Mickey DiCamillo

“The Salem Witch Trials: A Conspiracy of Witches” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

In the pale light of a waxing full moon I ascended the walkway to Smith-Cadbury Mansion. My stroll past the old Hopkins home allegedly spooked by a “blue lady” and the apparition of a Quaker gentleman put me in the frame of mind for a scary story. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, didn’t disappoint. He delivered the final chapter of his trilogy of terror on the Salem Witch Trials. I attended his “A Conspiracy of Witches” lecture on October 24th in the kitchen at the Society’s headquarters.

Of the three installments on the “Essex Witchcraft Crisis”, as people in the 1690s called it, I found this one the most terrifying. Mr. DiCamillo’s use of imagery in depicting of Abagail Williams’ vision of a coven of witches gathering on her guardian’s property gave me chills. The pontifications of a sinister figure she viewed among them vowing to destroy Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to raise it up again in the name of Satan added to the dreadfulness. Interestingly, the most frightful parts of this program didn’t involve the supernatural. The most unsettling segments concerned the conduct of society itself.

As with the other lectures in the series, Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing anecdotes about the events. The most gripping concerned the fate of George Burroughs. When asked if he had any last words while standing on the gallows, this convicted witch recited the “Lord’s Prayer.” As people believed witches didn’t possess the ability to pray the on-lookers became confused. They turned to a renowned witchcraft “expert” among them. Cotton Mather utilized some specious logic to justify the execution continue as scheduled.

Mr. DiCamillo’s depiction of Rebecca Nurse’s fate delivered chills, as well. The jury initially found the 71 year old innocent on charges of witchcraft. Instead of accepting the verdict the judge questioned the panel. He reminded them that Mrs. Nurse made a cryptic comment during the proceedings: “Those used to come among us.” As the magistrate and the jury interpreted her remarks differently, they asked the defendant what she meant. Mrs. Nurse didn’t reply to their inquiry. Some speculate her advanced age rendered her partially deaf. The jury reversed its own verdict.

Mrs. Nurse retained a lot of support in the community. These people petitioned the governor to pardon her. He did. In an unprecedented move, the Salem judges refused to accept it. There was only one sentence for those who were found guilty without confessing to witchcraft. Mrs. Nurse went to the gallows on July 19, 1692.

I found the story of Bridget Bishop the most intriguing. In either the 1670s or 1680s, she was accused of witchcraft and tried. She received a “not guilty” verdict and returned to her normal life. In 1692, the newly established Court of Oyer and Terminer decided to re-hear her case. There being no concept of “double jeopardy” in Puritan juris prudence, she became the first person tried in the Salem Witch Trials. Prosecutors used the same evidence presented against her the first time. This time the jury convicted and sentenced her to execution. Mr. DiCamillo explained, “This shows that the political and social climate had changed. It was the same evidence with a new mentality.”

The lecture’s real horror began when Mr. DiCamillo placed the witch trials in their historical context. After revoking the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, the British government established a new one. The number of people imprisoned for witchcraft appalled new Governor Sir William Phips. He established a court in his first official order. The Court of Oyer and Terminer did reduce the number of people waiting to be tried for witchcraft. It did so in a way that made it infamous.

Everyone who appeared before this court received a guilty verdict. Part of this stemmed from its willingness to accept weak evidence. In his first lecture on the Salem Witch Trials, Mr. DiCamillo described the types of evidence accepted during a witchcraft trial. A confession provided the most compelling one. Others included “spectral evidence.” This entailed a witch appearing in ghostly form to its victim. He described another as “anger resulting in mischief.” The latter referred to two people getting into an argument and then something bad happening to one of the participants.

While dubious, the court accepted these types of “evidence.” They applied it so liberally that 20 people met their deaths at the gallows. It may seem odd, but those who admitted practicing witchcraft did not receive death sentences. In return for a confession, a person would then testify against other “witches.” As Mr. DiCamillo noted, it didn’t do much good to execute a star witness.

