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I’ve already looked at the problems with Salem’s understanding of Salem as a place, and at the main characters in the show. Today, I’m going to lay out the problem with the series’ chronology. So, as usual, I’m going to lay out what actually happened, and then look at the series’ version of those events.


The Beginning of the Problems

The trigger for the Salem Witch Trials happened at the house of Samuel Parris, the controversial new minister of Salem Village’s church, who isn’t even a character in the show. I’ll talk about Parris and why he was so important in a later post.

Although New England colonists believed in the reality of witchcraft and witches, many of them also believed in and practiced what modern scholars call folk magic, small magical rituals or practices that were believed to have some use. This folk magic include charms for good luck (the wishbones of chickens were kept for that reason, and later evolved into breaking a wishbone to make a wish come true), to ward off evil, to heal or avert illness, or to keep away evil spells and witches (a horseshoe nailed to a door would prevent a witch from entering through that door). Fortune-telling was another popular practice. And folk magic could be used maliciously. Poppets were dolls that might be stabbed with pins to inflict pain or illness on a target.

Countermagic were rituals to undo a curse or detect a witch. For example, a witch bottle was a bottle filled with nails, broken glass, and the urine of an ensorcelled victim, and then buried in the yard; it was variously believed to either break an evil spell or torment the witch who sent the spell, thus revealing her; this practice was widespread enough that many examples have been dug up by archaeologists in both England and New England. Burning the hair of a bespelled child either injured the witch or caused her to present her in a state of a confusion. Witch balls were glass globes hung in an eastern window to trap the spirit of a witch when she tried to enter the house invisibly. All these practices and others played a role in colonial culture, offering a sense of protection from misfortunes, control over uncontrollable things like the weather and illness, and certainty about the future.

The Essington Witch Bottle (found in Pennsylvania)

The Essington Witch Bottle (found in Pennsylvania)

The problem was that there was no consensus about the moral status of folk magic. Those who practiced such magic were certain that what they were doing was distinct from witchcraft, which was universally agreed to be malicious. Some colonists made extra money by performing folk magic, and even non-practitioners might know about some rituals. But Puritans often considered folk magic, even countermagic, to either be forms of witchcraft or sort of ‘gateway drugs’ to real witchcraft.

The Essington Bottle had pins in it and was buried with a potsherd and a bird bone

The Essington Bottle had pins in it and was buried with a potsherd and a bird bone

In Salem, the folk magic that started the problem was a Venus glass, a glass of water into which an egg was cracked; it was thought to reveal the face of the person the performed would marry. Betty Parris, the 9-year-old daughter of Samuel, a friend named Abigail Williams, and a group of older girls performed this ritual one day but one of the girls saw a coffin instead of her husband. Betty soon began to feel strange prickling pains and the sensation of being choked. Over the course of the next several weeks, three of the other girls began to experience the same thing. Rev. Parris was baffled by these strange symptoms and consulted a number of physicians and ministers until one of them suggested that witchcraft might be involved. (Note that witchcraft seems to have only been suggested when other medical explanations had already been considered and failed to resolve the problem.) When the girls were prayed over, they reacted violently. Betty threw a Bible across the room, and Abigail covered her ears and screamed. Soon a half-dozen other girls were afflicted, including Mercy Lewis, an orphaned servant who lived with the Putnams, the most afflicted household (both Ann Putnam Sr and her daughter Ann Jr were both afflicted).

At that point, Mary Sibley, a relative of the Parrises, spoke with two of Parris’ slaves, John Indian and his wife Tituba, and taught them how to make a ‘witch cake’, a mixture of rye flour and Betty’s urine. The cake was then fed to a dog; exactly what the purpose of the ritual was; it might have been an attempt to confirm that witchcraft was involved, or it might have been countermagic meant to break the spell or to harm the witch involved. Instead, the ritual made things worse, because the girls began to complain that the pains were getting worse; as one of the ministers, Rev. Hale, described it,

“These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents, their arms, necks and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any epileptic fits or natural disease to effect. Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs wracked and tormented… “(John Hale, A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft)

Samuel Parris

Samuel Parris

Rev. Parris was furious when he learned about the witch cake, and began pressing the girls to say who was afflicting them, based on a widespread belief that the victims of witches somehow knew who was cursing them. At that point, Betty named Tituba and then fainted, while Abigail Williams and several other girls named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Good was a homeless beggar, while Osborne was elderly, frequently sick, and had not attended church in three years. Both women had been involved in legal disputes (Osborne with her own sons) and Good was notoriously quarrelsome. The three women were formally accused of witchcraft and imprisoned in the town jail.

