America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Thursday, February 28, 2019

February 28, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: The Mathers


[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On the three generations that embody the first Anglo American century.
For much of 1633, and again in 1634, London clergyman Richard Mather was suspended for failing to conform to the Anglican Church’s strict regulations for preachers. Wearying of that climate of orthodoxy, and encouraged by colleagues already in the New World (including John Cotton), Mather and his young family took ship for Massachusetts in June 1635. Once there, Mather became an impassioned advocate for New World Puritanism in its debates with the European branch, as in his tract Church Government and Church Covenant Discussed. Four of his six sons followed Mather into the ministry, establishing his name as one of the colony’s most powerful clerical—which is to say also political and social—forces and legacies.
The youngest of those sons, Increase Mather, certainly illustrated the potency of that expanding family legacy, not only in his own ecclesiastical efforts, but also and more tellingly in his multiple other roles: as a president of Harvard College, a recipient of the new world’s first honorary doctorate, an advocate for reinstating the Massachusetts Charter in opposition to the Dominion of New England, a son-in-law of John Cotton, and a contemporary historian of King Philip’s War, among others. If that war indicated one way in which Richard’s idealized Massachusetts was crumbling by the end of the 17th century, Increase was also and more centrally connected to a second such fissure: the Salem Witch Trials. By that time one of the region’s most prominent and powerful figures, Increase had the ability to stop the trials if any individual did; but despite doubts, about which he did write publicly, he mostly sided with his fellow powerful ministers and judges.
I’ve written elsewhere about the two sides of Increase’s son Cotton Mather: his own failure to publicly oppose the Witch Trials and indeed his book that seemed to support the need for them, despite even stronger private reservations than Increase’s; and yet his impressive and influential advocacy for smallpox inoculation. It’s fair to say, then, that this third-generation Mather minister, named after both of his influential grandfathers, exemplified both the worst and best of the family’s legacies: the kinds of hierarchical power structures that could close ranks around the Witch Trial judges; and yet the kinds of innovative and bold efforts that led the Puritans to Massachusetts in the first place, and helped create the new world and nation of which they were such a significant part.
Last Witch Trials context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

February 27, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: Giles and Martha Corey


[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On the danger of looking too closely at our historical heroes, and a potential middle ground.
One of the first Salem Witch Trials figures about whom I learned was Giles Corey, an elderly man and the only one of the 20 executed “witches” who died by “pressing” rather than hanging. As both those hyperlinked articles note, the 80 year-old Corey refused to enter a plea of either guilty or innocent before the court, maintaining his silence throughout the fatal pressing (which was apparently employed in an attempt to draw such a plea out of him one way or the other); indeed, the story went that the only words he spoke as more and more rocks were piled upon him were “More weight.” To a young AmericanStudier (and I learned about Corey for the first time at some point in high school, so it was indeed quite early in my AmericanStudies career and perspective), that was one of the most badass and inspiring historical moments I had ever encountered (also a horrific one, to be sure, but nonetheless a badass and inspiring response to such horrors), and Corey became one of my historical heroes as a result.
And then I learned more. Most relevantly, I learned that before Corey was accused of witchcraft, his third wife Martha was—and that, as that hyperlinked article traces at length, Giles not only refused to corroborate Martha’s story in a way that might help her avoid conviction, but in fact testified against her at her trial, more or less assuring that she would be found guilty. I understand full well that marriages can be unhappy and far from the romantic ideal, and I also understand motivations of self-preservation and survival, especially in times like the witch trials era—but at best (and I do mean at best), Giles’s actions toward Martha utterly destroy any image of him as courageous or heroic. Moreover, further investigation into Giles revealed that he had beaten to death one of his farmhands, Jacob Goodale, some fifteen years earlier, in 1675; he was found guilty of the murder but punished with only a fine. Clearly this was a man with a history of violence and ugliness, and one whose mistreatment of his third wife (and while he did not himself accuse her of witchcraft, I can think of no kinder word than mistreatment for his behavior once she was accused) was simply a final brutal act in an undignified life.
But it wasn’t his final act overall, of course. That was refusing to play by the witch trials’ court’s rigged rules, refusing to give in to their barbaric torture, dying on his own stubborn terms rather than their nonsensical and awful ones. Those actions could be linked to his violence toward others, I suppose, but they’re also certainly a form of personal bravery in the face of violence. Is it possible to highlight and even celebrate that final act, while also remembering that Giles Corey participated actively in systems of communal violence and patriarchal oppression at their most extreme? That’s not unlike the questions I asked about Nathan Bedford Forrest’s end-of-life transformations in a footnote to this post, and there I called those shifts “far too little and too late.” Corey didn’t reach the depths of bigotry, brutality, and pure badness that Forrest did, but in a more personal and small way he seems to have been much the same type of man. But he was also a victim of the Witch Trials, and a victim whose final acts of stubborn bravery do help illuminate the true depravity of that period. So I believe it is worth remembering and even celebrating those final acts, but only in a much more accurate context than those with which I initially remembered and celebrated Giles Corey.
Next Witch Trials context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

