Ashley Madekwe, Cotton Mather, Elise Eberle, Increase Mather, Janet Montgomery, John Alden, Mary Sibley, Mercy Lewis, Salem, Salem Witch Trials, Seth Gabel, Shane West, Stephen Lang, Tituba, Witchcraft, Xander Berkeley
As I mentioned last time, WGN’s Salem show is based on historical reality a bit the way that surumi is based on crab legs. There’s so much wrong with the main characters that I decided they needed a whole post to themselves. The show’s central characters are Mary Sibley, Tituba, John Alden, Magistrate Hale and his daughter Anne, Cotton Mather, Mercy Lewis, and Isaac Walton. Of these, George Sibley, Anne Hale, and Isaac Walton are entirely fictitious. It’s a bit sad, because Iddo Goldberg’s Isaac is probably the best character on the show; he’s well (and consistently) written, wonderfully acted, and the only character in the whole damn lot I actually care about.
Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) was a real person, but an extremely minor figure in the Witch Trials, and little is known about her. Her husband’s name was Samuel, not George, and her social status is unclear. She was the aunt of one of the first girls to be afflicted at Salem, and when her niece fell ill, Mary instructed the slave woman Tituba how to bake a “witch cake” that would reveal who had afflicted the girl. So Mary Sibley had at least a modicum of knowledge about folk magic; her action got her suspended from communion, but she was later restored when she confessed to the church that her purpose in advising Tituba was entirely innocent. So the character Montgomery plays is essentially an entirely fictitious one, apart from the name. Her Sibley is one of the dominant figures in town government, quite wealthy, a slave-owner (she is the owner of Tituba), and the most important witch in Salem. Of those details, the first and third are entirely false, the second pure conjecture, and the last bares only a faint resemblance to fact.
Montgomery’s Sibley is one of the few interesting characters in the show. She’s the lead villain of the show, bent on leading an ominous Grand Rite that requires the death of a dozen innocent people before it can happen. But her motivations are remarkably complex. She’s in love with John Alden, but angry that he abandoned her. She feels angry and guilty that she had to dispose of her unborn child. She hates the Puritans of Salem and in particular her husband and wants to see them all ruined, but after she starts the witch panic, she begins to realize that it could turn against her. Her feelings for Alden lead her to begin reconsidering her plans. She has to deal with the fractious coven of witches, many of whom are beginning to lose faith in her and plot against her. Montgomery handles the character’s conflicting feelings, motives, and goals about as well as the rather inconsistent script allows.
Tituba (Ashley Madekwe) was a slave owned by Samuel Parris, a key figure in the witch panic who is omitted from the series; I’ll talk about him in later posts. There is considerable debate about Tituba’s ethnicity. Popular imagination, spurred on by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, has tended to depict her as a black woman on the grounds that she was a slave, but all the contemporary sources describe her as an Indian, and her husband, John Indian, was clearly understood to be Indian. Her name, however, is Yoruba, so there is at least one firm piece of evidence pointing to African descent. Parris purchased both Tituba and John Indian in Barbados in the 1670s, and at least one scholar has argued that she was, in fact, an Arawak from modern Venezuela. Beyond that, most of what you’ll find on the internet about her is wild conjecture. Because she came from Barbados, she has often been associated with voodoo, but there’s no actual evidence that Tituba ever actually practiced any magic. She was the first person to be accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Panic, and she was also the first to confess, probably because Parris physically beat her into confessing, but the details of her confession conform entirely to English notions of witchcraft and show no evidence of influence from either Yoruba or Arawak belief or practice.
In the series, Tituba is the witch who recruited Mary Sibley into the coven, and throughout the first season, she works to keep Mary, her owner, true to the witches’ original plan. She only falls under suspicion fairly late in the season. The series is fairly canny about her ethnicity. Madakwe is half Nigerian, but fair-skinned, so she conforms visually to popular ideas about slaves from the Caribbean, but late in the season she says that she is an Arawak taken as a slave while a young girl. That’s pretty much the most accurate detail about her character; on this issue the show’s writers have at least been making an effort to fit current scholarly thinking.
John Alden (Shane West) was the oldest son of John and Priscilla Alden (not Sarah Alden, as we see on her tombstone in one episode), two of the original Mayflower colonists. As this suggests, John Alden Jr was almost 70 years old at the time of the Witch Trials. He was a wealthy, powerful Puritan who had a distinguished record serving in the first French and Indian War; in 1690, he had served as a negotiator with the Native Americans. In 1692, he was living in Boston. After the trials had gotten underway, the girls who acted as the chief accusers, probably prompted by the magistrates overseeing the trial, named Alden as one of the attendees of the witch’s sabbat, as a result of which he was jailed. After the first executions, he escaped from jail, fled to Duxbury (a suburb of modern Boston), and remained there until after the panic had resolved itself. He wrote a narrative of his experiences that became one of the important sources for the Witch Trials.
