Saturday, 10 May 2014

Salem 101, part one

While watching Orphan Black the other night, the SyFy channel ran a promo for this new show, Salem. The basic premise: that the witches being hunted during the infamous Salem witch trials were, in fact, actual devil-worshippers (who, going by the trailers, ran around naked a lot.) Now when I heard the premise, I was annoyed- can we please not trivialize a real tragedy in which nineteen innocent people died?- but the promo was what really got my blood boiling. The tagline? "IT WASN'T PARANOIA. IT WAS REAL."

*grinds teeth*

I've been fascinated by the Salem trials for a long time, so much so that I own several books on the subject. Since I have the resources on hand, I've decided I should put together a sort of Salem primer, in case anyone who watched the show is curious about what actually went on. Because education is fun, and with shows like this flinging around information like monkeys flinging poop, SOMEONE has to.

The Basics

I'm going to skip over the "Salem was founded in the year blah blah blah" part because it's not really relevant to the story. What is relevant is the social climate Salem was part of. The Puritans, who settled New England, were an extremely stringent faction of Christianity who believed in a sort of off-brand Calvinism. Specifically, they believed that a person's first duty in life was to please God, and everything they did was done in service of this goal. They were extremely preoccupied with Hell, and the evils of excessive pleasure- dancing, singing, theatre, and all other forms of entertainment were considered ungodly by the Puritans of Massachusetts. Additionally, emotions like anger, sadness, jealousy, et cetera were frowned upon. If you felt bad, you kept your mouth shut about it. If you disliked someone, you choked it down and smiled. And if you wanted something other than what your community believed was best, then you were pretty much shit out of luck.

Sounds rough, right? Now imagine you're a teenage girl living in this environment, where all excess emotion was punished and those who broke God's laws (fornication was a popular one- the Puritans, like many other Christian groups of the day, believed strongly in original sin) were punished in the public square. The slightest toe put out of line could be construed as an express trip to hell- even something as small as talking back to your father or drifting off in church. Your sexuality was considered of the devil, so all those hormones churning around in your body? Evil. No entertainment. No enjoyment. Just day-to-day drudgery in your father's house until you got married (to someone your parents approved of) and then more day-to-day drudgery, with the added bonus of life-threatening pregnancies. Fun!

Another important thing to understand about the Puritans is that they believed wholeheartedly that the Devil was a present force in their lives. Every negative thought, every illness, every misfortune was the Devil calling down unhappiness on you in order to tempt you away from God. Additionally (so the belief went) some wicked people were terrible enough to sign contracts with the devil in order to gain power, and did things like murdering babies and tormenting the innocent. A few years prior to the trials in Salem, a prominent minister named Cotton Mather wrote a tract entitled "Memorable Providences," about a witchcraft case he observed in Boston. Mather claimed that a laundress named Mary Glover cast a spell upon the four children of her employer, causing them to behave strangely. The behaviour in question included flapping their hands and arms, shouting at random, and complaining of various pains in their bodies. Mather wrote:

Sometimes they would be Deaf, sometimes Dumb, and sometimes Blind, and often, all this at once. One while their Tongues would be drawn down their Throats; another-while they would be pull'd out upon their Chins, to a prodigious length. They would have their Mouths opened unto such a Wideness, that their Jaws went out of joint; and anon they would clap together again with a Force like that of a strong Spring-Lock. The same would happen to their Shoulder-Blades, and their Elbows, and Hand-wrists, and several of their joints. They would at times ly in a benummed condition and be drawn together as those that are ty'd Neck and Heels;' and presently be stretched out, yea, drawn Backwards, to such a degree that it was fear'd the very skin of their Bellies would have crack'd. They would make most pitteous out-cries, that they were cut with Knives, and struck with Blows that they could not bear. Their Necks would be broken, so that their Neck-bone would seem dissolved unto them that felt after it; and yet on the sudden, it would become, again so stiff that there was no stirring of their Heads; yea, their Heads would be twisted almost round; and if main Force at any time obstructed a dangerous motion which they seem'd to be upon, they would roar exceedingly.
Salem's minister- and one of the witch trials' main instigators- Samuel Parris, owned a copy of "Memorable Providences."

