, Salem, MA


October 7, 2011

Our View: Lessons from the witchcraft trials

There are many theories about the origins of the witchcraft hysteria that began in Salem Village (now the town of Danvers) in 1692.

The latest, put forth in a new film titled "Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence," commissioned by the National Park Service and Essex National Heritage Area, places much of the blame on the Rev. Samuel Parris' desperation to save his position as the village clergyman.

His strict Puritan ways, it's suggested, alienated many in the church who then questioned why they should have to support the ministry that provided him with shelter, food and firewood. The minister's response was to weave a tale of demonic influence within the community that eventually led a group of susceptible girls to claim they were being assaulted by neighbors practicing witchcraft.

The hysteria, which lasted less than a year, was a tragic episode in the history of this region. Before wiser heads put a stop to the infamous trials, 19 women had been hanged and one man pressed to death.

Once feared and reviled, today we honor the victims of the hysteria for their refusal to admit to being witches — despite the fact they could have saved their lives by doing so.

Also worthy of honor, of course, was that small group of judges and clerics who, in the midst of the frenzy, spoke out against the "spectral evidence" and similarly flimsy grounds on which the "witches" were being convicted and sentenced to death.

Then, as now, going against the grain of conventional wisdom and popular sentiment was not easy. As Danvers Archivist Richard Trask notes at the end of the film, it takes "clear vision and bravery" to stand up to the mob. Such individuals are needed as much today as they were 320 years ago.

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