The Historical Society of Moorestown bewitched local historians with another enchanting evening this October 17th. The organization’s President, Mickey DiCamillo, delivered the second part of his lecture series on the Salem Witch Trials. This installment subtitled “Strangely Accused” further described Salem Village’s decent from normalcy—at least by Puritan standards—into an environment of paranoia and zealotry. The crux of the lecture focused on the reasons for this change.
The Society selected an excellent environment for such a discussion. The cobwebs, pumpkins and eerie lighting served as an excellent backdrop. The Halloween décor along with the howling winds on this brisk autumn evening further established the mood.
The group decided to move the lecture indoors due to the cold…or so they said. I wonder if the real chill everyone longed to escape was the one the darkness and the cool breeze sent up everyone’s spine. The audience moved into a cozier atmosphere in the kitchen at Smith-Cadbury Mansion.
During the early months of 1692, accusations of witchcraft only fell on societal outcasts. As the year progressed this changed. Upstanding members of the community such as 72 year old Rebecca Nurse and church goer Martha Corey found themselves under investigation.
As expected, Mr. DiCamillo included witty observations in his lecture. “Maury Povich would want to meet the people of Salem,” he noted. Martha Corey’s life illustrated one reason why. Mrs. Corey moved to Salem Village to begin a new life for herself. While living in her previous community she’d engaged in an extramarital affair. To make things worse, she became pregnant as the result of this illicit relationship. The fact that her child bore the features and skin tone of a Native American didn’t do much to ameliorate her situation. Hence, she relocated to the community and “repented” for her sins. She remarried and became an ardent Christian woman.
Mr. DiCamillo added other interesting details regarding the witch investigations to his lecture. He emphasized the common themes that developed in the course of them. Those allegedly bewitched often reported seeing animals. Most often they witnessed dogs and yellow birds. In Puritan lore, these figures represented the Devil.
Interrogators often asked those accused if they had written in the Devil’s book. Every witch seemed to carry around a tome in which fellow sorcerers and sorceresses would sign their names. Mr. DiCamillo’s imagery made me think of the tradition of signing high school yearbooks.
While accusations of witchcraft could cost someone his/her life, those acquitted endured financial hardships. During the era prisoners paid for their own food, room and board. An accused person could accumulate large debts while waiting for trial.
Coming from this draconian environment, it seems odd that the Puritans began a benign tradition that persists into the modern era. They established the practice of attending church on Christmas.
As with just about anything the Puritans did, this one comes with an interesting story. In seventeenth century England, people celebrated Christmas much differently than those of us living today. Think mardi gras meets New Year’s Eve meets a frat party.
In the 1680s Anglicans began moving into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans objected to these raucous celebrations. They declared that if a person wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ, one should do so in a church. Revelers swapped their whiskey for communion wine and a great American tradition began.
The “Strangely Accused” lecture showed that anyone could be accused of witchcraft. Neither age, nor gender nor amount of religious devotion immunized a person from these allegations. Mr. DiCamillo piqued everyone’s interest on how this bizarre and tragic situation would resolve. I eagerly anticipate hearing it. The final segment of this tenebrous trilogy of terror takes place this October 24th at the Historical Society of Moorestown.