“By September 22, 1692, Giles Corey and nineteen other persons had been executed publicly. There is no way of knowing the numbers who died in prison.
Not one person who confessed to practicing witchcraft was executed. The persons executed were those who insisted upon their innocence. Giles Corey was ordered pressed to death by heavy stones for refusing to speak at all. His execution may have marked a turning point in the witchcraft epidemic.”
My first encounter with the Salem Witch Trials was in high school, when we discussed Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The play has remained one of favourites since, not because of the topic of witchcraft but because of Miller’s skill in taking a horrific event of history and turning it into a parable. (The writing was pretty good, too.)
Ever since that encounter, the story of the Salem Witch Trials and its participants has had me gripped. How could a village turn against itself, neighbour against neighbour, into such madness? Surely, this is the stuff that horror stories are made of. Made of. Invented. Not real. For it to be real, there would have to be an explanation, a reason, a cause.
It wasn’t a case of people not knowing what they were doing, or outright hating each other, or worse – be unaffected by each other. This was a small community, where people depended on the communal efforts, that is, neighbours working together.
It is sometimes said, that human conflicts are based on the ignorance (or denial) by the parties’ of their common ground, their similarity. Since everyone in Salem knew each other, this can’t have factored. So what drove these people to accuse each other, and more, not come to the defence of the people they shared their lives with?
The situation is kafkaesque, except it is not fiction.
Jackson’s account of the Salem Witch Trials was not fiction, either. It was fictionalised to the extent that she gave the historical facts a narrative, and characters a voice, but it was not fiction.
I wrote in an earlier post (The Yellow Wallpaper) that sometimes fiction and fact are inseparable, and that we now describe real events as “classic horror” because the possibility of it happening is so unreal, so unfathomable, that it is simply beyond recognition. As far as horror stories go, those are the most hard hitting ones – there is very little that is as horrifying as finding out that fictional horrors were fact, even more so when it was not a single incident.
When I picked up this book, I had no idea what Shirley Jackson, queen of the modern horror story, would do with the original story, whether she would add her own take on the story. As it turns out, Jackson wrote this as book for middle school, which is why (to my surprise) she kept this book factual and did not add any atmospheric devices or other embellishments. Jackson meant to write this as a work of non-fiction, but even if she hadn’t that there was no need to add much to the official records to make this chilling.
In writing this, Jackson created a great retelling of the story of the Salem Witch Trial and their aftermath.
“On September 22, 1692, the day of the last execution, the witchcraft delusion began to disappear. No one realized it at first. The afflicted girls continued crying out upon anyone within reach, the preliminary examinations continued, and the prisons stayed crowded. The special court in Salem adjourned, to meet again in two or three weeks and resume the trials. A change had taken place, however, in the feelings of the people. Perhaps it was due to the courage of Giles Corey. Perhaps everyone was growing weary of supernatural terrors. Perhaps the change was due to the deplorable condition of the colony in general. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things. In any case, a slow change of opinion took place. People simply stopped believing that their friends and neighbors were witches.”
I had not read any other book which had investigated what became of the community – and the individual actors after the trials were over. For me this is probably the most intriguing part of Jackson’s book (because I was familiar with the story of the trials).
How did the persecutors live the survivors and themselves after the events?
How did the community heal after this madness? Did it heal?
Jackson dedicates the latter part of the book to these questions and some of her analysis and research, even though aimed at a younger reader, is noting less than compelling.
“John Hathorne never conceded that he had been mistaken, and persisted all his life in maintaining that the witches were guilty, and that the part he had acted was honorable. One hundred and fifty years later a descendant of John Hathorne’s wrote The House of the Seven Gables—the story, in part, of a cruel man who had helped to bring witches to execution, and who died with the memory heavy on his conscience. In this story Nathaniel Hawthorne (the w had been added somewhere along the way) adapted the dying words of Sarah Goode, who stood on the scaffold and shouted at the clergyman who begged her to confess, “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink!” Unlike his ancestor, Nathaniel Hawthorne thought the witchcraft fever was “a terrible delusion.”