Salem Witch Trials

“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.