Nobody broke the news to me—gently or otherwise—and I didn’t find out by delving into family genealogy. As far back as I can remember I’ve known I was descended from a witch—or rather, I was descended from a woman who was hanged as one. When I probe my memory, the first family discussion I recall on the subject had to do with the correct form of the past tense of the verb “to hang.”
“Pictures are hung,” my mother told me. “People are hanged.”
My mother and father believed the people who accused others of witchcraft were faking their symptoms, and that our ancestor, Susannah North Martin, was caught up in it and accused because she was a easy target. She was a widow who ran a farm by herself, which a woman was not supposed to be able to do back then, and so it seemed logical she must have used witchcraft to get the wood chopped and the fields plowed. My parents were convinced the inscription on the monument to Susannah in her hometown of Amesbury, Massachusetts, was true—that she was, “An honest, hardworking, Christian woman. Accused as a witch, tried and executed at Salem, July 19, 1692. A martyr of superstition.”
At the age of 27 I had what can be described a paranormal experience, and you might say it opened my eyes. Metaphysics became a field of study of particular interest to me—one I have since learned much about—and the more I learned, the more I wondered if my ancestor really had been a witch. So I decided to conduct my own investigation. I studied copies of as many original documents from the time as I could get my hands on, and there are plenty of records. Pre-trial witness depositions, court transcripts, and eyewitness accounts abound.
I’m now almost certain at least some of the accused were practicing magic, or “witchcraft” as it was then called, and I wrote a book about it—a real-life murder mystery called A Witch in the Family, an expanded, second edition of which has just been published.
Ironically, the events that led to the witch hysteria began in a Puritan minister’s kitchen—the reverend Samuel Parris. According my research, Reverend Parris and his wife spent a fair amount of time away from home visiting the members of their parish when the hysteria began in the winter of 1691-92. Their daughter, Betty Parris, age nine, and her eleven year old cousin, Abigail Williams, were often left in the care of the family’s Carib Indian slave, Tituba.
It’s likely Tituba warmed the cold New England days reminiscing about her childhood in sunny Barbados, telling fanciful tales involving magic. There is evidence she also demonstrated voodoo tricks for the girls. Despite their young age, the girls certainly knew this type of behavior was forbidden, but as most youngsters would, they wanted to know their futures and Tituba used incantations she said would show them. It wasn’t long before six other young women and girls joined Betty and Abigail in Tituba's thrall in the Parris kitchen to find out about their futures.
One trick Tituba is thought to have demonstrated was a variation on crystal ball gazing. An egg was cracked open and the white allowed to slide into a glass of water. This was then held up to a candle. The girls were told to look into the egg white, and they would see images that would foretell the occupations of their future husbands.
The group of girls and young women soon began displaying bizarre behavior. They fell into fits. They went into trances. They felt pricked with pins and cut with knives. They were tempted to throw themselves into the fire and commit suicide. They had to cover their ears when the minister preached the word of God because they could not bear to listen to it. A local doctor diagnosed them as bewitched, and this started the hysteria ball rolling. Word most certainly spread quickly that the Reverend Parris had said, “the devil hath been raised among us, and his rage is vehement and terrible; and, when he shall be silenced, the Lord only knows.”
You may wonder why historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dismissed such ideas as magical thinking. Couldn’t there actually have been something paranormal going on?
They didn’t consider the possibility because of Scientific Materialism. During the Age of Enlightenment, which got fully underway in the next century, the eighteen, the scientific community adopted as a basic tenet the Deist thinking first promulgated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) that such things as ghosts and spirits did not and could not exist. Anything paranormal was chalked up to imagination or hallucination because science held that physical reality is all there is. If you could not measure it or see it under a microscope, it didn’t exist.
We now know that simply is not true. As I discuss in A Witch in the Family, plenty of scientific research today indicates there’s a lot more to reality than meets the eye—reason enough to re-examine what took place at Salem. For example, a modern activity equivalent to Tituba’s voodoo tricks and incantations would be to tinker with a Ouija board. Today’s occult practitioners are quick to tell amateurs who dabble in such activities they do so at their own peril, and apparently these occultists have a good deal of support in this regard. I just plugged the words “Ouija warnings” into Google, and it turned up 146,000 results.
I only checked out the entries on page one of the Google listings but all were about scary things that happened to people who were messing around with Ouija boards. A typical example is that of a woman and a friend who were in the kitchen speaking to a spirit through the board who told them his name was Dave, and that he was a fireman who died in 1938. They were chatting with Dave when she realized her hands were above her head and no matter how she tried she couldn’t bring them down. She also was unable to speak. Imagine her panic. In the meantime, her friend was busy asking Dave questions, and didn’t notice. She was beginning to hyperventilate and wanted desperately to get her friend’s attention but couldn’t move or utter a sound. She said she felt a heaviness pressing down on her like a dead weight and all the while the Ouija board kept her friend busy answering questions. Finally, the friend looked up at her and saw instantly something was terribly wrong. The friend picked up the board, ran with it to the top of the basement stairs, and tossed it down. The woman was released from her paralysis. Even so, other strange things kept happening until the next morning when they deposited the Ouija board in a dumpster in the alley.
The advice of every entry on Google I read is the same—stay away from Ouija boards and such. No doubt the Parris girls and their friends had heard similar warnings about fooling around with occult activities. But Tituba’s tales and voodoo tricks stirred up a measure of excitement in what was no doubt a typically boring New England winter. Their curiosity likely got the best of them, and it wasn’t long before they began to act in strange and aberrant ways.
There is much more to the Salem witch hysteria that began in the winter of 1692 and continued until fall. Over that period, a total of 19 people were hanged, one was crushed to death, and five died in prison.