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November|December 2003

The Witch Trials

IN THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS OF 1692, George Jacobs Sr. was accused and convicted of being a wizard. Most of those accused of witchcraft saved their necks by going along with the charges—and accusing someone else of leading them to the Devil. But Jacobs was close to 80 and, with little to lose, he stood his ground. “Burn me or hang me,” he said in court in May. “I will stand in the truth of Christ.” In August, he was hanged on Gallows Hill, one of 19 people executed for witchcraft. His remains were eventually moved to a Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, where his tombstone reads: “Because I am falsely accused. I never did it.”

The memorial stands across the street from the Peabody Essex Museum, which recently opened a soaring new building designed by the architect Moshe Safdie that showcases the museum’s acclaimed collections of maritime and decorative arts. The museum also holds the major collection of materials about the 1692 trials. They include paintings like this frenzied scene from Jacobs’s trial, made in 1855 by the American painter T. H. Matteson, and the transcripts of the proceedings in the special Court of Oyer and Terminer that heard the trials.

In his memoir Timebends, Arthur Miller describes the “morose and secret air” of Salem the day he arrived there to read the court record as he researched The Crucible, the play that fixed the witch trials in American lore. The play portrays a courtroom overrun by hysteria where innocents were convicted on the basis of fantastic claims, which could only be countered if the accused confessed to having had contact with the Devil. It also depicts the law as a maze of procedure misused to the perversion of justice.

When the play premiered, the American Bar Association objected to “certain lines disparaging of lawyers or the legal profession” and asked that they be eliminated. Explaining that he would make no changes, Miller said that the “role played in history by the judges of the court was, if anything, much more reprehensible than the play describes.” As for the lawyers, Miller noted that at Salem “it was the barring of lawyers rather than their presence which helped injustice rule the day.” It was “no service to civilization,” the playwright went on, for the ABA to challenge his “frank discussion” of the public paranoia that inspired the Salem witch trials—and the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.

Today, 50 years after the premiere of The Crucible, public paranoia has yet to close on the national stage. Who’s playing whom, however, depends on whom you ask. Studs Terkel said that Attorney General John Ashcroft reminds him of a character out of Miller’s play, and he didn’t have the tragic hero John Proctor in mind. Meanwhile, Ashcroft has charged that the administration’s critics have relied on “hysteria” to undermine the nation’s security policies. At a time when politicians on the left as well as the right talk ceaselessly about the need to combat terror, Miller’s play and Matteson’s painting remind us also to beware the consequences of fear.


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