Salem Witch Trials

– The Crucible Essay, Research Paper Because I’ve been working with the materials of the Salem Witch Trails of 1692 for so long, many people have asked me if I’ve seen the play or film The Crucible, and what I think of it. Miller created works of art, inspired by the actual events for the artistic/political purposes Miller intended: first produced on Broadway on January 22, 1953, it was in response to the panic caused by irrational fear of Communism during the Cold War which ultimately resulted in the anti-Communist hearings by Senator Joseph McCarthy which started on Feb. 3, 1953.* In Miller’s tales (there are slight differences, which I won’t bother to get into unless it’s a major difference), a lovelorn teenager is spurned by the married man she loves, and in her revenge, she fans a whole community into a blood-lust frenzy.

– The Crucible Essay, Research Paper

Because I’ve been working with the materials of the Salem Witch Trails of 1692 for so long, many people have asked me if I’ve seen the play or film The Crucible, and what I think of it. Miller created works of art, inspired by the actual events for the artistic/political purposes Miller intended: first produced on Broadway on January 22, 1953, it was in response to the panic caused by irrational fear of Communism during the Cold War which ultimately resulted in the anti-Communist hearings by Senator Joseph McCarthy which started on Feb. 3, 1953.* In Miller’s tales (there are slight differences, which I won’t bother to get into unless it’s a major difference), a lovelorn teenager is spurned by the married man she loves, and in her revenge, she fans a whole community into a blood-lust frenzy. This is simply not history. The real story is far more complex, dramatic, and interesting — and well worth exploring. This page, however, is only dedicated to separating the fact from the fiction in Miller’s work.

Most popular understandings of the tale include their own inaccuracies — for instance, that the witches were burned to death. People condemned as witches in New England were not burned, but hanged, and in the aftermath of the events in Salem, it was generally agreed that none of them had actually been witches at all. Some modern versions cast the story as something that has to do with intolerance of difference, that the accused were really just oddballs that the community tacitly approved getting rid of, but most of the people who were accused, convicted and executed in Salem were remarkable by their very adherence to community norms. In the 1970s, a theory was put forth that the afflicted had suffered from hallucinations from eating moldy rye wheat — ergotism — and although that theory has generally been refuted, its life continues in the popular explanation of the events. (A recent biological theory which seems to hold up, however, is that the afflicted suffered from encephalitis lethargica.) Lastly, Rev. Parris’s slave woman, Tituba, is usually assumed to have been of Black African descent, but recent research indicates she was Amerindian, probably South American Arawak, always being referred to in the documents of the period as “an Indian woman.” Had she been African or Black, she would have been so described.

As for Miller’s tellings of the tale, I am always distracted by the wide variety of minor historical inaccuracies when I am exposed to his play or movie. Call me picky, but I’m not a dolt: I know about artistic license and Miller’s freedom to use the material any way he chooses to, so please don’t bother lecturing me about it. This page is part of a site about the history of 17th Century Colonial New England *index.shtml*, not about literature, theater, or Arthur Miller, even though you may have landed smack dab in the middle of the site thanks to a search engine hit for information about Miller.

One reason I am providing this page is because 1) actors contact me about making their portrayals of characters in the play “more accurate” — when that is impossible without drastically altering Miller’s work because the characters in his play are simply not the real people who lived, even though they may share names and basic fates, and 2) students are given assignments in their English classes to find out more about what really happened. Before you even think of writing to ask me a question, please read through my list of frequently-asked questions *myfaq.shtml*.

Here’s my list of historical inaccuracies in the play/screenplay:

Betty Parris’s mother was not dead, but very much alive at the time. She died in 1696, four years after the events. Betty was shuttled off to live in Salem Town with Stephen Sewall’s family (Stephen was the brother of Judge Samuel Sewall) soon after the hysteria broke and she did not participate in most of the proceedings.

The Parris family also included two other children — an older brother, Thomas (b. 1681), and a younger sister, Susannah (b. 1687) — not just Betty and her cousin Abigail.

Miller admits in the introduction to the play that he boosted Abigail Williams’ age to 17 even though the real girl was only 11, but he never mentions that John Proctor was 60 and Elizabeth, 41, was his third wife. Proctor was not a farmer but a tavern keeper. Living with them was their daughter aged 15, their son who was 17, and John’s 33-year-old son from his first marriage. Everyone in the family was eventually accused of witchcraft. Elizabeth Proctor was indeed pregnant, during the trial, and did have a temporary stay of execution after convicted, which ultimately spared her life because it extended past the end of the period that the executions were taking place.

