Memory in Salem: Contradiction

Final Post


As a seventeen-year old, I took a ferry to Salem, Massachusetts from Boston for a day-visit with my family. Having just read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in my high school literature class, I already knew a little bit about the background of the witch hunt that occurred there in 1692. What I encountered satisfied my curiosity about the witch trials. Countless giftshops with a variety of witchy souvenirs, museums with information about what actually happened over 300 years ago and life-sized animatronic depictions bringing those events to life, a memorial dedicated to the victims, and a tour where we visited sites dealing with the trials, such as the location of the old court house where examinations occurred, the location of the jail where hundreds wasted away for months, and even the potential area where Giles Corey was pressed to death, now a graveyard. While it all that was sufficiently amusing for my family’s vacation, looking back I realize what I had not seen then: the memory surrounding the witch trials in Salem is full of contradictions. How can a single city reflect such a fascination and obsessions with witches and witchcraft, yet proclaim to deny its existence? Or how does Salem reconcile between its shameful past of murdering innocent people and its exploitation of that event for the sake of tourist dollars? And finally, no matter how many historical inaccuracies I discover, I realize they do not necessarily matter because they have been imbedded in the memory of the Salem Witch Trials, for some reason or another, but why? Examining these questions I’ve found these blaring contradictions in the memory surrounding the Salem Witch Trials to indicate a sort of strange obsession, an unwillingness to forget, what happened to twenty innocent people, with the help of the local government, during 1692 in Massachusetts.

What were the Salem Witch Trials?

The story of the Salem Witch Trials is widely known in the United States, albeit with many false misconceptions, but the need to recount the event in detail is not pressing, and more information pertaining to the event for those unfamiliar can be found at a number of websites: Wikipedia, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, and the Salem Witch Museum. The Salem Witch Trials occurred in 1692 in the Province of Massachusetts Bay around the town of Salem Village, now known as Danvers, Massachusetts. It began when a group of young girls fell into a series of fits, and doctors diagnosed them with having been bewitched. What ensued was a series of accusations, confessions, retractions, executions, later apologies, and overall confusion. In the end, fourteen women and five men were hanged, one man was pressed to death, 150 were imprisoned, at least four of whom died, and probably 200 were accused. Some of these numbers vary depending on the source, but it is widely agreed upon that twenty was the number of deaths. The trials were put to an end shortly after the return of Governor Phips from England. Some accusers and magistrates involved slowly began to realize their error and publically apologize and rescind their testimonies, but it took until 2001 for all of the victims to finally be declared innocent. The city of Salem now bears the remnants of that horrific year, where people can go learn about the history and tour witch houses and prisons where they were kept. Although it is mostly accepted today that actual witchcraft did not occur and those prosecuted are innocent, the event still draws a lot of attention, even 320 years later. This table has been included for reference of general facts:

Executed During Salem Witch Trials, 1692

Bridget Bishop June 10th
Rebecca Nurse July 19th
Susannah Martin July 19th
Sarah Wildes July 19th
Sarah Good July 19th
Elizabeth Howe July 19th
George Jacobs Sr. August 19th
Martha Carrier August 19th
George Burroughs August 19th
John Willard August 19th
John Proctor August 19th
Giles Corey (Pressed to death) September 19th
Martha Corey September 22nd
Margaret Scott September 22nd
Mary Easty September 22nd
Alice Parker September 22nd
Ann Pudeator September 22nd
Wilmott Redd September 22nd
Samuel Wardwell September 22nd
Mary Parker September 22nd

Why Genocide?

The next issue to be addressed is why am I writing about the Salem Witch Trials under a blog entitled Imaging Genocide. The Salem Witch Trials are usually categorized as mass hysteria, and most do not consider it genocide. That argument can be made, however, and many definitions of genocide put forth by scholars could pertain to the case of Salem.

