Resident debunks witch burning myths


“…all of the witch burnings 300 years ago in Salem”—?

I wouldn’t know whether it was something Amanda Levine heard during her viewing of the premier episode of this season’s American Horror Story—or instead merely her own shared acceptance of a common misapprehension—which led to her passing remark in re all those “witch burnings” in Salem. [Star, “ ‘American Horror Story:  Coven’ bewitches viewers,” 10-15-13] 

For whatever perceived value the input may provide, here’s my nickel’s worth.

I was raised in the New England suburbs and did my first undergraduate work in the Boston area. Had plenty of occasion to visit Salem, and I quite assure you there weren’t ANY witch burnings to issue from the Salem Witch Trials of 320 years ago.  Not one. Zero, nada, zilch, theta, zip. That nasty little habit, burning people as witches—which developed in Europe, where, over the course of several centuries, tens of thousands were burned alive—never made it across the Atlantic, whose cold waters seem to have quenched the burning spirit, as it were.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Puritan community of Salem Village did regrettably hang some folks (fewer than twenty) as “witches,” in 1692-1693. And one man, Giles Corey, was at the time inadvertently crushed to death when his tormenters tried (unsuccessfully) to induce him to enter a plea—without which, the Common Law Court could not assume jurisdiction to try him—let alone, convict him of witchcraft.  Thus he denied the Court the authority to declare his property forfeit and nullify his right to will it to his heirs. NOBODY, however, was ever burned in that ghastly, shuddering episode of colonial America’s history. See Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts (Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1949).

In fact, while there surely were isolated incidents of burnings by vigilantes, pre-state militias, angry mobs, and the like, the only groups this side of the Pond that made a REGULAR, “civic” practice of burning persons alive—for any reason—were the strictly homegrown Indian tribes (particularly of the East), who, for centuries, routinely got-off on subjecting their captured enemies, whether settlers or members of other tribes (sometimes large numbers of them) to burning at the stake or roasting over a slow fire. 

The early novelist of the American frontier, James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, etc), had occasion to allude to the charming & picturesque pastime in his tales of the frontier.

But witch burnings in Salem?—strictly a myth.


Michael Zebulon

Rohnert Park neighbor