I spent my snow day getting to know my new home town of Salem, MA, by reading The Salem Witch Trials Reader, by Frances Hill (author and editor).
Several hours later, I am laying on the couch with my eyes closed, trying to understand what it all means. What is the message for these times?
The trials took place in 1692, 315 years ago. The events began in January of 1692, and it was a year of terrible suffering: nearly 100 people were accused, jails overflowed with the convicted. 19 people were hanged, 1 person was pressed to death, 5 died in jail. Yet, by the following January, as if waking from a shocking dream, a newly formed superior court would reprieve the remaining accused.
What caused this? It was a confluence of many “dark” forces: a puritan and authoritarian religious culture which, by our standards today, had no protection of personal liberty, which viewed behavior only in terms of good or evil, and people as “us” or “other”; the harsh realities of colonial life; a culture of subjugation of women and anyone who wasn’t white and male (though that was no protection: several white men were among the accused and killed); and the reality of what we would call “terrorist threats” today: deadly battles between “Indians” and colonists. One historian also suggests that ergot (a fungus) may have infected the wheat, causing some of the initial physical manifestations that led to the suggestion of witchcraft. All of these things plus interpersonal grievances and grudges.
Once the episode was over, Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village and the lead witch hunter, would be ousted from his position in 1695. He died in 1720 without obituary or epitaph. Historians, including the author Frances Hill, consider him a sociopath: he showed no remorse, he lacked conscience and empathy. Ann Putnam, one of the accusers who was 12 at the time of the trials, stood in front of her congregation at the Salem Village church 12 years later and confessed to accusing innocent people; she died another 13 years later, and left no descendants.
In a very short time, as the colonists would be considering revolution, and the dark superstitions of Puritan culture would be replaced by the Age of Reason: the Enlightenment.
As I get up from the couch, the radio is reporting that the appeals court has rejected the Trump Administration’s bid to uphold the travel ban. I can’t help but think we are waking from our own shocking dream (even if the majority of us never went to sleep).
What I hope is that when this dark time comes to its quick end, we will be inside of our next age. I am thrilled to consider what evolves out of the Age of Reason. Maybe we have reached the Awakening.