We tend to look at the Salem Witch Trials with a ghoulish fascination, focusing
on the forbidden and the sexual overtones that have come to be identified
with the events. However, the reality is the trials were about the misuse of the justice system for private goals and gain.
Under English law the accused were held responsible for proving their innocence. The concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' did not exist. The formal accusers in the original series of accusations were teenaged girls. Behind them stood a group of men, they were judges, sheriffs, jailers and others prominent in the community.
Immediately after being accused and incarcerated for witchcraft (which was a Capital crime) the property of the individual was seized. Those who ran the trials also profited from them. They would keep the property for their own use. Food was withheld from the incarcerated until and unless their families paid. Bedding, household implements, animals and food were among the confiscated.
357 people of all ages and both genders were accused. 157 were gaoled. 19 were hanged. 5 died in prison and one was pressed to death, a particularly grisly way to meet his maker. Giles Corey was a wealthy man who made the mistake of signing the petition circulated in support of Rebecca Nourse, an early victim of the Trials.
Once accused, he chose to stand mute, asserting neither his guilt nor innocence. To proclaim your innocence was a death sentence since this also asserted your claim to your seized property. To plead guilty gave you the hope of life. Those who refused to confess were guaranteed the gallows tree, so by standing mute Giles Corey frustrated the obvious desire of those in power to take his property.
On September 19th, Giles Corey was laid upon the ground and great weights of rocks were piled on him until he died. What they could not acquire from him they took when they accused his wife, Martha. She was hanged on September 22.
William Barker, Junior was 15 1/2 when he was arrested on September 1, 1692 on the charge of having practiced witchcraft. That frightening summer many of his extended family had also been accused and jailed. His first cousin, Mary Barker at age 13, and his own father, William Barker, Senior, had been arrested in August and preceded William Jr. to the jail of Salem.
The Witchcraft Trials were not caused by obscure herbs in the crops or the practice of witchcraft. The Devil, in his most foul incarnation, was alive in Salem and the surrounding villages working through the greed, arrogance, and unholy ambitions of such men as Cotton Mather, Thomas Putnam, John Hathorne and others.
John Hathorne of Salem, Massachusetts was not the first in his family line to lend himself to ugliest of practices. His ancestor, William Hathorne, had been the instrument through which the persecution of the Quakers had been carried out.
Using power to enrich himself was an accepted family practice, one that was to haunt the conscience of his descendent, William Hawthorne, the author of many classical American books, including The House of the Seven Gables. William added the 'w' to his name to disassociate himself from his grandfather's actions.
Over the months of 1692 the money machine originally identified and put into use in SalemVillage picked up speed. The accusers reached higher and higher gaining confidence as their success fed their greed.
Like an infection the accusations ran through extended families, rending their lives and destroying the shallow prosperity of these were farm communities.
The accusers lived out a malignant fantasy, but their ambitions reached too high when they accused the wife of the new Governor, Sir William Phipps. Governor Phipps returned from command of troops in Maine on September 29, 1692 to discover that in his absence the legal system had been hijacked. The money machine was about to be closed down through two separate and very different events.
The first was the filing of a lawsuit for defamation of character by a 'worthy gentleman of Boston" upon being informed that he was accused of witchcraft. The suit was for a thousand pounds, a huge amount at the time. The accusers had not imagined that they could be vulnerable hiding behind the trappings of the justice system.
The second event occurred on October 29, 1629 with Governor Phipps ending the Court of Oyer and Terminer that had overseen the persecutions and authorized the use of asset forfeiture. Several men were re-appointed to serve in the newly constituted court. Three names were prominently excused from further service. Those were John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, and Bartholomew Gedney. These had been the most active in seizing the property of the accused.
On April 25, and May 6, 1693 the Superior Court of Judicature met in Boston and Ipswich. Everyone accused was cleared during these two sessions. The aftermath also had its injustices. One young woman, Mary Watkins, unable to pay her prison fees was sold into slavery in Virginia and none of accusers were required to return the property so unjustly seized.
While the accusers will remain as examples of vicious license, the victims will also remain as examples through their actions. In no case did the any of them seek revenge. The accusers feared retaliation. They were verbal and vociferous in their pleas for protection. They even believed that the victims would violate their bodies after they died. Jonathan Corwin, had his remains buried in his cellar to avoid that possibility.
The victims however, remained members of the community sharing with their accusers a common religion, attending the same schools and serving in the same military. They dealt with their accusers every day of their lives; selling goods and walking the same streets. One thing did not happen, though. They did not intermarry. None of the descendents of the victims of the Trials intermarried with descendents of the accusers for five full generations. The victims did not succumb to revenge, which took courage and strength.
I am a descendent of many of the accused. I proudly count Rebecca Nourse, Mary and William Barker, Mary Towne Esty, Rebecca Blake Eames, Mary and Alice Parker and Susanna North Martin in my ancestry.
The confession of William Barker, Senior, admits to the hope that equality and prosperity would be accomplished for all people. His words would be echoed a century later in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Given at such a time we must assume that the confession that contained those words reflected his dreams.
© Melt Magazine 2001