5 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About the Salem Witch Hunts
"Examination of a witch"
Thompkins H. Matteson
Now that I've finally got the utter failure that was the season finale of American Horror Story: Coven out of my head, I think it's time to address something that bothered me a great deal throughout my coverage of the show. Namely, that people seem to be misled a great deal on what was actually going on at the Salem Witch Hunts.
Witch Hunts are a hobby of mine... reading about them, I mean. Not, you know, going out and looking for third nipples on comely young puritans then denouncing them as abhorrent in the eyes of God. I'm on enough government lists as it is. No, I just read a lot, and today I'm going to offer up some of the fruits of my scholarship.
American Witches Were Not Burned at the Stake: Ask any of the more twitterpated Wiccans out there and they will allude to the Burning Times. What's more iconic than the image of a poor witch being tied up and engulfed in flames as the superstitious peasants cheer on? By my count it happened at least three times in Coven alone.
The fact is that the witches of Salem were hung, not burned, except for a guy named Giles Corey who was crushed to death with big freakin' rocks (Why do they never put that in films?). In fact, burning witches alive was rarely employed even in Europe, and it was usually reserved for those who refused to repent of their crime. Doing so won you the option to be strangled to death before they burned you, though the French were actually really keen on the living barbecue thing. Burning the bodies was always common though, which may account for some of the confusion.
Nothing About the Witch Hunts Was Pagan: A popular way to look at the persecution of witches was that they were part of some pagan, pre-Christian tradition that held sacred Earth Mother beliefs or other such nonsense. Neo-paganism often employs the victims as martyrs for an omnipresent ancient faith.
Almost without question the people being accused were Christians who went to their deaths proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ. They were not accused of consorting with other gods, but with Satan himself, and often confessed to sexual acts with him while under torture. Virtually every religious aspect of the witch hunts was centered very firmly in Christian, not pagan mythology.
The Witches Were Not Persecuted Healers: Another group that loves to include the victims of the witch hunts among their brave martyrs is the organic supplement hawkers. The image of women just practicing natural herbal healing being cruelly cut down in their work by folks that just didn't understand is a very popular one.
It's important to note that at this time period in America most basic medicine was practiced in the home by private people. Yes, there were doctors and of course some were more knowledgeable than others but the herbalist who lived in the woods communing with nature is a modern myth. Midwives did occasionally fall victim to witch accusations, but it had more to do with their connection to abortions and still births. Both were potent ingredients in old fears about blood libels and black Sabbaths stemming from Jewish persecutions in the 12th century that mutated and refused to fade. Still, unless the midwife had made an enemy of a powerful clergyman or doctor they weren't otherwise the focus of witch hunts.
This story continues on the next page.
Much of it Was About Money and Petty In-Fighting: Anyone that comes up to you and tells you that they have the singular answer to what caused the 100,000 deaths in witch hunts across multiple countries and over the course of centuries is lying to you. Anti-Semitism, hallucinogenic fungus, misogyny, a plot by the church to instill fear and cement control, suppression of indigenous faiths, and dozens of other theories are thrown around. They are just factors, though, differently weighted parts of the strange and terrifying algorithm that resulted in a particularly dark and gruesome chapter of western history.
One of those factors largely overlooked is that of money. Witch hunts were big business. The accused, innocent or not, were billed for their trial, detention, and all aspects of the legal proceedings against them. Repent of your wickedness and you were allowed a more humane death, but your property was forfeited to the church. It was a wish to leave his heirs with something that led Giles Corey to his grisly death by pressing.
In Salem in particular much of what transpired came about because of the power of the Putman family. Young Ann Putnam was one of the chief accusers, and nearly all of those she accused had some sort of poor connection with her influential father, Thomas... especially members of the Porter family that her uncle had married into taking the rich inheritance that Thomas felt was his with him. Evidence suggests that many of the written accusations came straight from the hand of Thomas Putnam, who managed to eliminate many rivals in the course of the Salem Witch Hunts.
They Were Not Witches: This really shouldn't need saying, but the most important thing about the 20 people who were executed in Salem and the tens of thousands more who met their end in Europe was that they were all perfectly ordinary people caught up in a very baffling and bad time. On the subject of whether or not magic exists in any form I try to keep an open mind, but those who died in these hunts were not the grails of hidden knowledge or possessors of strange powers the popular legacy has made them out to be. They weren't early feminists standing up to the patriarchy or priestesses in a hidden religion.
They were just people. People who found themselves surrounded by a system ready to accuse them of devil worship and horrific crimes and for whom agreement and an easy death were the best options.
And it could happen again tomorrow under the right set of circumstances. It's very important we remember that.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events