At the end, Mr. DiCamillo attempted to answer the biggest question about the trials: why did they happen? He identified three elements that combined to make this bizarre event possible. Puritan society contained many factions. A vulnerable government led people to question its legitimacy, future and effectiveness. A “fear factor” served as the third component.

As with his discussion of the flu pandemic of 1918, Mr. DiCamillo found something positive in the tragedy. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grew up in Massachusetts while the Puritan system of government fractured. The principles they learned in that environment inspired them to help build a new system of government: one predicated on the rule of law and a separation of church and state.

The Salem Witch Trials still serve as the benchmark for a society run amok. As Mr. DiCamillo noted, the expression “witch hunt has become a part of the American vernacular. The factors that led to the events of 1692 have repeated themselves throughout our history; most notably in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Let’s hope there are more Mickey DiCamillos out there raising awareness about the aspects leading to this spectacle. As he chillingly noted, “I don’t blame the children. The adults could’ve put a stop to this at any time.” Let’s hope that next time they do.

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“The Salem Witch Trials: Strangely Accused” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

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.

 

“The Salem Witch Trials: The Usual Suspects” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

What words would best assess the Salem Witch Trials? Historical Society of Moorestown President, Mickey DiCamillo chose some unexpected ones. Describing the event as both “complex” and “nuanced”, he proceeded to correct a “shallow understanding” that has developed around them. Mr. DiCamillo delivered the first phase of a thorough explication of this macabre chapter in American history at the Garden at Smith Cadbury Mansion this October 10th.

Due to the event’s intricacies, Mr. DiCamillo opted to divide his remarks into three separate lectures. The Historical Society of Mooretown scheduled the following talks over three Wednesdays in October leading up to Halloween: “The Usual Suspects,” “Strangely Accused” and “A Conspiracy of Witches.”

While fusing the ghastly tone of the subject along with some superb Halloween ambiance, the Historical Society of Moorestown established the mood brilliantly. I wasn’t sure if I was attending a history lecture or walking into a coven of witches. A series of candles illuminated the walkway. Pumpkins and cobwebs adorned the periphery. Stray leaves fell from the trees throughout the evening. Mosquitos served as the only blood sucking creatures one needed to fear, however. The balmy 80 degree evening made the autumn evening feel more like the dog days of summer. A large stake and ominous witch figure behind the seating area brought audience members back into the spirit of the season.

I’ve attended several lectures Mr. DiCamillo has presented at the Historical Society. His talks include myriad details which reflect both diligent research and scholarly erudition. In this speech he added another feature to his repertoire: humor. While speaking for over an hour–without notes–, he added comical quips that made the talk even more engaging. His observation regarding a deadbeat husband showed both creativity and a flair for alliteration: “Goodman Goode was good for nothing.”

The opening lecture explored the background that served as the catalyst for the infamous events of 1692. Mr. DiCamillo described that context as including poor governance, continuous warfare and a society rent by factions.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leaders failed to fulfil the responsibilities of their offices. In fact, they proved so inept that during the 1680s the British government revoked the colony’s charter.

Interminable wars with Native American plagued the community. These conflicts became brutal affairs. Both adversaries engaged in barbaric acts against one another. When combined with an ineffective government, these struggles exacerbated the environment of fear in the colony.

Dysfunction permeated the area’s religious institutions, as well. Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) hired and fired three ministers in 15 years. As a harbinger of the American system of voting, church members elected their preachers from among the congregation. The continual turnover displayed the prevalence of factions among the faithful.

The Puritan mythos held a belief that they were chosen by God to build a New Jerusalem. It proved as practical as the striving for Camelot that inspired Europeans during the Middle Ages. Along with the conviction of a pending “Puritan apocalypse”, their failure to achieve the “City of a Hill” led them to seek a scapegoat.

