In writing chronologically for my historical mystery series set in Colonial New England, I came to the year 1692. There was no way I was going to miss including the Salem Witch Trials of that year in my series, which features two nosy Puritans named Hetty and Creasy. Nosy makes a good detective, thought I, and Puritans were encouraged to poke their noses into their neighbors’ business. Of course this meant a great deal of research about the trials, for I always try to be accurate in my portrayals of the period and the Puritans have been turned into stereotypes over time — they were quite a lusty lot and you should remember that they were the direct descendants of the Elizabethans. They liked their wine and women, if not so much song. I found in doing my research that there was so much material I ended up giving talks on the subject rather than waste all the time I put in. Turns out the Salem Witch Trials are a popular topic and I usually get a nice crowd. This means that I have to keep up with the latest material, as new aspects of the trials keeps popping up all the time. The very latest just came in as to where the victims were actually hung; not on Gallows Hill as popular opinion has it, but on a place called Proctor’s ledge, below Gallows Hill. And the witches were probably hung from a tree limb, not a gallows, although a gallows could have been constructed and the remains disintegrated with time.
What cannot be denied is that nineteen victims were hung and one man pressed to death with boulders. In defense of American history I like to point out that at the same period thousands of accused witches were burned to death across Europe, which trials went well into the 18th century. My research also uncovered the information that the Proctors (victims) and the Putnams (accusers) had a family feud going on for at least two generations. Accusing someone of witchcraft was a good way to get rid of your enemies. I actually use some of the transcript from the trials in my book “Death of a Bawdy Belle” as my detective, Hetty Henry, gets too close to a killer and is accused by him of being a witch. Hetty has to run for her life, as several people did at the time in order to escape being hung. Of course if you ran, you lost any property you owned to the Sheriff, and one man managed to get his revenge on the sheriff by holding his dead body for ransom…. Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say.
As for the so-called “afflicted children” who raised such an outcry, these accusers were hardly children but young women in their late teens and early twenties and this was, as they admitted, their idea of “sport.” Mean Girls to the enth degree. The original two girls were pre-teens and they were sent away to a safe place where the tales of a slave could not frighten them again. Another myth is that poor Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister, was responsible for the whole thing. Poor Cotton was only 26 years old and the judges were all colleagues of his father, so he was in no position to criticize. Indeed, there is no proof that he ever went to Salem, but there is proof he wrote to caution the judges about the use of “spectal evidence” – the testimony of ghosts — which was the basis for many of the accusations. Mather’s famous father Increase was away on a diplomatic mission; when he returned to Boston he was responsible in large part for the ending of the trials. Son Cotton’s mistake was in asking for a transcript of the trials and in writing about them. Thus his name became associated with Salem. However, Cotton wrote about everything under the son, with some 400 books and pamphlets to his pen. Today’s reader might have trouble plowing through his writings.
The title of this post, Which Witch is Which, is also the first line of my book concerning the trials. It’s my husband’s favorite line. As my biggest booster, he likes to recite it to people, which is o.k. by me. He takes my books to the local Off-Track Betting parlor to sell — some of my biggest fans are bookies. ###
Bio: M.E. Kemp is the author of five books featuring two nosy Puritan detectives; she is at work on #6. Kemp lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with husband Jack, where they frequent the race track and neglect to drink the healthy waters.