Turning Dead Puritans into the Mighty Dead: Redefining Salem

Inscription: John Proctor. Hanged. August 10, 1692. At the 1692-1992 memorial site in Salem — which is not the execution site and not the victims’ burial place.

The last time that I walked through the Salem witch trials memorial adjacent to the Charter Street cemetery, I saw that someone had left a rolled-up paper at John Proctor’s memorial bench.((No one ever seems to sit on the benches, perhaps because they usually hold offerings of one sort or another.)) Was it a petition? An announcement of an upcoming workshop on Tarot reading? Maybe Proctor, a prosperous farmer before he and his wife were accused, would have been interested in a farm-auction flier.

Obviously, I did not pull out the paper and read it. Doing that might have been good journalism but poor manners.  Even though the memorial is not a cemetery, I feel that cemetery etiquette applies. But if it was a missive addressed to Proctor, that could mean that someone now considers him to be among the Mighty Dead.

There lies the paradox. I cannot explain it rationally, and neither could Stacy Schiff in her fine new book The Witches, where she writes,

In a turn of events that would have mystified [accused witch] Ann Foster, it is easy to buy a broomstick in Salem, home to a large Wiccan community. Hotels are booking now for next Halloween.

We have been talking for decades — since Margaret Murray’s time — about reclaiming the word witch from its satanic and evil-doing associations.((I am fully aware that some people, however, want to keep them.)) We could do that without dragging in John and Elizabeth  Proctor, Sarah Cloyce, Ann Foster, and the other 150 or so people who were charged in 1692, of whom 19 were executed.

But we have dragged them in. We are (apparently) treating them as honored ancestors, the Mighty Dead, sometimes defined as “those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil.”

Wiccan writer Christopher Penczack equates the Mighty Dead with the Secret Chiefs or Hidden Company that various occult groups invoke. Yet at least in their 17th-century lives, those Puritan colonists would have been horrified to think of themselves as “practitioners of our religion,” wouldn’t they?

Still someone is tending the memorial stones, there are Samhain processions to the execution site, people leave offerings at the execution site, and so on.

We like to say, “What is remembered, lives,” but are we really remembering the Rev. Samuel Parris, Tituba, Judge Hathorne, Rebeca Nurse, and all of them as they were?

Or are we just performing civil religion with robes and incense, “[expressing] the implicit religious values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag), and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields, or national cemeteries)”?((“Civil Religion,” Wikipedia.)) Is leaving flowers and pretty stones and coins and costume jewelry at the Salem witch-trial memorial merely expressing our admiration for the First Amendment?

Somehow I think that it is more than that. Parallel and occultly linked to the transformation of maritime Salem and manufacturing Salem into “Witch City” has been the transformation of the accused Christians of 1692 into “witches”  whose deaths — eventually — produced  a Witch-friendly little city today. It’s not conventionally rational, but it is what it is. And we are thanking them for that transformation.

POSTSCRIPT: I do not plan any more posts about Salem right now. Although no documents or artifacts from the witch trials are on public exhibit in Salem itself, thanks to the policies of the Peabody Essex Museum, which has many of them, there is a digital archive online at the University of Virginia.

11 thoughts on “Turning Dead Puritans into the Mighty Dead: Redefining Salem

  1. Kalinysta

    I wonder if some of these items left on the graves are nothing more than folks saying, “I’m sorry you died, but you are still remembered.”

  2. Robert Mathiesen

    And in a few cases, such a thing may simply have been left by a descendant sorrowing after an ancestor, with no magical or religious intent at all — a simple expression of ancient grief. — In some New-England families, memories run very deep, and these deaths happened only about a dozen generations ago — well within the limits of some families’ memories and passed-down stories. If ever I come to North Andover, I shall seek out a place in the oldest burying ground to remember Mary Osgood Marston (d. 1700), as I did many years ago for Mary Allerton Cushman (d. 1699) on Burial Hill in Plymouth.

    1. Possibly. I cannot speak to the memorial in Danvers, which I have not yet visited, but at the one in Salem, you will see every “bench” decorated similarly sometimes. And no one is descended from all nineteen victims!

      1. Robert Mathiesen

        I wouldn’t be so sure that absolutely no one is descended from all 19 victims. Salem was not a large town back in the 1600s and early 1700s, and its young people tended to marry in town. My late colleague, David Pingree, a descendant of very many ancient Essex County families, counted about half of the 19 among his own ancestors that he knew of casually. Since he himself never worked out every one of his own lines of descent in detail, there might well have been more.

  3. Pitch 313

    I’d describe the Mighty Dead as the aggregate of all Craft-practicing or Craft-appreciating ancestors of all living Craft practitioners. So that members of the Mighty Dead not known to me or my co-practitioners are included.