While none of these matters served as a harbinger of good things to come, the community also harbored a belief in witchcraft. Their legal code included penalties for its practice. In the days long before fingerprinting and DNA evidence, the standards for conviction proved difficult. A confession proved the most durable. Lacking that, Puritan prosecutors tested the accused on their knowledge of religious precepts; such as prayers or Biblical verses. They would also investigate “body evidence.” This included either warts or odd markings on the body. Puritans believed these served as portals where “magic” could enter a person. If the “bewitched” individual claimed the “witch” appeared to him/her as an apparition, that provided another form of evidence. “Anger resulting in mischief” could also be raised against the accused. This entailed upsetting someone and then something bad happening to him/her.

This minatory concoction reached a climax in Salem Village during the early 1690s. It seems fitting that a disgruntled preacher would trigger a more ignominious phase of colonial history. Reverend Samuel Paris’ daughter and niece both suffered from a mysterious illness. The symptoms included barking, growling and running. Following these outbursts, the children would engage in a long period of staring. When the doctor couldn’t provide a medical diagnosis for this behavior, he suggested witchcraft as a potential source.

The speaker then described the events and personalities that shaped the early stages of the trials. He even included an audience participation exercise. Showing the skill of a seasoned showman, he left an excellent cliff hanger for the October 17th lecture

For readers contemplating hopping into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to visit this era: there’s more. Even by the standards of the time, Puritans engaged in much quirkier practices than those described.

Mr. DiCamillo included some of these activities in his talk. People practiced an unusual means of fortune telling during the late seventeenth century. They would break and egg and pour it into a glass of water. Participants would interpret the shapes formed by the egg white in order to discern the future.

But this wasn’t the strangest thing people living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony did with food. They also baked “witch cakes” to determine whether or not someone had been bewitched. The ingredients included dough, flour and the urine of the afflicted. The concoction would then be fed to a dog.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented an exceptional opening program on the Salem Witch Trials. Kudos to Mr. DiCamillo for doing some bewitching of his own. His unique combination of scholarship and wit cast a spell upon the audience. One doesn’t need to pour an egg into a glass of water to know those who attended will return for the October 17th program.

Lecture Review – “In Flew Enza: The 1918 Flu Epidemic in Philadelphia and New Jersey” by Mikey DiCamillo

2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of history’s most horrific years. With the bloodbath of the First World War, it’s easy to forget that 2018 also commemorates the centenary of another catastrophe. This one also caused massive loss of life. Unlike the war, this one affected people well beyond the battlefields. It even made a tremendous impact in our region. This disaster caused eight to 12 thousand deaths in Philadelphia and another 2,600 in Camden County. This malady made no noise, had no smell and couldn’t be detected by the naked eye. Today we know that killer as the influenza virus.

Historian Mickey DiCamillo enhanced my understanding. He presented a lecture on the 1918 flu pandemic this July 11th. It took place in the May Barton Memorial Garden located at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

While a somber topic for a summer lecture, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about it. I have a personal connection to this subject. My great-grand aunt and Philadelphia resident Edith Bishop Clark succumbed during the 1918 flu pandemic on October 13, 1918. Mrs. Cark was only 27 years old. Since her sister, my great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly, lived to be 80, I wondered how someone so young could be struck down by something as common as the flu.

Mr. DiCamillo didn’t disappoint. He provided a thorough overview of the outbreak. The historian performed copious research on the topic. It gave him a solid understanding of the subject matter.

The lecture focused on several key areas: the epidemic’s origin, why it spread so quickly and how society responded to it.

I’d often heard the pandemic referred to as the “Spanish Flu.” Mr. DiCamillo explained that this is a misnomer. He explored the historiography of how scholars analyzed the outbreak’s roots.

During the First World War a myth spread that the pandemic originated with German POWs. Interestingly, during the 1940s and 1950s, historians then theorized that it began among Russian POWs. Mr. DiCamillo noted that in both cases, the historians of the day attributed it to America’s main adversary.

Contemporary historians theorize that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas around February of 1918. A physician named Loring Miner observed young, strong people becoming ill and dying. They experienced regular flu like symptoms that quickly developed into pneumonia. Dr. Miner published his findings. He ominously warned: “the public should be alarmed.”

