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Peabody Essex Museum- Witch Trials Exhibit and Discussions


I have spent the last few weeks participating in virtual talks offered by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) about the Salem Witch Trials. PEM has hosted a few really great panels and I have learned a lot. In addition, I had the opportunity to visit PEM and see the new Witch Trials Exhibit with documents on hand from questioning the accused, trial documents and other documents found from the time period. They also had paintings depicting the trials, floorboards from the jail, windows similar to the style of the time and many other artifacts. One thing I had the pleasure of doing was standing at the documents and reading them with my 13 year old daughter, who had the history jump off the page for her. She has become so excited about the history, even after visiting the City for so many years, this really sparked a connection for her. She has been drawing connections in social justice in her classes and uses Witch Trials examples whenever she can. We are lucky that she is able to read cursive, where there are so many children her age who can not and therefore can not access these amazing pieces of history.


From documents provided by the PEM during one of the panel discussions I attended on the Witch Trials, Then and Now, "the Salem Witch Trials were court proceedings where 200 people in Salem and surrounding communities, were accused of the crime of witchcraft." Beginning with Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, and a few others, these people became widely referred to as the "the afflicted" and began accusing people of spectral attacks, physical harm, and practicing witchcraft (basically signing the Devil's book and doing his work). The Court of Oyer and Terminer was commissioned to oversee the witchcraft accusations, and relied heavily on the use of spectral evidence. According to paperwork provided by PEM, "the use of this type of evidence, although cautioned against both in law and practice during witchcraft trials, became the main form of evidence used in Salem." In the end, 19 would be hung and one pressed to death. 14 were women, 6 were men. What I found most profound was "witchcraft was seen by English law as a capital crime." Five more would die in the well documented harsh jail conditions. The jails would flood, it was hot in the summer, cold in the winter. The jail had dirt floors, and in some cases the Sheriff would handcuff the prisoner's head and feet together. Prisoners were charged room and board, and a fee for their chains (Salemwitchmuseum).


Over 55 people confessed to witchcraft, hoping to be spared, although you would only truly be safe if you were able to give evidence against other accused witches. In the conversations that occurred in the PEM virtual panels, the historians discussed how many of the women accused were from a lower classes in society and some of the "afflicted" were more of an upper class. Interesting to draw parallels to things we see happening in today's society still.


"None of the people accused, who confessed, or who were executed were guilty of witchcraft, nor were any of them practicing witches, as we understand it in the modern era. All those involved were Puritans, (and a few Quaker accusers) who followed the Christian faith." (PEM Info Primer, 2020) It was discussed during the panels that the "stressors that could have caused the Salem trials were a complicated mix of socioeconomic changes in Salem Town proper, changes in church dogma, traumatic conflicts with Indigenous groups in New England, extreme weather, a changeover of government policy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, conflicts in the rural Salem Village over various disagreements between Samuel Parris and other groups in the village, and a plethora of other community changes, and cannot be defined by any single cause. Ergot theory, which was a popular theory in the 1970s that claimed the accusers were hallucinating from moldy grain, and coming on the cusp of research into psychotropic drug use and mental health, has been debunked by modern science and historians. The Witch Trials were a result of a perfect storm of events, and a spark at just the right moment, that inflamed communities across Massachusetts." (PEM Info Primer, 2020) It was interesting to hear these stressors and updates to research for my own knowledge. I remember when I was a kid hearing my high school history teacher always say "history repeats itself." How much we could take away from the Witch Trials and apply to today, even still. It is important for us not to forget. It is important that we memorialize and discuss these incidents because they have so much relevance to today.


Well, we have officially hit our halfway to Halloween mark! I hope you are busy getting ready. And remember, even if your town has cancelled Trick or Treat and even though Salem has asked if you don't have plans to come at this point, don't....there is still plenty you CAN do for spooky time. Remember, ghoulies, Halloween is a state of mind! Be creative and don't let it get you down. Zombify your plans to do something at home and spooktastic. It will surely be one to remember. So, why not go with it?!?!?!?

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