“Genocide is the successful attempt by a dominant group, vested with formal authority and/or with preponderant access to the overall resources of power, to reduce by coercion or lethal violence the number of a minority group whose ultimate extermination is held desirable and useful and whose respective vulnerability is a major factor contributing to the decision for genocide”-Vahakn Dadrian, 1975 (Jones 16)
“Genocide is a series of purposeful actions by a perpetrator(s) to destroy of collectivity through mass or selective murders of group members and suppressing the biological and social reproduction of the collectivity. This can be accomplished through the imposed proscription or restriction of reproduction of group members, increasing infant mortality, and breaking the linkage between reproduction and socialization of children in the family or group of origin. The perpetrator may represent the state of the victim, another state, or another collectivity”-Helen Fein, 1988 (Jones 18)
“Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator”-Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, 1990 (Jones 18)

To analyze and argue for the Salem Witch Trials in the context of every definition of genocide would take up far too much time, and is not the focus of my paper. I do not set out to argue whether the Salem Witch Trials can or cannot be defined as a genocide, and I leave that question up to my readers to ponder while providing enough information for them to ponder it. Given these definitions, there are a few key factors which must be assessed before making a decision about whether to deem the trials genocide.

First, only about twenty-five people died during the span of about eight months, while many more wasted away in prison. At what point does the number of people killed qualify as a genocide? Does there need to be hundreds, thousands, millions dead? While imprisoning 150 people does not seem like a lot, keep in mind the population of Salem Village around this period was roughly only 600. That means a third of the population was accused of witchcraft. This makes the accusations seem far more serious.

Another factor of genocide which pops up again and again is not the targeted group’s own identity of itself, but rather the perpetrator’s definition of the group. The perpetrator defines who makes up the group, whether it is real or not. The perpetrators in this case are both the accusers and the courts trying the accused. They decide what makes someone a witch, whether or not that person identifies as one or not. Some of the factors they looked for in their hunt for witches were witch marks on their bodies and spectral evidence, meaning whether or not they were able to change their shape or appear and disappear at will to torment young girls and other townspeople. The perpetrators had all the power to deem whether or not someone was a witch, and this they defined on their own standards. This also relates to the question of whether or not being a witch qualifies as part of a religious group, whether or not the person accused of being a witch practices the religion of devil worship or not.

Scholars have also often focused on the role of the state or state apparatus in the carrying out of genocide. In this case, the state apparatus is purely local, when during this period the colonies were left largely to govern themselves. The most involved state apparatuses in the trials were the courts and police powers. The police powers rounded up victims and kept them in jail, while the courts tried the accused. An look at the transcripts of the examinations will reveal that the court was almost completely on the side of the accusers, and the willingness of the police powers to arrest and hold the victims shows at the least compliance. While the girls are the perpetrators that began the process, the state becomes the perpetrator by taking their side. Judges ask assuming and menacing question, usually beginning examinations with the question, “Why do you hurt these girls?,” not even giving the benefit of the doubt to the accused. Additionally, no executions or imprisonments could have occurred without the sanction of the courts because it held all the power and resources.

Finally, one major fact about the event cannot be ignored, and it is a strange and contradictory one which most hurts the Salem Witch Trials’ ability to be deemed genocide. Only those accused of witchcraft who never confessed were killed. Those who confessed were kept alive, meaning those admitting to witchcraft were the ones who lived through the entire event, excepting a few who died in prison. This goes against the usual way of carrying out a genocide, the goal of which being the eradication of the group. By keeping confessed witches alive and executed the non-compliant ones, the process reveals itself to be not one whose goal is the eradication of witches, but rather a political process. After the first couple rounds of hangings, those accused began to learn that confession meant life, and they exploited this fact to keep their lives, often times becoming accusers themselves. All other factors aside, this is the most significant evidence against defining the Salem Witch Trials as a genocide. Additionally, the mention of restriction of reproductive rights appears in many of the definitions of genocide, and this is an interesting matter related to the Salem Witch Trials. Often times when one person in the family was accused, accusations toward the rest of the family would soon follow. This would result in husbands and wives being kept in jail, separately, such as the case of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Elizabeth, however, survived the duration of the trials, despite being sentenced to death, because she was pregnant. This suggests further evidence against the trials being defined as genocide, but this distinction between mother and child and devotion to the protection of innocent children dissolves, however, when we examine the case of Sarah Good: “The judicial authorities scrupulously protected prenatal life; only after the birth of the child could its mother be hanged. The needs of Sarah Good’s other child, Dorcas, mattered less to the authorities. This child, 4 or 5 years old, remained in chains for seven or eight months. Dorcas Good had been declared a witch,” and Sarah Good’s baby “died in prison before Sarah Good hanged” (Rosenthal 89). This fact reveals a seemingly far less concern for the life of children, suggesting its closeness to genocidal tendencies of reducing reproductive rights.