In March of the same year this flu strain affected Camp Fungsten, a military base in the Haskell County area. Within three weeks medics reported 1,100 cases there. Many soldiers from this facility landed in Brest, France. Mr. DiCamillo described that city as “ground zero” for the European’s flu’s outbreak.

The Haskell County origin is a hypothesis, Mr. DiCamillo noted. Modern researchers can document the Kansas outbreak because Dr. Miner published his findings in a Federal Government journal. The epidemic struck all over the world. That makes it very difficult to identify its precise beginning.

The scourge spread to the Northeast beginning in late summer. Soldiers at military bases became its first victims. The close quarters common to barracks allowed for the illness’ easy transmission.

Mr. DiCamillo then focused his remarks on the Camden County and Philadelphia areas. He cited a “voice from the era”, to describe events. A local newspaper, the Camden Daily Courier, reported that the flu had passed the region on 9/20/1918. Then between 9/20 and 9/24, Camp Dix experienced 1,000 cases of it.

The speaker referenced another voice from the era in the person of Alton W. Miller. While stationed at Kentucky’s Camp Taylor, he wrote letters to his sister stating he felt “sick.” He didn’t report his illness at the base because, “Everybody who goes into the hospital doesn’t come out.” His concern proved prescient. When he could no longer hide his symptoms, he was sent there. He passed away shortly afterwards.

Mr. DiCamillo presented his own theory as to how the epidemic spread through the area. On September 28, 1918 a Liberty Loan Rally was scheduled to take place at Willow Grove Park. With flu raging through the Northeast, the organizers debated whether or not to hold the event. Philadelphia’s public health officials adhered to the specious belief that they had a vaccine to combat the illness. They gave permission for the gathering to take place. On that date 200,000 people gathered in Willow Grove Park.

Three days later the number of flu cases in Philadelphia leapt from 100 to 635. Around this time news of the flu appeared on the front page of the Camden Daily Courier for the first time.

So why was this flu so contagious? Mr. DiCamillo provided two explanations. He estimated that 75% of the area’s trained medical personnel went overseas to support the war effort. He added that the conflict “sped everything up.” Factories operated 24 hours a day.

People of the day used some modern methods to treat the malady. The patient would be isolated. The sick person’s body temperature would be carefully monitored. Cathartics would be used to “rid the patient off poisons.” The patient would be encouraged to breathe fresh air, keep their windows screened and to drink plenty of fluids.

Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing stories as to how people responded to the crisis.

By the first week of October, officials in Camden and Philadelphia took measures to control the illness’ spread. They ordered schools, churches and social clubs closed. Philadelphia even took the added step of shutting down saloons. Camden did not. This led to an influx of people from the City of Brotherly Love into the South Jersey area. Residents described their behavior as failing to give credence to the city’s nickname.

At the time doctors prescribed whiskey to treat the epidemic. Historians doubt that’s what led so many Philadelphians to swarm into South Jersey’s taverns, though.

During the crisis the Philadelphia Inquirer made an editorial decision not to print articles about the flu on the front page. Unlike modern media that thrives on sensationalism the newspaper didn’t want to start a panic.

Remember that “vaccine” Philadelphia public health officials figured would defeat the illness? It was designed to fight a bacterial malady: not a viral one. Even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had much impact. The epidemic passed around the third week of October.

Mr. DiCamillo opened his remarks by saying that talking about the subject, “Makes me nervous to be around people.” After listening to his lecture, I could understand why. If Mr. DiCamillo ever becomes interested in making a career change, he’d make a great salesman for flu shots.

 

Lecture Review – “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast” by Dan Leib

The Historical Society of Moorestown treated me to something I’d never experienced in the past. They presented a lecture that included an “opening act.” It delighted me that when I arrived at the Moorestown Library on the evening of February 24th, the organization’s president, Mickey DiCamillo, commenced the evening’s festivities with a preview of the Society’s “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit. After that, another president, Dan Lieb of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association, discussed two sunken locomotives off the coast of Long Branch. The duo combined for one spectacular double bill. It made for one of “historical” proportions.