February 26, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: Tituba


[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On a couple significant histories to which the mysterious Witch Trials figure helps us connect.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the three Salem women initially accused of witchcraft—alongside two older Puritan women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne—was Tituba, an enslaved woman owned by John Parris (father of one of the initial accusers, Elizabeth). Tituba had been brought to the town from Barbados some years prior, and by 1692 was married to an enslaved Native American man known as John Indian. As the first hyperlinked article above argues, much of Tituba’s life story remains unknown and mysterious, and as a result has often been represented inaccurately; for example, she has frequently if not consistently been depicted in cultural images and texts (including recent TV shows such as Salem and American Horror Story: Coven as well as books like Ann Petry’s 1956 Tituba of Salem Village and Maryse Condé’s 1986 I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem) as African American, but most historians now believe she was the descendent of native peoples in the Caribbean rather than African arrivals. In any case, she played a central role in the unfolding Witch Trials, and can help remind us a couple important historical contexts for them.
For one thing, I think it’s worth repeating and dwelling on one of my concluding points in yesterday’s post: that late 17th century Salem (and Massachusetts and New England more broadly) was a slaveholding community. When we include non-Anglo communities in our collective narratives of the Puritans at all, it’s almost always to recognize Native American cultures outside of Puritan New England—too often still as helpful neighbors, sometimes as the victims of genocidal violence, but almost always as an external presence in any case. Of course those cultures are worth remembering (much more on their own terms than in relationship to the Puritans), but in terms of American histories it’s at least as important to recognize that by the end of the 17th century Puritan New England itself was potently (if complicatedly) multi-cultural, featuring both Native American and African American slaves among other presences. As the case of Tituba reveals, it can be very difficult to trace the individual stories and histories of those 17th century enslaved peoples (and she’s one of the most well-known bya  long shot)—but the broader communal point, the presence of these peoples and all their resulting contributions to Puritan New England, nonetheless holds and is a vital one. To quote Mechal Sobel’s book, we have a long way to go in considering the world they made together.
On a more individual note, the story of Tituba’s role in the Salem Witch Trials also reminds us of a community we tend to minimize in our collective memories of the trials: the hundreds of accused witches who were imprisoned. It’s of course natural that memories have tended to focus on the 20 accused witches who were executed in the course of the trials, but many imprisoned victims likewise died, often in painfully ironic circumstances; exemplifying those ironies is the case of Lydia Dustin (or Dastin), who was imprisoned in April 1692, found not guilty in January 1693, but could not pay her jail fees and thus remained in prison where she died in March 1693. While most imprisoned people did not die in jail (including Tituba, who was released sometime in late 1692 after more than half a year in prison), all of their lives—and the lives of their families, loved ones, and communities—were inexorably changed by their time in prison, and remembering them thus helps us understand the true scope and effects of the witch trials far more fully and accurately. One more reason to remember the mysterious, telling life of Tituba.
Next Witch Trials context tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?