Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Part Four

What's Happenin', Witchfinder Generals?

Needless to say, I was none too pleased to hear tornado warnings flying all around Salem that day.  After all, I'd struck Kansas off my short list of places to visit just on the possibility of encountering such a thing.  Now some of you may think that my fear of twisters is irrational but to those braggarts I'd like to ask: Is it irrational to fear a weather phenomenon that has the power to put a cow's face straight through an oak tree?

The weather certainly felt conducive to producing extreme conditions.  Earlier that day it had been well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and by late afternoon the temperature had dropped dramatically.  As we made our way down Essex Street the dark and pregnant storm clouds sunk lower and lower until they were poised overhead like bad thoughts.

Our destination that afternoon was the 17'th century home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, more commonly known as The Witch House.  Just seconds after this photo was taken, the clouds opened up and we barely managed to get inside just ahead of the deluge:

We found ourselves deposited in a dark, cosy and tastefully arrayed little gift shop.  Whereas so many souvenir stores in Salem feature cheesy tchotchkes like Black Cat shot glasses, Witch City chowder mugs, and "My Other Car Is A Broom" bumper stickers, the Witch House had a lot of informative books, local crafts and genuinely unique decorative items.

Even though we were now "safely" inside the horrible thought of a tornado hitting the house kept nagging at me.  Eventually I reasoned that if I was going to get killed by a cyclone, I'd rather it happen in a cool historic building rather then some crappy Starbucks or KFC.  Eventually I became distracted by my sober surroundings and found myself lost in thought.

The museum provided plenty of resources to help us understand the conditions which sparked the hysteria in the first place.  As we wandered amongst the period furnishings, architecture and decor, we start to gain some real insight into the culture and prevailing mindset of the Trial's major players.  Unlike so many other local attractions, The Witch House eschews sensationalism in lieu of likely theories and documented facts.  

The insanity all started in the winter of 1692 when Betty, the nine-year-old daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams started acting completely squirrelly.  From out of the blue they started writhing on the floor, screaming gibberish, chucking random objects and presumably using gobs of sarcasm.

Clearly freaked that these two previously angelic little girls were suddenly going all Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist, Reverend Parris called in physician William Griggs to get his professional opinion.  After a cursory examination, the not-so-good doctor immediately declared that there could only be one culprit and that was SATANIC INFLUENCE.

And with that these two sheltered and highly-suggestible little girls immediately had the collective attention of an entire village riveted to them.  When prompted to reveal the source of their affliction they were quick to finger at anyone in the village who was vaguely "iffy".  As a result, the first person to fall under the cross-hairs of hysteria was Tituba, a slave owned by Reverend Parris.

Tituba had an unfortunate habit of reading lurid tales to Betty and Abigail from the Malleus Maleficarum a witchfinder's handbook which was loaded with references to divination, mind control and sexual congress with dark forces.  At first she denied any wrong doing but as time wore on Tituba began to offer up some of the most creatively bizarre admissions that you can possibly imagine.

One of the most fascinating and disturbing documents in The Witch House is a transcript of the interrogation between Tituba (T) and John Hathorne (H):

Here she admits to witnessing all kinds of kooky hi-jinx: broom-flight, winged familiars, odd
animal/human transmutations.  Although a lot of this is creatively inventive, it's also pretty damning.  As such, I had to inquire as to why Tituba would ever do such a thing.

"Well at this stage she'd been abused and coerced for quite some time," replied one of the guides.  "So it's very likely that she was just telling them exactly what they wanted to hear.  Although she admits to witnessing a lot of this bizarre stuff, she also stops well shy of any sort of confession.  It's as if she's saying 'Okay, this is what I saw but I wasn't personally involved in it'."

Hearing this made me think of all the chickenhawks out there who think that water boarding is an acceptable form of interrogation.  As Jesse Ventura once said: "You give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour and I'll have him confessing to the Sharon Tate murders."

So, by evoking Satan and witchcraft in an act of self-preservation, Tituba ended up validating the hysterical accusations of two impressionable young girls and adding major fuel to the fire of paranoia.  It wasn't long before a hundred and forty two people were legally charged with witchcraft and many others fell under the sort of suspicion that destroys a reputation.  By the time the fervor finally died down, nineteen innocent people had been hanged and at least five others had died in prison.

