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M.E. Kemp on Salem Witch Trials

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 27, 2010

M. E. Kemp, author of DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE and DEATH OF A DANCING MASTER, was born in Salem in 1636 — whoops, that’s when the first family baby was born.  Her roots do go back to the first settlement of Oxford, MA in   1713, the town where her family still lives.  Kemp grew up in Oxford with a strong sense of local history, so when it came time to begin writing her first novel  — after a career in journalism — she returned to her early interest and set her first mystery in Boston with two nosy  Puritans as detectives.  Kemp lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with husband Jack and two kitties: Boris and Natasha.

 “Which Witch is Which? – The Salem Trials of 1692”

            There is no incident in our history that grabs our attention quite like the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  Even today the topic fills lecture halls and continues to inspire artistic endeavors in film, theatre, poetry and prose.  Indeed, the number of books written today on the topic would fill the average person’s bookshelves.  Just to recap: 19 people were hung and one man pressed to death as a result of the trials.  I like to point out that in Europe at this same period thousands of people of both sexes and ages were being burned at the stake as witches.  Kind of makes our twenty victims a dot on the map.  To be sure, the jails of Salem and Boston were filled with hundred of the accused, but these people were released as sanity returned.  The European victims were not so lucky.  Persecutions continued there well into the 18th century.  (By the way, the Salem victims were tried with the use of English law books.  Judicial proceedings were followed, not that that was any comfort to the families of the victims.  I give an actual sample of trial testimony in my book, DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE.)                         

            In the Colonies we did not burn witches, we hung them.  Since one man, Giles Corey, refused to plead guilty or not guilty, he could not be hung; he was pressed to death with huge boulders.  This incredibly brave act saved his property for his family.  We have to keep in mind that witches were very real to the early colonists, as were ghosts.  In fact, when the testimony of ghosts (“spectral testimony”) was finally disallowed, the trials collapsed.  How did this whole thing happen in the first place?  There are many books and television shows written about the causes.  One of them suggested “Ergot” or infected rye bread as the cause.  But it hardly seems possible that hundreds of people ate the same ergot-infected rye; most people grew their own.  

The French and Indian wars have been blamed; ostensibly the survivors came down from Maine to infect the Salem people with hysteria, but what has that got to do with witches?  People already recognized the dangers of the Canadians and their Native allies.  The media, even today, often blame Puritan cleric Cotton Mather for the Salem trials, but this is patent nonsense, as Cotton Mather at that time was only 26 years old.  The judges were colleagues of his father so he felt he was in no position to criticize these older pillars.  There is no evidence that he ever attended any of the trials, although he did ask the Secretary for transcripts so that  he could write a book about it.  Cotton Mather wrote over 400 books, so this was only to be expected.

            Town and village property and family quarrels has been proposed as the cause, and in some cases that may have been a part of the dispute, but hardly the cause.  Perhaps there was real witchcraft going on, as one book proposes?  They found an old rag doll in the cellar of one of the accused women, and that was enough to set the hounds in motion, but a toy left behind by a child in our minds today is just that: a toy left behind by a child.  One cause hits close to the truth — girls without husbands as yet.  The accusers were mainly in their teens and early twenties — had these girls been married, home and children might well have kept them too occupied for mischief.  As it was, it was a long, cold winter and a group of teen-age girls were bored.  They began to accuse some local old women of tormenting them by pinching and choking them through use of the old ladies ‘spirit’ selves.  “We must have our sport,” as one of them later said.  The village minister cried “Witchcraft!” and the hunt was on.  At first the victims were old and poor, unable to defend themselves from the charge, but seeing a chance to wreak more havoc, the “afflicted children” – remember, these girls were mostly in their late teens — began to accuse men and women more prominent in the community.  The only real defense was to run away and hide, which is what the son of pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden did.  It was either run or confess, if you wanted to stay alive, for if you confessed you were let go.  Let go for confessing?  Why didn’t the twenty victims just confess?  Because that would have been a lie and these were people of great Faith.  I’m sure I would have lied like a sneak-thief, like Baron Munchausen, like Pinnochio, if it meant saving my life!  Ah, but our Puritan forefathers were made of sterner stuff.  It’s not widely known that there was official remorse after the event and compensation was paid to the families of the victims.  One of the judges and several of the accusers later confessed their roles in the tragedy and apologized for their parts in the drama.  I doubt that ever happened in Europe.                 

****

“Kemp paints an entertaining picture of Colonial Boston and its surprisingly high-spirited Puritan inhabitants. Amateur sleuth Hetty Henry is plucky, independent, and a lot of fun.” –Beverle Graves Myers, author of the Tito Amato Mysteries

For more details about the author and her books, visit http://www.mekempmysteries.com

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23 Responses to “M.E. Kemp on Salem Witch Trials”

  1. bethtrissel said

    Very interesting post. An intriguing subject I’ve also researched and did a post on as I have an ancestor involved. Orlando Bagley, arrested his neighbor Susannah Martin for being a witch and she was later hung. I always felt badly about that.