Again, it’s clear that West’s version of Alden is essentially fictitious in almost every regard except for his military experience. He’s young, a resident of Salem and a selectman, a former lover of Mary Sibley, skeptical to the verge of agnosticism (he’s not sure if people have souls, and he initially doesn’t believe in witchcraft). He’s the main opponent of the Witch Trials and basically the hero of the series. He does get arrested, but his arrest leads to an abortive trial and a magical escape from prison. The show also claims that he lived with the Native Americans for several years and helped them slaughter at least one large group of colonial militiamen. There’s no evidence for this claim. (And can I just say that West’s John Alden looks like he would be more comfortable in a biker gang than old Salem?)
Magistrate Hale (Xander Berkeley) is a rather distorted version of Rev. John Hale. Rev. Hale was the Puritan minister of Beverly (another former portion of Salem Town). Hale was one of the first men to support the accusations of the afflicted girls and played an important role in the trials until November, 1692, when his second wife, Sarah Noyes Hale, was accused of being a witch. This persuaded him that spectral evidence was unreliable, and he was one of many who by this time were beginning to doubt the validity of the trials. He died in 1700. The series’ version of Hale, however is not a minister, but rather one of the Salem selectmen and one of the witches. Like Sibley, he’s a somewhat ambivalent villain, being motivated chiefly by love of his daughter. One of the few facts that the series gets right about Hale is that he witnessed the execution of a witch when he was a child, Margaret Jones, the first person executed in Massachusetts as a witch (in 1648).
Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) was an orphan, her parents dying in an attack by Native Americans on a settlement in Maine. She was eventually offered a position as a servant in the household of Thomas Putnam, the father of Ann Putnam. Ann and Mercy were among the second group of girls to be afflicted and bring accusations of being a witch; other members of their household, including Ann’s mother, Ann Sr, and a cousin, Mary Walcott, were also afflicted, as were four other members of the household, though less so. This cluster of people from the Putnam household were probably the most important accusers during the Witch Panic, targeting a total of 46 people with charges of witchcraft. As typical of the afflicted girls, Mercy saw “spectral” (invisible) people plaguing her, reported various pains on her body, suffered periodic seizures, and sometimes lost the ability to speak. In the series’ pilot, Mercy is already afflicted by Mary Sibley, and three people have already been executed. The only conclusion for the viewers is that Mercy was the first girl to be afflicted and was responsible for the first three executions. That’s historically wrong, as I’ll explain in the next post; she was neither the first accuser, nor were the first people executed ones she identified. In the show, she sees a spectral hag and shows bite marks across her body, but she also attacks people, flies up the ceiling, and on one occasion vomits a massive shower of blood onto someone. She’s put in chains and, bizarrely, hung on the wall of the Salem church like she’s being crucified. Cotton Mather puts her into bondage gear and leads her through town like a bloodhound when she can’t speak. All of that is invented. Later in the series, three girls approach Mercy and persuade her to start making accusations against an innocent man; she seems to enjoy the power this gives her. That’s possibly true; the motives for the accusations are unclear; we’ll look at that in a later post. By the end of the season, Mercy has become a witch under Mary Sibley’s guidance. That’s false, but, as I’ll explain, has at least a smidgen of scholarly value to it. Overall, the show’s Mercy bares little relationship to the person she’s based on.
The Mathers The historical Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) was the son of the well-known minister and president of Harvard Increase Mather. Cotton (named with his mother’s surname) was something of a prodigy, graduating from Harvard at 15 and soon assisting his father at Boston’s North Church, where he eventually became the pastor. He was an important intellectual and author, although his reputation at the time never lived up to his father’s. He wrote scientific, mathematical, and religious treatises, and after the Witch Trials became a prominent proponent of smallpox inoculation, a then-controversial practice. Despite being deeply interested in science, Mather also believed in the reality of witches.
