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By Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, Massachusetts is full of contradictions. Its heyday as a wealthy port city is over, but its reputation as a happening hub for art and culture is on the rise. Its population barely scrapes the 45,000 people mark, but it draws more than 1.5 million tourists every year. Most of them are coming to learn about a historic event that some see as pivotal to the founding of the American justice system: the Salem Witch Trials.
Taking place in 1692-1693, the trials resulted in the death of 25 people who were accused of witchcraft and were executed or died in prison. Nearly 170 people in total were accused of crimes based on spectral evidence — testimony that they had invisibly injured, cursed, or possessed their neighbors through the power of the devil.
“A lot of damage was done to these local communities,” says Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of PEM’s Phillips Library, and co-curator of the Peabody Essex Museum’s current exhibition The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice. “It took 300 years for Salem to build a memorial to the witch trials and the victims…It’s really difficult to address these traumas and these injustices in a way that’s effective and really does heal some of these wounds.”
The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice reexamines the events of 1692-1693 not as a closed chapter of history, but as an unfolding knot of social justice questions.
“We are taking a much closer look at the aftermath of the witch trials…where did that leave people? Where did it leave the community in Salem and nearby?” asks exhibition co-curator Paula Richter. “It was a community that was deeply fractured, deeply polarized, and a lot of individuals had suffered very serious trauma and loss and injury as an outcome of the trial.”
Modern onlookers tend to view the witch trials as one community’s bout of temporary insanity. But Lipcan emphasizes that that’s not how participants felt.
“The devil was real in 1692, in Salem,” he says. “There was a belief in witchcraft and in specters at the time.” The belief that a person was serving the devil to harm their neighbors was enough to spark retribution from Puritan leaders and the broader community.
“You get a sense of the anguish, the fear,” Richter adds. “Then it’s not hard to imagine what it would be like when someone knocked on your door with the accusation of witchcraft as a capital crime, and the utter terror that would bring to a person living in Salem in 1692.”
LEFT: PEM curator Paula Richter with a piece of the museum’s historical “witch kitsch” from Salem. RIGHT: Dan Lipcan, Director of PEM’s Phillips Library, stands in front of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
PEM has mounted exhibitions about the witch trials before, including last year’s The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, which featured clothing by Alexander McQueen (a descendant of witch trials victim Elizabeth How) and portraits of the modern witch community by photographer Frances F. Denny. This iteration focuses on a new angle: the restorative justice efforts by residents of Salem and surrounding communities to heal and recover from the devastation of those 25 murders. But what does that look like?
“Restorative justice is different than criminal justice,” explains Lipcan. “Criminal justice seeks to assign blame, punish a perpetrator, whereas restorative justice focuses on the victim and on what the victim needs to help heal from the trauma and the wounds of whatever crime has been perpetrated.”
The earliest efforts to vindicate Salem Witch Trials victims took place almost immediately afterward, in the 1690s. The most recent happened in 2022. North Andover middle school teacher Carrie LaPierre taught her students about Elizabeth Johnson Jr., a 22-year-old Andover woman who was pressured to confess and executed in 1692. Johnson had been inadvertently left off of previous legislation that exonerated the remaining trials victims. Their efforts took longer than a full school year, but LaPierre’s eighth graders succeeded in introducing a bill, now signed into law, to officially acknowledge the injustice of Johnson’s conviction.
In an interview for the museum’s podcast, LaPierre said it wasn’t difficult for her students to see the injustices of the trials and empathize with those involved.
“The biggest lesson, I think, is about bullying, and treating people [who are] different poorly and ostracizing them,” she said. “That’s a comfortable message, in a sense, for eighth graders to understand.”
Copies of Johnson’s exoneration bill and court documents from the 1690s share wall space in the exhibition with objects owned and touched by the trials’ victims, accusers, and judges. There is a wooden walking stick owned by George Jacobs Sr., a man who was targeted by his neighbors because he walked with two canes, didn’t attend church, and displayed a “defiant spirit.” A sundial that stood in the garden of tavern keepers John and Elizabeth Proctor glimmers next to a reminder that at his trial, John Proctor “pleaded for a little respite of time, saying that he was not fit [ready] to die; but it was not granted.”
Artist in London, sundial owned by John Proctor Sr., 1644. Brass. Gift of Abel H. Proctor, 1907. 100771. Photo by Jeffrey Dykes/PEM.
One of the most sobering objects in the exhibition is an unassuming section of wooden planks. Pitted with age and thicker than many of the trees currently standing in Salem, they represent a last remnant of the 17th-century jail that held those accused of witchcraft while they awaited trial or death.
Salem’s jail held more than a dozen people at a time in a stifling, dirt-floored, 20-square-foot space — the footprint of a twin-size mattress. The accused were shackled to the wall.
Today, a quiet office building at 10 Federal Street stands on the site of the original jail, marked by a brass plaque.
While they were detained, many of the accused poured their energy into writing petitions. One of the most moving is by Mary Esty, who was accused along with her sisters Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Cloyce.
Wooden planks from Salem’s original jail, built in 1684 and used to detain those accused of witchcraft. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
“I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die and my appointed time is set, but…that if it be possible, no more innocent blood may be shed… I question not but your honors…would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world, but by my own innocence I know you are in the wrong.”
Curious researchers of any age can read Esty’s original petition online thanks to a painstaking digitization project by the staff of PEM’s Phillips Library. From 1980 to 2023, PEM was the temporary repository of 527 court documents related to the witch trials. Those documents are now back in the recently renovated state archives of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts – one of the oldest appellate courts in the world, established in the wake of the trials.
Besides the current exhibition and online resources, the museum offers a Witch Trials Walk audio tour that takes listeners through historic sites in downtown Salem. It’s narrated by curators, free with museum admission, and available year-round.
PEM’s witch trials exhibition isn’t a rebuttal to all the plastic skeletons and felt witch hats that are as ubiquitous as fall leaves in Salem this time of year. Both ultimately remind us of the same thing: local history is an unforgettable part of the fabric of a place and its culture. Whether it scares us — or spurs us to action — is, ultimately, up to us. The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice is on view through November 26, 2023 and is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum. This exhibition is made possible by Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation. We thank James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes, Chip and Susan Robie, and Timothy T. Hilton as supporters of the Exhibition Innovation Fund. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum. Visit https://www.pem.org/explore-art/pemcast for more interviews with the curators, and follow along on social media using #1692witchtrials.
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