New exhibit reveals the truth behind the Salem witch trials. In some ways it’s scarier than tradition


It is one of the darkest chapters in American colonial history: In the spring of 1692, three girls from Salem, Massachusetts came forward claiming to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft against them. they. The charges sparked waves of panic in Puritan colonial society, and within months more than 200 people would be charged. Five men and 16 women are believed to be wrongly hanged.

Even 300 years later, the Salem witch trials retain their hold on the popular imagination. A new exhibition, “The Salem Witch Trials: Calculation and Recovery”, At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, takes a closer look at this often sensational period to see how these events unfolded in real life, through contemporary letters and objects, then links and juxtaposes these 17th century realities with the contemporary wave in witch culture today.

Brass sundial, dated 1644, property of John Proctor. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are thrown into the frenzy through a multitude of primary source material relating to the trials and charges (these documents, which belong to the Peabody Essex Library, can be explored online here). Conditions in the colony had been dire in the previous months, we learn: extreme cold, fuel shortage, a recent smallpox epidemic, political instability, and skirmishes with local Native American tribes had all produced a particularly large population. receptive to scapegoats.

Among those documents are testimonies in the defense of John and Elizabeth Proctor, a local landowner and his wife, both of whom are believed to be put to death on witchcraft charges. Playwright Arthur Miller immortalized the Proctors for modern audiences in The crucible, but these sepia documents are, frankly, even more fascinating. A letter in defense of Proctors was signed by 32 of their neighbors, a bold move, given that many people including John Proctor were charged after standing up for another. The letter at the end made no difference to the fate of the Proctors. Instead, like many exhibits, it epitomizes community tensions and contradictions that unfolded in real time – in which, discouragingly, the The panicked speed of hearsay stifles even the most balanced appeals for calm. However, the documents also show how quickly a community can change; oOnly ten years after the trials, the courts have declared them unfair; and in 1711 reparations were paid to the descendants of the hanged.

Examination of Elizabeth How, May 31, 1692 Phillips Library, on deposit in the Massachusetts Supreme Court Archives DEP 01, box 8, file 9 © Peabody Essex Museum

Examination of Elizabeth How, May 31, 1692, on deposit in the Peabody’s Phillips Library of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Archives. Photo © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

A fascinating section of the exhibit is devoted to Elizabeth How, one of the first women hanged for witchcraft in July 1692. How, it turns out, was also an ancestor of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen (McQueen’s mother a discovered the link by exploring the family genealogy). McQueen would name his Fall / Winter 2007 collection “In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692”. The exhibition features one of these dresses, in which the Scottish designer reclaimed traditional symbols of witchcraft and paganism, transforming them into something like women’s clothing amulets. (Also not to be missed: the museum is simultaneously exhibiting a collection of 18 pieces inspired by the Salem Witch Trials by Boston-based fashion designer Ashley Rose).

Alexander McQueen, evening dress from the “In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem, 1692” collection, Fall / Winter 2007. Photo: Bob Packert, © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

While not as eye-catching as McQueen’s dazzling creations, the first-hand recordings of How’s trial give a chilling idea of ​​the danger and the stakes. A document, titled “Elizabeth How Exam, May 31, 1692” and written in cryptic script, provides a transcript of the charges made by Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcot and Ann Putnam, including that How had suffocated, injured and sick people using witchcraft.

How’s responses are clear and provocative: “God knows I’m innocent of anything of this nature,” she says in a passage, later claiming that she doesn’t even know the women who accuse her. “Didn’t you see some apparition? we ask him. “No, never in my life,” she replies. “Those who confessed, they tell us they used pictures and pins, now tell us what you used,” they support, prompting him to talk about witchcraft. “You wouldn’t want me to confess what I don’t know,” she retorts. One of How’s accusers, Ann Putnam, is said to have accused some 62 people of witchcraft that year. Fascinatingly – and revealing the contradictions of the time – the museum has in view a wooden ribbon loom belonging to Rebecca Putnam, a relative of Ann; although the Putnam family were among the most active accusers, the loom itself bears folk carvings associated with magic and the occult.

Frances Denny, Shine from Major Arcana.  Courtesy of the artist.

Frances F. Denny, Shine, New York, NY (2017) from “Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America”. Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition “Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America” ​​by photographer Frances F. Denny, a series of 13 portraits of women who identify as witches today, brings the exhibition into the contemporary moment. The complex women that Denny presents offer a spectrum of identities, and the portraits are accompanied by essays describing a range of practices today. Denny herself is the descendant of both a victim of the lawsuits and Samuel Sewall, a judge who stoked public mania.

Dan Lipcan, co-curator of the exhibition, sees the exhibition as a warning against a kind of panicked group thinking that no era is immune to. “This exhibition is timely because we continue to witness injustices today, and we can learn from the Salem witch trials by being more tolerant, more forgiving and more charitable,” he said. declared. “People are always dehumanized because they don’t conform to a Eurocentric, patriarchal and heteronormative ‘norm’. In part, we wanted to celebrate the many ways of being in this world and show that there is truth and justice by allowing people to define themselves on their own terms.

The Salem Witch Trials: Calculation and RecoveryIs on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, from September 18, 2021 to March 20, 2022.

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