To this day there are several theories as to why Betty and Abigail behaved the way they did.  Some experts postulate that the girls were suffering from ergotism, which is said to produce wild hallucinogenic effects.  Others suspect that the girls were merely craving some badly-needed attention and were afraid to recant after necks started getting stretched.   Some postulate that things only got out of hand after a bunch of petty, vengeful assholes seized upon the girl's initial claims and used the excuse of a witch hunt to exact revenge on their rivals.

But there's another major factor to consider: Puritans had a lot to be terrified of.  Some of these things were very real (native attacks, disease and starvation) and some of them were imagined (like sin, eternal damnation and Satanic influence).  As the daughter of a Reverend, Betty Parris would have been particularly fearful, guilt-ridden, stressed out, bored and likely brainwashed to the point of psychosis.

Just think about the most sheltered, naive and religious kids that you knew back in grade school.  Think about how socially maladjusted and weird they seemed to be.  Okay, now multiply that to the power of ten.  Betty Parris and Abigail Williams probably would have made the Duggar brood from 19 Kids and Counting look like characters in a Larry Clark film.    

As a magistrate and civic leader, it would have been Judge Jonathan Corwin's duty to investigate these claims of witchcraft.  After Bridget Bishop was hanged on the basis of "spectral evidence", Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall quit the tribunal and Corwin served as his replacement.  Ultimately, it was this Court which eventually condemned nineteen innocent men and women to their deaths.

When it comes to his exact involvement in the trials, the records are pretty spotty at best but we do know that Corwin's name appears on the arrest warrant for Giles Corey, Mary Warren, Abigail Hobbs, Rebecca Nurse and Bridget Bishop.  He also took statements against Bridget Bishop and witnessed her "confession" as well.

The Witch House is the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the Witch Trials.  Corwin purchased the house in 1675 and lived there for over forty years.  Although Corwin probably heard several early accusations of witchcraft from villagers in his own home, there's no solid evidence to indicate that official legal proceedings or any interrogations ever occurred on the premises.

The house itself is a marvel.  There's still considerable debate as to how old the structure is, but most historians place its construction somewhere between 1660 and 1670.  In 1944 the house was threatened with demolition so a group of conservationists in Salem raised the scratch required to move it to its current location and perform some badly-needed renovations.  In 1948 the house was rechristened as a museum, which is now open seasonally every year.

Although the atmosphere in The Witch House was both ominous and oppressive, this probably had less to do with bad karma and more to do with the howling wind, driving rain, peals of thunder an lightning.  Even more dramatic was the stifling gloom imposed by the storm clouds lingering just above the house.  All of this added up to the perfect atmos-fear for our grim visit.

"This is definitely the darkest it's ever been in the museum during the day," one of the curators observed during our tour.

Even though we'd spent a fair amount of time in The Witch House, it was still raining pretty heavily at the end of our visit.  Just before we left, we popped into the gift shop and picked up our only souvenir of the entire trip: a glass sun catcher fashioned after a wax seal.

We also picked up a couple of four-dollar umbrellas in an effort to get back to the car in a reasonably dry state.  This turned out to be a wise investment since it continued to pour quite heavily, threatening to derail our plans to finish up our trip with a Salem Night Ghost Tour.

We'd pretty much made up our mind to forego the tour until mother Nature intervened and declared "Y'know sumfin'?  These wacky kids deserve an awesome capper on their vaycay.  Let's banish these tiresome clouds so that they can can get their spook-on!"

But I'll leave that for the inevitable conclusion!

EPIC BOOKS  If you're looking for some non-sensationalistic accounts of the Salem Witch Trials here are two recommendations straight from the staff at The Witch House:

EPICLY FAILISH  Speaking of sensationalistic, this episode of Ghost Adventures is amped up so much it's almost laughable.  Having said that, the facts are essentially accurate and it's always cool to get more info about The Witch House.  

Ghost Adventures - Salem Witches by f100003542948733

FAIL   Hey, Zak Bagans: Joe Jonas called...he wants his fauxhawk back.

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