A year-and-a-half ago the Historical Society left an audience with a pretty good cliffhanger. When Mr. Lieb last addressed the group on November 16, 2016, he provided an historical overview called “Shipwrecks off NJ Coast.” During that lecture he told of two locomotives his group found underneath the Atlantic Ocean. He said that he’d return and provide the group with more information on them. When I read that Mr. Lieb planned his update this February, I looked forward to hearing him review his findings. When the scheduled date arrived, like a good showman, Mr. Lieb built up even more anticipation. Due to traffic and scheduling conflicts, the keynote speaker arrived 40 minutes late.

Mr. Camillo took advantage of the opportunity by expatiating upon his opening remarks. After introducing the Society’s upcoming “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit, which will premiere this April, he shared a story with the audience. He described the little known role a Boy Scout troop from Moorestown played in raising money for the war effort.

In order to finance the First World War, the government issued bonds. At first the public delivered a tepid response. The cost of these bonds varied. Buyers could purchase them at different levels. Even with this incentive, the wealthy displayed little interest in procuring them. The government then tried a different tack: it issued a more affordable alternative in the form of war stamps. It enlisted the aid of the Boy Scouts to help sell them.

But, as with many ideas that germinate in Washington, this one came with a bit of a twist. The government stipulated that the stamps could only be sold in areas where the public had already been offered the opportunity to buy bonds. In other words, it only allowed the stamps to be sold to consumers who had already declined to purchase war bonds.

The Boy Scouts went door-to-door offering stamps which, like the bonds, had differing price points. These young men achieved a remarkable record of success. 21 of the 28 scouts in the Moorestown troop received merit badges for selling to more than ten people each. With a goal of $40K in sales, the Moorestown group raised $96K in 1919.

Mr. DiCamillo then displayed the banner of commendation awarded to the scouts. It read:

V

The Victory

Liberty and Loan

Industrial Honor Emblem

Awarded by the

United States Treasury

Department.

*

Following a brief intermission, Mr. Lieb presented the main lecture: “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast.” The speaker provided more details regarding the two locomotives discovered off the coast of Long Branch. The topic may be familiar to some readers. Mr. Leib originally discussed the subject on an episode of the History Channel program Deep Sea Detectives in September of 2004.

Each locomotive stands right-side-up and reaches eight feet high off the seabed. They were located in 1984 through the aid of a device called a magnetometer. It identified a big disturbance that covered a small area.

The locomotives are 2-2-2 class. That designation relates to the wheel arrangement on steam locomotives. It meant (according to Wikipedia) that the vehicle contained two leading, two driving and two trailing wheels. Each set fastened on to its own respective axle. Due to this configuration, Mr. Lieb surmised the locomotives were designed for commuter transport.

Mr. Leib described some of the objects he and his crew pulled from the wreckage. They included two bells, two whistles and tallow cups. He described the one bell as “well made.” The whistles contained the engraving of the manufacturer’s name: “H. M. Hooper 3.” The tallow cups measured roughly the same size as small tea cups. Engineers used them to pour lubricant into the locomotive’s gears. Mr. Leib added that these artifacts all contained unique thread patterns.

The speaker educated the group regarding the maritime “arrest” procedure. His organization claimed the locomotives under salvage law. The process is called an “arrest.” The judge granted them custodianship of the site and artifacts. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article notifying the public on 9/19/04. No one came forward to claim ownership. On 1/31/06, the judge granted Mr. Lieb’s group title to the find.

In spite of the amount of information his group uncovered as well as the publicity generated, the source of the locomotives remains unknown. Going forward, Mr. Leib plans to “raise, conserve and interpret” the site’s items.

In keeping with his earlier visit, Mr. Leib once again left the Historical Society of Moorestown with a cliffhanger. Hopefully, he’ll identify the locomotives’ source and return with a definitive answer as to their provenance. This is just a thought, but that topic would make a pretty strong opening act for another one of Mr. DiCamillo’s lectures.