Thursday, September 15, 2011

Now a word from Kathleen Kent, author of A Traitor's Wife

Kathleen was kind enough to do a guest post.

Query: Do you think the accusations were based on these women’s deviation from the proscribed role of women in those days?

The Salem witch trials of 1692 were a unique and tragic episode in American history. The trials and executions, which took place in Salem Village---now the town of Danvers, Massachusetts--- included close to a hundred and fifty people, mostly women and girls, arrested from twenty two towns all over New England; including the territory of what is now Maine. The accusers who took center stage during the trials, and who did most of the finger pointing, were all girls or young women from the ages of nine to eighteen. The witch hysteria, and the ensuing legal actions, took a little more than a year from January 1692 to May of 1693, and yet the fascination with the Salem “witches” has never diminished.

One of the nineteen people hanged in August of 1692 was Martha Carrier, my grandmother back nine generations. She was so vocal in her own defense, denying the charges of witchcraft leveled against her, that Cotton Mather, one of the leading theologians of the day, named her “The Queen of Hell” and called her a “rampant hag.” In my novel The Heretic’s Daughter, I wrote about Martha’s bravery confronting her judges and accusers; she is perhaps the only person to have called the magistrates to task for their part in sentencing innocent women to death by saying, “It is a shame that you should listen to these folks who are out of their wits.” In my second novel, The Traitor’s Wife, Martha challenges her family and society by marrying a man who was a soldier for Cromwell in England and who, reputedly, was one of the executioners of King Charles I of England.

Who were these women who were hanged solely on evidence that could not be perceived by any tangible, earthly means, but were “spectral”, or invisible, in nature? Even though the accusations began in Salem Village, women were arrested from neighboring towns with alarming rapidity. What began with neighbor turning against neighbor soon became family member pitted against family member with spouses, siblings, and children accusing in great numbers the women of their households. One man, Moses Tyler, accused six female members of his extended family of witchcraft. They were all imprisoned in the Salem jail.

It’s no coincidence that changes in Puritan life--- in medicine, in law and in religious practices---had an impact on the witch trials. The perception in the rigidly patriarchal society of the day was that women were the daughters of Eve, and therefore to blame for all the initial evils and ills of the world. Women as a whole were considered innately flawed, unable to participate ethically in religious practices, intelligently and rationally in matters of law, and effectively in matters of healing and medicine. Further to being ineffective in practicing medicine, it was believed by the wise men of the age that women would use their powers in herbalogy for their own purposes, even conjuring up the Devil to gain worldly powers.

Women in the New World, up to the mid to late seventeenth century, were acknowledged for their experience with herbal healing and midwifery. But new colleges, open only to men, were teaching newer, more “advanced,” methods in medicine. One of the results of men practicing midwifery was that twice as many women and their infants died during childbirth with a male midwife as a female one.

The so-called witches of Salem were hanged for many reasons. Some of them were mentally unbalanced, some of them were propertied and a target of covetous neighbors, and some of them, like Martha Carrier, were simply strong-willed, outspoken women who went against the expectations of what a Puritan woman was supposed to be: subservient, docile, obedient and, most of all, silent.

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