Dreams in the Witch House: Five Things I Learned in Salem’s Oldest Home

Salem Witch House, Salem, Massachusetts

When Judge Jonathan Corwin moved into the big black house at the corner of North and Summer in Salem’s Chestnut Street District, I doubt he had any inkling of its future place in history.

“Now here’s a place that’ll never be associated with anything unsavory,” he probably said to himself.

“Especially not witch trials,” he likely added.

Three-hundred-fifty years later, we know just how wrong he was. The Witch House is the only extant building with a direct link to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, a tragic bout of mass hysteria during which 19 people were killed and dozens more imprisoned. I visited the Witch House for the second time last weekend. Here are some of the things I learned.

  1. One of the Judges Apologized
    Samuel Sewall was a judge and writer living in the Massachusetts Bay area when the Witch Trials began. Though he was roped into service in the court that sent nearly a score of innocents to their deaths, he doesn’t seem to have been a bad guy. In 1700, he published an anti-slavery essay titled The Selling of Joseph, making him one of the earliest American abolitionists. He also apologized for his role in the trials. Though how one could adequately apologize for something like that, I’m not sure.
Samuel Sewall, Judge, Salem Witch Trials

“Hey, sorry, that kind of got out of hand. We cool?”

2. Cotton Mather was the Perviest Perv to Ever Perv
I’ve mentioned here that Cotton Mather–or, as I like to call him, “Old Horny”–was booted out of Boston for using the witch hysteria as an excuse to feel up teenage girls. A document in the Witch House details at least one of his unsavory exploits.

witchhouse-staywithcottonmather

He moved her into his house–just to keep an eye on her! That’s all! Nothing sexual!

I’m sure.

3. People Made Witch Cakes
If you’re looking to find out who hexed you, but you don’t have the time or money for a prolonged trial, then the Witch Cake is the answer to your prayers. Just mix some rye with “your own water,” fire it in the oven, and feed it to a dog. The witch will feel the gnashing of the dog’s teeth and begin screaming–but not as loud as she’ll scream when you burn her at the stake.

Salem Witch Trials, witch cake

“Nothing like the smell of fresh-baked urea.”

But wait. “Your own water?” Does that mean…?

It does. The Puritans fed dogs cakes made with pee. I’m not sure if that qualifies as animal abuse, but it definitely qualifies as weird.

4. The Puritans Loved Putting Stuff in Their Walls
For a famously religious people, the Puritans sure did hold to a lot of ancient superstitions. They put shoes in the walls, for instance, to imbue their homes with the protective spirit of the individual who wore them. Other things they stuck in the walls include bones, clothes, and dolls. But don’t picture cute dolls with doe eyes and curly hair. They looked more like this.

Poppet, Salem Witch Trials

Euuuurrrgh…

When the witch hysteria broke out, judges used such “poppets” as evidence against the accused. Even though like, a lot of people were making them. I’m not saying the dolls weren’t creepy–if I found one of those things inside my walls, I’d probably shit myself. But they were a widespread, culturally-prevalent kind of creepy. It’s pretty lame to punish the alleged witches for something every other weird-ass Puritan was doing.

5. The Incident That Brought an End to the Trials Was Beyond Predictable
The anti-witchcraft movement was a ultimately a victim of its own ambition. When accusing eccentric outsiders and sexy teenagers wasn’t enough anymore, folks in Salem decided to accuse the wife of Massachusetts Governor William Phipps. Governor Phipps suddenly decided the trials weren’t such an awesome idea after all, and he shut the court down.

Governor William Phipps, Salem Witch Trials

“I don’t wanna play anymore.” 😦

The Superior Court of the Judicature was established to fill the resulting vacuum. Unlike its predecessor, however, it did not allow spectral evidence. No one else was found guilty of witchcraft, and the court eventually disbanded. It just wasn’t the same anymore, man.

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