    But I had not thought about those accused of being Witches. Probably because I do hold that many accusations are false and that many accused are not practitioners. Honestly, since Salem on the East Coast is distant from my own West Coast background, I’ve never tried to figure out if any of those accused were, in fact, practitioners of Craft. (In the Trads I know, Salem Witches would be numbered among the Mighty Dead.)

    What’s going on in regard to the historic Salem witches being honored is probably a mix of acts by Craft practitioners honoring those that they include among the Mighty Dead and acts by folks who recognize Salem and its witchy history as deserving respect and good wishes.

    More broadly, America today incorporates a widespread custom of spontaneous or near a site of an event shine-making. Often recognizing and sanctifying accidents or deaths or shared activities or common interests and fandoms. People contribute to these shrines, I suspect for reasons both spiritual and secular. (As a mountain biker, I have ridden by bunches of sites to the natural, elemental, and paranormal forces and entitiessome of whom I know by name and background–that roam the playgrounds of such extreme sports, for instance.)

    1. Pitch writes, “historic Salem witches.” But they were not witches by either the satanic or Pagan definitions, so why are we honoring them? My current explanation is that we honor them because their deaths, through a long historic and literary process, created a space for us. That is the best that I can come up with.

      1. Robert Mathiesen

        At least one of the nineteen victims, Samuel Wardwell, seems to have practiced as a village cunning man in Salem, and a number of others among the 19 at least occasionally dabbled in folk magic. See Richard Godbeer’s _The Devil’s Dominion_ for the details. Peter Benes tracked down close to a hundred cunning folk in old New England a few decades back, and I have heard that he has found more since he published his detailed list of names.

        Also, it should definitely be noted that Salem was only marginally a Puritan town. It was founded before the Great Puritan Migration of 1630, and its town Church — the first in New England after Plymouth — was prone to choose non-Puritan ministers such as Roger Williams. In many ways, Salem and its surrounding towns (Marblehead, Danvers, etc.) belong more to the “northern fringe” of New England (roughly, modern New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont), which was largely settled by people far interested more in commerce than in religion. So many of the nineteen victims were not Puritans at all.

        Indeed, the victims were neither “Satanic” witches nor Pagans, but practicing, non-Puritan Christians. (However, Giles Corey seems hardly to have cared for religion at all.) But to whatever extent modern Witchcraft is not primarily a religion, but a magical practice, some of the victims do seem to count as genuine forebears.

        All this is not to criticize, Chas, but simply to remind all the readers here just how highly complex the situation was on the ground in New England back in the 1600s.

        All preconceptions and simplifications and reasoned arguments are absolutely wretched guides to what actually happened at any time and place in history, and actually have more of falsehood than truth in them.

        1. Perhaps my definition of Puritan is broader than yours. Although the church organizations were congregational, the lines of religious authority seemed to run from local ministers such as the Rev. Parris or the executed Rev. Burroughs back to prominent Boston-area clergy such as Samuel Willard and the Mathers, father and son, whose opinions carried weight in the surrounding area.

          Nevertheless, some people were more devout than others, of course. And you are right that there was folk magic (the infamous “witch cake” episode shows that), palmistry, etc. among the less-educated and reading of books on alchemy, astrology, and natural magic among the clergy

        2. “Salem was only marginally a Puritan town.” True. The accusations arose in the countryside (now Danvers), not in mercantile Salem. Rev. Parris was not preaching in Salem itself. And there were accusations a-plenty in Billerica, Andover, etc. But the jailing and executions were in Salem town, so Salem “owns” the witches. 🙂

      2. Pitch313

        Honestly, until your post, I had not thought much about the paradox of those Salem folks accused of witchcraft yet not being witches but being incorporated so strongly into today’s Craft world view. As deserving to be considered witches.

        Generally, it seems to me to have something to do with accusation, persecution, intolerance, sacrifice, death, and identity building in a new spiritual movement. Somehow the name calling of those Salem folks as “witches’ offered a valued historical root for pioneering the 20th century practitioners, even if the Salem folks actually were not witches.

        My very first experience of Salem witches occurred in 7th grade via a class reading of Arthur Miller’s Play “The Crucible.” McCarthyism may have influenced the 20yh century Craft pioneers.

  4. Kalinysta

    “More broadly, America today incorporates a widespread custom of spontaneous or near a site of an event shine-making. Often recognizing and sanctifying accidents or deaths or shared activities or common interests and fandoms. ”

    Not just America. England has had it’s share of “shrine-making” as well. Remember Princess Diana’s death? Then there’s John Lennon, etc. Even here in NorthEast TN, there are shrines made where someone has died in a car accident and I don’t think it’s just the family doing that. I think deep down inside, all humans subconsciously react strongly to death, whether the individual is known or not, and the shrine basically says: “remember this person”.

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