The Women of the Salem Witch Trials; Then & Now
A friend and I recently visited Salem, Massachusetts. I have taken an interest in the Salem witch trials, and after having read countless articles and numerous books on the topic, I wanted to go find my way through their journey. Sue arrived at our Airbnb wearing a T-shirt that read, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” Aside from the fact that no one was burned (they were hung, fourteen women during one summer 330 years ago), they also weren’t witches, never were, never will be. They were healers and midwives and neighbors and thinkers and women who sometimes spoke their mind. They were you and me.
These fourteen women were hanged from the gallows, with angry mobs spurring on their executioner. Not one of them was guilty. They were so entirely innocent, in fact, that a few decades later, the government apologized to their families and paid them restitution for the insanity of it all.
All of these women were heroes, if you ask me. Every single one of them, even when offered to be set free if she admitted her guilt in practicing witchcraft, stood tall and refused to admit to something she hadn’t done. Here are some of the statements these brave women uttered as they stood, waiting to hang:
“For my life lies now in your hands.”
“If I would confess, I should save my life.”
“Oh Lord, help me!”
“I am wholly innocent of such wickedness.”
“God knows I am innocent.”
“I do plead not guilty.”
“On my dying day, I am no witch.”
They were not willing to bend. Each was on her own course, not desiring to lead the others or stand up against anything, but rather to respect her own life’s journey. Her own innocence. Her own core values. Her own religious freedom. Her own sense of right and wrong. “What would make me hang on principle?” I asked myself as I studied them these last months. It’s a thought that will fester.
Perhaps knowing the other women were standing firm in their resolve to die rather than play the game of the incensed men who couldn’t make them bend gave each woman the strength to stand tall in her refusal to confess to an untruth. Today with hindsight, we know the men were terribly disconcerted by the women’s courage and determination. We know the women stood together, but also alone. We know they died with dignity.
Later, in 1706, when the government offered an apology, the majority of those responsible for that summer of terror and assault remained silent. It was only the youngest accuser, Ann Putnam - the 12-year-old daughter of the fire and brimstone pastor - who everyone disliked and feared - who came forward and said, “I desire to be humbled before God. It was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time. I did not do it out of anger, malice, or ill will.” Some believe Ann’s parents put her up to being an accuser in the first place, but either way, she was the only one of those responsible with the courage to stand up and hold herself accountable.
I am grateful to have met through books and other readings these sisters through gender from that summer so many years ago. They are now part of my “village” that inspires and supports my goals and quests for greatness.
I am sad that I need to end this memorial to those amazing women with my total shock and horror at those visiting this sacred ground, and their behavior. Dressed up in ‘costumes’ and doing selfies around these monuments, all the while laughing and seemingly unmoved by the enormity of what happened that summer, and what these women sacrificed, was deeply disturbing to me. The most egregious example was at the remembrance park, where each of those hanged has a bench with their name and date of demise. Instead of the silence the area commanded, there was a lack of dignity and respect that still boggles my mind days later. And, the shiny objects for sale heralding the time as if it were Disney World? Well, it all broke my heart. I wrote a poem watching it swirl around me, while I sat having some quiet time with my journal in the remembrance park. My poem ends with the following. If this is the legacy their death brings centuries later, the way women will turn their best face’s pose for a smiling selfie rather than thoughtful contemplation, then I fear they died in vain.
Footnote: When I sent this post to my friend Sue for her approval before I used her name, she sent the following response. "Of course it’s fine. and I love the article ... except... witches are healers, seers, clairvoyants, meditators and leaders of their covens. I am their granddaughter and proud of the witch that I am. We are not sorcerers or deliverers of evil as the church would make us out to be. But matriarchs of the YIN energy that is needed on this planet. - Sue Baxter, October 2022
It’s surely time to redefine witches and take the capes and pointed hats and bury them while remembering that those were the attire of the men during the Puritan oppression, not the women. And they were designed to intimidate.
I love hailing this article as a remembrance of our trip
See Ruth Franklin's biography of Shirley Jackson for an account of what SJ wrote about Salem Witch Trials.... Where everyone goes to party is at what was called Salem Town in 1692. Salem Village was where the principal folks lived. It "went to hell" as it were, following the trials, and lost its existence as a village. Closest thing to Salem Village now is called Danvers.