The three women were questioned in court. Good and Osborne both denied the charges, but when the afflicted girls were brought into court, they fell into fits at the site of the two women. Tituba, on the other hand, having been beaten by Rev. Parris, confessed to being a witch and admitted to having practiced witchcraft with Good and Osborne. She insisted that Good and Osborne had forced her to harm Betty Parris against her will.

At first it looked like things would end here, since the court now had solid evidence to indict the three women. But this did not calm the town’s anxieties, and a week later, two of the afflicted girls, Ann Putnam Jr, and Mercy Lewis, accused Martha Corey of afflicting them. The girls disrupted church the next day, claiming that Corey had sent an invisible yellow bird into the church. She was arrested the next day, and her husband George a few days later. Unlike the first three victims, the Coreys were not marginal figures at Salem; they were church-goers in good standing and well-regarded but this was not enough to protect them. This was followed by an accusation against Rebecca Nurse, a wealthy, prominent Puritan who was 71. After that the accusations came more rapidly and a full-fledged witch panic developed. By May, 27 people had been charged and imprisoned, but trials had not happened because the colony was without a charter, as I explained in my first post.

It was at this point that the new governor, William Phips, arrived with the new charter issued by William III. Phips was soon persuaded to order the establishment of a Court of Oyer and Terminer with authority to hear the charges. He appointed 7 men to hear the case. The first woman tried was Bridget Bishop, an elderly widow and tavern-keeper who had repeatedly been in court over various issues, including fighting with her late husband; her stepson and his wife, another tavern-keeper, were also arrested. Numerous accusers came forward with various charges against Bishop, including the murder of a young girl two years previously and attacking people in spectral form. Poppets with pins in them were found in the cellar of her tavern. When her body was searched, they found a strange mole near her anus that suggested a witch’s teat, a supernatural nipple that was used to nurse a familiar spirit. In the absence of a confession, the court relied on the spectral evidence given by the afflicted girls. Bishop was convicted and hanged on June 10th.

A 19th Century depiction of the Salem Trials

A 19th Century depiction of the Salem Trials

The court consulted Increase and Cotton Mather, who warned them against accepting spectral evidence, but a majority on the court decided to do so anyway; one judge resigned in protest and began drinking heavily. For his troubles, he too was accused of being a witch by the girls, but the accusation was ignored.

On June 28th, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, and three other women were tried and convicted (Osborne had died in prison). William Phips attempted to pardon Nurse because of her social prominence, but it caused an uproar and the girls fell into fits, forcing him to withdraw the pardon. On July 19th, the five women were hanged.

That summary, detailed as it is, gives a general sense of how the trials proceeded, so I won’t go into details about the rest of the cases, as fascinating as they are, simply because there are too many cases to survey.

Execution of witches at Salem

Execution of witches at Salem

The Trials in the Series

When the series starts with John Alden’s return to Salem, the panic has already started, because three men have already been hung as witches, so already we have a problem, since the first six people convicted and executed were women. This signals that the series is not interested in an accurate recounting of the panic.

Alden seeing the first three victims

Alden seeing the first three victims

It’s not clear how the panic started in the series, but Mary Sibley has already invited Increase Mather to come and lead the investigation; he has sent his son Cotton, who appears to have led the trials. This too is wrong; the Mathers were never actually involved in the trials themselves, and were only asked to offer advice on the question of spectral evidence.

There’s no mention of Betty Parris or Abigail Williams; instead, in the pilot, Mercy Lewis is being tormented by Mary’s spirit. But it seems that Mercy is not the original accuser; it’s only just becoming known after Alden returns that she’s being afflicted. So the panic apparently just starts, with no specific person bringing accusations. When Mercy can’t speak, Mather hitches her up in bondage gear and leads her through the town, at which point, under Mary’s direction, she accused Giles Corey (or Quarry, as they show spells it) of being a witch, with no reference to his wife at all.

