SALEM — The Peabody Essex Museum held a virtual expert panel discussion, “The Endless Fascination with the Salem Witch Trials,” on Thursday.
The participants of the event — which was sponsored by the Lowell Institute — found it both fascinating and challenging to trace real human stories in the events of the distant past, and to see how the perception of those events changed over the years.
“We collect everything that relates to Salem witchcraft, and there is lots of (expletive) out there, but it tells a story of how people have interpreted history over the years,” said Danvers’ (old Salem Village) Town Archivist Richard B. Trask, who participated in the discussion.
Trask is a descendant of someone who was accused of witchcraft and executed in 1692. He is also a consultant for CBS News, The National Archives, and the President Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board.
The panelists mentioned that the way people interpreted the events changed over time. For example, shortly after 1692, people saw that a lot of innocent people were executed, but they assumed that it happened because Satan deluded the witnesses to testify against the accused.
According to Trask, it is hard to identify what was really going on that long ago in history, because even as a researcher who had access to the living witnesses of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it is difficult to establish what happened then.
“This is human history so the story will be messy,” said historian and illustrator Marilynne K. Roach, who authored several books on the history of the 1692 witch trials in Salem. “But it’s individuals who make history.”
Panelist Emerson W. Baker, professor of history at Salem State University, and author and co-author of six books on the history and archaeology of early New England, said this is important because some of the objects found on the historical excavation sites testify to the failure of puritan orthodoxy to protect the people from their fears of witches; or as another historian George Lincoln Burr, who was a professor of history and a librarian at Cornell University, put it earlier: “The Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.”
“There is only one, and the most conservative church in Essex County that remains congregational, while all other churches became unitarian,” said Trask.
The growing public discontent with the ineffectiveness of the trials in identifying the witches, famously formulated by New England Puritan clergyman and president of Harvard College Increase Mather in his treatise “Cases of Conscience” was “it was better that 10 suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned,” which caused “the Americans (to turn) their attention to protective magic,” as Baker put it.
“The demons always tried to get into houses through the openings like doors and windows. That’s why most of the early American homes had some forms of protection,” said Baker.
Hexafoils, a design with six round semicircular petals stemming from a central circle, or daisy wheels, are “the surviving physical evidence of protective magic or apotropaic magic used to protect the houses from the demons,” said Baker.
Mirrors and gravestones were among other “openings” needing protection. It was necessary to protect mirrors to prevent demons from capturing souls, while special markings on tombs were done to protect deceased loved ones.
“Technically, the evidence is often hidden at the back of the mirror, where nobody can see them,” said Baker.
There were other objects used as protective symbols too. Horseshoes were one symbol that has been passed down in the form of a superstition that a horseshoe brings good luck, as well as eel spears, St. Andrew crosses or saltires, roosters, and heart-shaped key heads.
“Objects can tell us a great deal about the past,” said Baker, who suggested searching your residence for protective marks. “Perhaps you will feel better tonight knowing that you are protected.”
However, human destinies might prove even more enlightening than studying artifacts. Margo Burns, the project manager and associate editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press, discussed her research into the life of William Stoughton, chief magistrate of the Salem witchcraft trials.
“On the warrant for an execution, you actually see William Stoughton’s signature to hang a person by the neck until she is dead,” said Burns, who shared her amusement in studying the written evidence of those events.
“It shows that history is not a dead subject,” said Trask.