As prominent ministers and intellectuals, the magistrates asked both Cotton and Increase to advise them about how to proceed after the trials began. A particular question of concern to them was how to handle ‘spectral evidence’. Spectral evidence was the term used for the mysterious visions that the girl accusers claimed to have; they insisted they could see witches tormenting them when no one else could. The magistrates were hesitant, unsure of how to regard such claims. In two letters, Cotton replied that such evidence should be used with extreme caution; he points out that it is entirely possible that the Devil could use images of innocent and virtuous people in order to ruin them. However, he also says that in such situations, God ordinarily provides a way to vindicate them. What the magistrates took from that letter was essentially a go-ahead to accept spectral evidence as proof of guilt. He played no direct role in the trials themselves, although he did attend and speak at several of the executions. Whereas Mather was skeptical of spectral evidence, he regarded confessions of guilt as solid proof that an accused witch was guilty. In this he followed the best thinking of early modern European legal experts, who were generally reluctant to convict accused witches without some form of solid evidence. A confession was ideal evidence, since the accused her- or himself was admitting the crime. While we can obviously see flaws in that line of thinking, the impulse to find actual evidence of the crime demonstrates that there was a degree of rational thinking about witch trials; they were conducted according to legal principles and not just free-for-alls as they are normally imagined to be. There was comparatively little fear of false confessions, since the crime of witchcraft seemed too horrible for one to confess falsely. There was also a sense that God would protect the innocent from the pressure to confess.
Gabel’s portrayal of Mather is a hot mess. At the start of the series, he’s portrayed as an expert on witchcraft who was brought into Salem by Mary Sibley to help root out witches, and he seems to have entirely taken over both as minister of the local church and as lead prosecutor in the Witch Trials. He’s entirely convinced that witches exist, and he shows no hesitation whatsoever to accept the spectral evidence offered by Mercy Lewis. Despite this, he’s sort of frenemies with John Alden, who used to beat him up when they were children together, and as the show progresses, Cotton teams up with Alden to investigate the witches.
The real problem with Mather in the series, however, is the fact that he regularly consorts with a whore named Gloriana at Salem’s public brothel. First, there certainly was prostitution in colonial America, but there weren’t open brothels where the prostitutes hung around outside to attract customers; it’s obvious in the show that they’re whores because they’re the only people in brightly-colored clothing. It’s unlikely that Salem was large enough to support such a business, and highly improbable that the more religious residents of the community would have tolerated the existence of such a place; colonists occasionally burned down brothels in major cities. Second, Mather openly frequents this place; Alden runs into him coming out of it in one episode, and in later episodes, his relationship with Gloriana seems widely known. A Puritan minister who was known to be committing adultery with prostitutes or other women (since Mather was a married man) would immediately have lost all moral credibility; even modern televangelists can’t pull that off, despite numerous attempts. And then, part way through the series he suddenly becomes a rationalist skeptic and starts defending people against charges of witchcraft, despite having personally interrogated one obvious witch and seen her perform explicitly supernatural feats. Gabel’s Mather represents several of the worst clichés of American culture all rolled together. He is ridiculed for being an educated intellectual; Alden once mockingly calls him “Harvard”. Despite being highly educated and sporadically interested in science (in one episode he wields a 19th century hypodermic needle), he’s anti-intellectual and irrational; Alden serves as his rationalist foil. He’s also a venal clergyman whose external pieties mask a sexually corrupt personal life. He’s emotionally tormented by his unspecified sins, but fails to learn the lesson of mercy toward other sinners, and seems to be ok with the prospect of executing a few innocent people to purge the town of witches. Despite being a minister, none of his choices actually seem influenced by Christianity. In one episode he rapes Gloriana; in the next episode he offers to pay her to be his exclusive mistress. There’s literally nothing likable or admirable about him at all. He’s a religious fanatic who’s not actually religious.
His father Increase Mather (Steven Lang) is played as a ruthless witch hunter who sometimes just executes people regardless of evidence or trial and on other occasions insists on a trial. That’s just made up. While he was a noted expert on witches, he was not a witch hunter. He didn’t track witches across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. He wasn’t a ruthless torturer. And he wasn’t murdered by his own son; he died of bladder failure at age 84. It’s a shame that the character is written so poorly, because Lang does a bang-up job with the crappy material the show gives him. I would have loved to see what Lang could do with actually good material.
Want to Know More? SALEM SEASON 1is available through Amazon. If you want to know what actually happened during the Salem Witch Trials, Bryan Le Beau’s The Story of the Salem Witch Trials (2nd Edition)is a decent place to start. It’s a straight-forward narrative of events, with only minimal analysis (which means it gets a bit dry in places), but it does a good job of laying out the facts in chronological order. (When it was revised for the 2nd edition, apparently they didn’t revise the index, which makes it very hard to use.)