is subtly revealing her immorality to the viewer. But that would require the show to actually understand how men and women in the period actually dressed, and there’s no sign the show knows this. Instead, they’re just trying to make her look fashionable in an olde timey way.

In the second half of the series, however, a shipment of colored fabric must have arrived, because the extras and lower class characters start wearing greens, dark blues, and browns. But the ship that brought all the colored fabric also apparently had a big crate full of buckles, because suddenly everyone’s got buckles on their hats. One step forward, one step back, I guess.

Tituba and Mary Sibley, after the colored fabric arrived

Tituba and Mary Sibley, after the colored fabric arrived

And One More Thing

The Sibleys have Botticelli’s Primavera over their bedroom fireplace.

Want to Know More?

SALEM SEASON 1 is available through Amazon.