October is an appropriate time to discuss this part of our nation’s past. In fact, when people think of Salem, they think of the witch trials in 1692. Salem has a much longer and interesting history. My character, Will Rees, visits Salem slightly more than one hundred years later. But the memory of those trials and the witches are present in physical reminders even today.
First, I want to note that reparations were made to the families in the early 1700’s. This does not mean that belief in witches and witchcraft ended. It did not. Accusations and trials continued to the early 1800’s. Mother Ann Lee, the spiritual force behind the Shakers, was arrested on a charge of blasphemy in the 1780’s and could have been hung as a witch. However, it was upstate New York, and almost exactly one hundred years later and she was eventually released.
What happened in Salem?
Well, it is believed the witch hysteria began in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris. A slave called Tituba told stories of her religion which featured voodoo and folk magic to the girls in the household. One of the practices was the baking of a Witch Cake (one of the ingredients being the urine of the girls – yuck) that was then fed to a dog. Another ingredient was rye.
Since a fungus grows on rye during wet conditions and that fungus produces a toxin that is similar to LSD, rye has been implicated in not only the witch hysteria here but in Europe as well. Perhaps I am looking at it from the perspective of a twenty-first century woman but my first question when I was going on the tours was why these so called responsible adults were listening to a bunch to teenage girls. I’d be instantly suspicious I can tell you.
In any event, before it was over, 150 people were imprisoned and 19 people – and two dogs- were hanged. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. He cursed all future Sheriffs of Salem to die of some chest (respiratory) illness. Apparently most have, but in an era without antibiotics (forget about good hygiene or healthy food) I don’t think that is surprising.
Salem offers a number of dioramas and costumed reenactments of this period.