  2. M. E. Kemp said

    Don’t blame yourself, Beth. Just be thankful you weren’t in Europe at the time. At least our “witches” were later cleared by the government. And the minister who really spread the hysteria was relieved by his congregation and sent away in disgrace. Funny how this still captures our imaginations, though! Marilyn aka: M.E. Kemp

  3. Fascinating post! Being from New England, I love this country’s early history. And being a mother, I have no trouble believing that a group of bored teenage girls could have reeked such havoc. Some things never change.

    • M. E. Kemp said

      Allison – as the mother of two once-teenage girls I can sympathize. They grew up to be wonderful, independent, thoughtful adults, though. The only thing that kept me sane at the time — wait… was I ever sane?? Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp

  4. Mare F said

    I am so glad to read your blog. This is the first I’ve heard of your series, but I’ve just added you to my to-buy list. Very, very interesting. I’ve lived in Connecticut most of my life and my grandparents lived in Saugus. There is a great deal of history here and I love the way that you’ve expressed yourself.

    • M. E. Kemp said

      Thanks, Mare. Once a New Englander always a New Englander. I’m glad I don’t live so far away from my base – I get to go back whenever I want. The book I’m working on now is set on Cape Cod, so I’ve got an excuse to go there and I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth! Marilyn aka:M.E.Kemp

  5. Any kind of mass hysteria is truly frightening, whether it’s witches or religious persecution or political views. It seeds an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that must be terrifying to live through. We must thank our forefathers for the freedoms we enjoy in this country and hope these events don’t repeat themselves. Never forget! Thanks, Marilyn, for your illuminating guest post.

  6. Linda Pearl said

    In the new geneology show, Who Do You Think You Are, Sarah Jessica Parker, found out she was related to a Salem witch..Living not that far away, I have enjoyed visiting Salem many times, and the sense of history there is palpable….

    • M. E. Kemp said

      Actually,Linda,I found that Ipswich has more of the atmosphere of Colonial Salem I was looking for in the book! But Boston still has those dark alleys and fishy smells and the Union Oyster House, which still shucks oysters on a Colonial era bar. Many of my research books I bought in the old bookstores of Boston – $.25 – .50! A gold mine for me. Marilyn/MEK

      • Linda said

        I believe too,that,what is Danvers now, was part of Salem back in the day…

        I love architecture so,the old Salem buildings, intrigue me..Maybe a trip to Ipswich,this summer will be added to my agenda..thanks

  7. So what it boils down to is some really bad, mean spirited teens, were responsible for the ultimate in bullying. It makes me ill to think about it. But I have no doubt that some people
    are capable of that kind of behavior.
    But I firmly believe, (hope!), that most of us would never stand for let alone do, what these young girls did. But then what explains war?
    You sure made me think Nancy!!! Thanks.

  8. Kay M said

    I came to read your blog post via your post on DL. Fascinating information! I’ve added you to my “buy” list as well. Love this subject and have been working on my family history as well. Not sure yet how far back it goes but do have the surname Bishop a few generations back. I’ve just not been able to find where they came to Ohio from as yet. I hope to someday get to visit Salem as it has always been on my list of places I want to visit.

    I’m adding Nancy’s blog to my favorites so I can keep up with Nancy’s posts & guests.

    • M. E. Kemp said

      Kay – I like the Essex Museum in Salem – I’ve never been to the “witch museum” there. As I say, the town of Ipswich still has the atmosphere of the olden times, I think more so than Salem today. Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp

      • Kay M said

        Marilyn,
        I’ll jot down both the Essex Museum & Ipswich to my list for the day I ever get to go!

        Terri,
        I’d not heard of Three Sovereigns for Sarah either, but you can bet I’m going to look for it now. Love those witchy movies!

        Best,
        Kay

  9. Loved this. Always been fascinated by the Salem trials. Usually watch anything on TV about them. So amazing that so many died because of the teenage girls’ boredome. Great post.

    • M. E. Kemp said

      Thanks for your comment, P.L. – if I’m a little late in replying, I’ve been packing for Malice Domestic, a major conf. for writers & fans of mysteries. I’ll be on a panel, no doubt talking about Salem! Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp

  10. Aaack, I spelled boredom wrong.

  11. Terri said

    I love the movie Three Sovereigns for Sarah with Vanessa Redgrave – I thought it was a great portrayal of the subject. Now bored kids play video games…

  12. There’s a witch museum with a gift shop in Salem. Anyone been there? What kind of stuff could they possibly have in the gift shop except for history books?

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