The first two girls to become afflicted with Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, not Ann Putnam, and they had violent, physical fits, not a sleep that they could not wake from.

There never was any wild dancing rite in the woods led by Tituba, and certainly Rev. Parris never stumbled upon them. Some of the local girls had attempted to divine the occupations of their future husbands with an egg in a glass — crystal-ball style. Tituba and her husband, John Indian (absent in Miller’s telling), were asked by a neighbor, Mary Sibley, to bake a special “witch cake,” — made of rye and the girls’ urine, fed to a dog — European white magic to ascertain who the witch was who was afflicting the girls.

The Putnam’s daughter was not named Ruth, but Ann, like her mother, probably changed by Miller so the audience wouldn’t confuse the mother and the daughter. In reality, the mother was referred to as “Ann Putnam Senior” and the daughter as “Ann Putnam Junior.”

Ann/Ruth was not the only Putnam child out of eight to survive infancy. In 1692, the Putnams had six living children, Ann being the eldest, down to 1-year-old Timothy. Ann (the mother) and her sister, however did lose a fair number of infants, and by comparison, the Nurse family lost remarkably few for the time.

Rev. Parris claims to Giles Corey that he is a “graduate of Harvard” — he did not in fact graduate from Harvard, although he had attended for a while and dropped out.

The judges in The Crucible are Samuel Sewall, Thomas Danforth, and John Hathorne. Sewall was one of the original magistrates, and quit because of the reservations portrayed in the play. Danforth was the Deputy Governor and was one of those involved in the later “clean-up” trials after the Court of Oyer and Terminer was disbanded by Governor Phips in October — which did not execute anyone — but he was not a magistrate for the initial hearings and depositions. Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, and Benjamin Gedney were the primary magistrates who carried out the investigations in the summer of 1692. Depositions were taken initially in Ingersoll’s Tavern, then moved to the Salem Village meeting house for reasons of space, but the trials themselves were held sometimes months after these hearings, in Salem Town, with a jury.

Rebecca Nurse was hanged on July 19, John Proctor on August 19, and Martha Corey on September 22 — not all on the same day on the same gallows. And the only person executed who recited the Lord’s Prayer on the gallows was Rev. George Burroughs — which caused quite a stir since it was generally believed at the time that a witch could not say the Lord’s Prayer without making a mistake. They also would not have been hanged while praying, since the condemned were always allowed their last words and prayers.

Reverend Hale would not have signed any “death warrants,” as he claims to have signed 17 in the play. That was not for the clergy, but the judiciary.

The elderly George Jacobs was not accused of sending his spirit in through the window to lie on the Putnam’s daughter — in fact, it was usually quite the opposite case: women such as Bridget Bishop were accused of sending their spirits into men’s bedrooms to lie on them. In that period, women were perceived as the lusty, sexual creatures whose allure men must guard against!

The hysteria did not die out “as more and more people refused to save themselves by giving false confessions,” as the epilogue of the movie states. The opposite was true: more and more people gave false confessions to save themselves as it became apparent that confession could save one from the noose. What ended the trials was the intervention of Governor William Phips, who had been off in Maine fighting the Indians in King William’s War. There were over two hundred people in prison when the general reprieve was given, but they were not released until they paid their prison fees. Neither did the tide turn when Abigail Williams accused Rev. Hale’s wife, as the play claims — although the “afflicted” did start accusing a lot more people far and wide to the point of absurdity, including various people around in other Massachusetts towns whom they had never laid eyes on, including notable people such as the famous hero Capt. John Alden (who escaped after being arrested).

Abigail Williams probably couldn’t have laid her hands on 31 pounds in Samuel Parris’ house, to run away with John Proctor, when Parris’s annual salary was contracted at 66 pounds, only a third of which was paid in money. The rest was to be paid in foodstuffs and other supplies, but he even then, he had continual disputes with the parishioners about supplying him with much-needed firewood they owed him.

Certain key people in the real events appear nowhere in Miller’s play: John Indian, Rev. Nicholas Noyes, Sarah Cloyce, and most notably, Cotton Mather.

Giles Corey was not executed for refusing to name a witness, as portrayed in the movie. The play is accurate: he was accused of witchcraft, and refused to enter a plea, which held up the proceedings, since the law of the time required that the accused enter a plea. He was pressed to death with stones, but the method was used to try to force him to enter a plea so that his trial could proceed. Corey probably realized that if he was tried at all, he would be executed, and his children would be disinherited. (Interestingly, Miller wrote both the play and the screenplay… Who knows why he changed it to a less-accurate explanation for his punishment and execution?)