Cotton demands that Giles enter a plea, but he refuses to. In order to force him to bring a plea, he is slowly crushed under rocks, but refuses to plead and is crushed to death. This is actually what happened to Corey, although scholars have not entirely figured out why it happened. The best argument is that Corey pleaded not guilty to the charges but then ‘stood mute’ and refused to ask for a trial, making a stand on a point of legal procedure. In an attempt to force him to agree to trial, the judges ordered him to undergo peine forte et dure (Law French for ‘pain strong and hard’). In this rare procedure, he was tied down and rocks were slowly added to his chest over the course of two died. But he refused to agree to trial and was crushed by the weights over the course of two days. Why Corey did this is also unclear, but the usual argument is that because he refused to go to trial, his property could not be confiscated and so would pass to his two sons rather than being confiscated. All of this happened in September, whereas in the series, it’s one of the first things that happens after Alden’s return.

A modern memorial for Giles Corey

A modern memorial for Giles Corey

In the second episode, Mary Sibley uses Mercy to engineer an accusation against Bridget Bishop. Instead of being a tavern-keeper, she’s a midwife and head of the Salem orphanage. She’s tried not by the Commission of Oyer and Terminer, but apparently by the selectmen, with Cotton acting as the prosecutor. She’s found guilty and hung, making her the fifth victim of the panic, not the first.

Then Mercy breaks free from Mary’s control and, goaded by a group of three fan girls, accuses the father of one of the girls of being a witch, because he’s a bad man who drinks too much and wants to sell his daughter to the whorehouse. It’s not clear who these three girls are, except that the abused girl is Emily Hopkins, and her father is Henry; both of them are fictitious. The accused man is later freed by Increase, who recognizes that he is not a witch.

Mercy 'sniffing out' witches

Mercy ‘sniffing out’ witches

In the next episode, Mercy leads the girls, one of whom is named Dolly, in the Venus glass ritual because Mary wants to engineer an accusation against the Barkers. The Barker family was in fact accused of being witches, but they were residents of Andover, a nearby community to which the accusations spread; almost 50 people were arrested there. The Barkers confessed, but were not executed. However, in the show, a mob starts to form, and Cotton talks them into taking the Barkers to jail so they can be tried the next. But then Increase Mather shows up and summarily burns the Barkers at the stake without benefit of trial. In the next episode, he argues for the importance of trying witches in court, and then later makes a summary judgment against Gloriana ordering her banished from town. This is just inconsistent. Does Increase believe in trials or not? More seriously, it completely violates what actually happened to the Barkers. They weren’t executed at all, and, contrary to popular imagination, all the executed men and women were hung; there were no witches ever burned at Salem.

In the next episode, Increase finds evidence that Mab, the madame of the whorehouse, is a witch, so he puts her in a dunking stool and ducks her to get a confession. She later takes poison to avoid a trial. Mab is a fictitious character, so her fate is entirely made up. So too is the use of the dunking stool. Although you’ll find lots of references to the Salem witches being ducked or ‘swum”, that seems to be an ‘Internet fact’ rather than actual fact. One colonial woman, Mercy Desborough, was ducked as a witch and then executed, but that happened in Connecticut, not in Salem, and was not directly connected to the accusations at Salem.

In the next episode, Mercy accuses Tituba of being a witch. This is the first time that any degree of suspicion has fallen on her, even though she was the first person accused and it was the charge against her and the two Sarahs that started the whole panic. And there is no sign of either Sarah.

Cotton Mather cross-examining accusers during Alden's trial

Cotton Mather cross-examining accusers during Alden’s trial

I could go on; Tituba’s interrogation is a serious problem I’ll look at in a later post, and the series totally misrepresents John Alden’s trial. But that would just be adding unnecessary proof. It’s already clear that the show pays no regard to any of the facts of the trials. The order in which people were accused is wrong. The wrong people are accusing various witches. The fate of some of the accused is wrong. There’s no Commission of Oyer and Terminer trying the cases. The Mathers are given entirely too much importance in the story. In fact, given that we’ve only seen two trials in the series (three if we count whatever happened to the first three people executed), it’s hard to square the series with a historical event generally known as the Salem Witch Trials.

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.)

If you’d like to read some of the original documents from the Salem Witch Trials, there’s a nice short sourcebook, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Cultural Editions Series), by Richard Goober, that follows the trials from start to finish, but which concentrates on documents related to a number of the most important trials (Sarah Good, Bridget Bishop, John Proctor, and so on). As I emphasize to my students, there’s no substitute for actually reading the original documents.