Holly Richardson: The lessons of the Salem witch trials

(Lisa Poole | AP file photo) In this Dec. 26, 2003, photo, the logo for the Salem Police Department, which bears an image of a witch, is displayed on a police cruiser's door in Salem, Mass.

On this weekend before Halloween, I am in Salem, Mass., visiting the town where an entire community got caught up in fear, anger, accusation, disinformation and paranoia. The hysteria resulted in the arrest of hundreds and the executions of 20 people and two dogs accused of witchcraft. One of those hanged as a witch was my ninth-great-grandmother, Susannah North Martin.

The Salem witch trials had much more to do with politics than they did with potions and spells. The 200-something people who were accused of witchcraft in 1692 ranged in age from 4 to almost 80. Most were women. Some were landowners whose property would go to the state if they were executed as witches, because no minion of Satan had rights to land. Some were homeless. Some were preachers. Some were servants.

They all had one thing in common, though — they did not fit the Puritanical mold of the ideal citizen. Some dared argue in public. Some women did not dress “appropriately.” Others, like Susannah, did not suffer fools lightly, even if those fools were political and religious leaders and, ahead of her time, she spoke truth to power.

Susannah and her husband, George, had been in court multiple times, trying to get the inheritance they felt she had been cheated out of. She was accused of “fornication and witchcraft” by a cranky neighbor in 1669 but her husband sued for libel and won. However, the charge of witchcraft was not dropped until further appeal to a court outside the region.

After George died in 1686, Susannah became much more vulnerable to the powers that be. In the summer of 1692, she was arrested again and charged once more with witchcraft. This time, she paid for her opinionated stance with her life.

Even in court, Goody Martin, as she was called, mocked the proceedings and laughed when one of her young accusers had a “fit” in the middle of giving her testimony. She could quote the Bible extensively, something witches were not supposed to be able to do. But, said preacher Cotton Mather, the devil could masquerade as light and coach his minions to quote the Lord’s Prayer and other verses of scripture.

Susannah and the other women arrested as witches were subjected to strip-searches. In an era of strict Puritanical morals, women were being stripped naked and their bodies searched repeatedly looking for “signs of the devil.” Great-grandma, at 70 years old, was accused of having full breasts in the morning and slack breasts at night, proof she had been breastfeeding Satan or his imps.

The accused who “confessed” and then named their “accomplices” did not die. The 20 who died all maintained their innocence until the end. Fear ruled the day and people figured out quickly that it was better to accuse your neighbor than it was to call out actions that were clearly wrong.

In the United States, we like to think we have moved past the hysteria of 1692 Salem. But have we? We don’t hang witches anymore, but our nation has devolved into primitive tribalism in which some people have no qualms about targeting, labeling and destroying “others.”

Too many are willing to accuse others of not being pure enough or good enough. Facts don’t seem to matter. Disinformation and paranoia once again play an outsized role in politics and acquiring power at all costs is fine, as long as your team wins. And fear permeates everything.

Three-hundred-plus years later, I’m Team Susannah. Sometimes, the law is wrong. Sometimes political leaders are wrong. Sometimes, fear, groupthink, disinformation and paranoia rule the day. Sometimes speaking truth to power comes at great cost. And sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. Go, team!

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.