Salem Politics

Samuel Parris hadn't started out as a minister; he'd originally been a merchant in Barbados, and only moved to Salem after his business failed. Parris was not a popular man, or a popular choice for minister; he's been chosen by Thomas Putman, among others, who represented a faction of villagers who were largely made up of the poorer farming class. The opposing faction, containing men such as John Proctor and Phillip English, were more upper-class and cosmopolitan; they were also less conservative than Putnam. Trouble started between Parris and his parishoners almost immediately, with people decrying Parris' purchase of new candlesticks for the village church and Parris claiming that the tithe the villagers owed him was not being paid in full. Several ministers before Parris had been driven out of Salem by the infighting, and Parris himself looked to follow in their footsteps.

Parris and Putnam both had young daughters: Betty Parris, who was nine years old in 1692, and Ann Putnam, who was closer to twelve or thirteen. Parris also had a young niece, Abigail Williams, living with him; she was fictionalized in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," but almost nothing in his version was based on facts. Parris also owned two slaves, Tituba and John; Tituba was the children's primary caregiver, as Parris' wife Elizabeth was frequently sick. Tituba, who had been born in Barbados, practiced Christianity as all residents of Salem did, but she also retained beliefs and practices from her childhood- and she passed them on to Betty and Abigail. The girls and their friends, with nothing else to do, took to congregating in the Parris kitchen to play magic games with Tituba; little things like dropping an egg yolk into a water glass to see who they would marry. The kinds of games young girls the world over have played with their friends. Problem is, these particular young girls were living in a social pressure cooker.

What happened next is unclear. The story goes that, while playing the egg yolk game, one of the girls saw a coffin in the glass and assumed it was an evil omen. Whether or not a specific incident tipped her over the edge, Betty panicked. The stress of the village politics in addition to the knowledge that what she was doing was a mortal sin by her father's definition caused her to have a nervous breakdown, and she took to her bed. The other girls- by this point the circle had spread to include Ann Putnam, Mary Walcott, Mary Warren, Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Susannah Sheldon- followed suit, either in sympathetic hysteria, or to cover up what they'd been doing. Their parents were baffled, and called in the town doctor (who, coincidentally, was Elizabeth Hubbard's uncle and guardian.) Dr. William Griggs declared that the girls were under a witch's spell, and were being forced to act as they did. Betty and Abigail, naturally, pointed the finger at Tituba. And it might have ended there- the townspeople were inclined to place the blame on the "Indian" slave in their midst- except that Tituba (likely under duress) confessed. In her confession, she claimed that several others had attended on the Devil with her. That meant that there were more witches in their midst- and only the afflicted girls could point them out. They were encouraged to name their tormentors, and they quickly complied, accusing two village women of afflicting them.

It's important at this point to discuss the social standing of the women who'd been accused, and where they stood in relation to their accusers. Tituba was, as discussed, a slave; she was at the bottom of the Salem social ladder. Her co-accused were slightly better off, being free and white, but they carried their own social stigma. Sarah Good was the town beggar, who'd been known to curse at people who refused to give her food. Sarah Osborne was unmarried, did not attend church, and had been entangled in legal disputes with Thomas Putnam. In other words, they were prime candidates for suggestions of witchcraft: women who the girls knew as being socially vulnerable, who they had probably heard disparaging remarks about at the family dinner table. These girls weren't stupid; they can't have been unaware of the politics their families were involved in. They were also, essentially, powerless to do anything about it- until they started to point the finger at people who they blamed for all their family's problems. And sure enough, they were arrested and thrown in jail. Suddenly, these girls had power. They had the whole town hanging on their every word. They could do what they wanted, accuse who they wanted. And Tituba, Good, and Orborne wouldn't be the last

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