The connection between the Salem Witch Trials and genocide also exists beyond definitions. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel gave the dedication speech for the memorial erected in Salem in 1992 to honor and proclaim the innocence of those who died. Just as the victims of the Salem Witch Trials were persecuted for what they seemingly believed, so was Elie Wiesel, and his presence “emphasized the association of Salem with persecution and suffering” (Rosenthal 208). In addition, the slogan “Never Again, ” which stemmed from the Holocaust, also appears in connection with Salem Witch Trials: “At the memorial in Salem on November 10, 1992, there rested on a stone border by the entrance a wreath of flowers with an inscribed ribbon band reading ‘Never Again the Burnings’” (Rosenthal 210). Besides the fact that the idea that people were burned and not hanged is one of the many historical misconceptions surrounding the trials, the author of the sign new the obvious connection they were making between the trials and the most famous and formidable cases of genocide in recent history.


Defining the Salem Witch Trials in the context of genocide, however, is not my concern here. My purpose is to examine how its memory is portrayed in the city of Salem, Massachusetts today through images. What I’ve found surrounding the memory of the Salem Witch Trials is one contradiction after another. Only a small minority of the town’s population believes real witches existed then and exist now, yet the town is full of images of witches. The residents are at odds with their desire to forget and distance themselves from the event and their economic gain from the tourism industry that has established itself there. And the memory of the event does not hinge on historical accuracy, but rather on what people like to remember.

First at issue is the incongruity between using the witch motif and not believing in witchcraft. As Bernard Rosenthal, a professor at Binghamton University with a PhD from the University of Illinois phrased it in his book Salem Story, “a problem that would become endemic to stories about Salem [is] that of proclaiming the injustice of what happened, rejecting the idea of witchcraft, while at the same time keeping the titillation of witchcraft as a central motif” (Rosenthal 165). This contradiction can be seen through the geography of Salem itself. The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, which proclaims the innocence of the twenty victims, is located just blocks littered with witch-related giftshops from the Salem Witch Museum, a great description of which is provided by Frances Hill, an author who specializes in the Salem Witch Trials: “As it happens, though always intended as moneymaking enterprise, this [the Witch Museum] became, and remains, the best educational venue on the witch trials in town. Its twenty-minute show belies the expectation of schlock aroused by the building’s mock Gothic appearance, giving an arresting and largely accurate account of the witch trials. A series of tableaux and life-size figures in detailed settings are ranged round the walls of a large room darkened on entry. The tableaux are lighted one by one as a voice-over tells the story of the witch hunt. Though some detail of it is misleading, the viewer comes away with a good overall picture of the horror and extent of the episode” (Hill 286). Tour guides and the local Wiccan population dress as witches, and tourists can get their fortune read at a number of locations. Many of the visitors to Salem, myself included, do not believe witchcraft truly occurred in 1692, yet amuse themselves with the museums, tours, and giftshops, all dedicated to the theme of witchcraft. All of the victims were proclaimed innocent by the government of Massachusetts by 2001, suggesting that it does not believe in witchcraft. In contrast, the Salem government continues to use the witch as a central part of its identity. The city’s nickname is Witch City, its high school team the Salem Witches, and, its Police and Fire Departments, as well as the city’s water tower, all use a witch on their logo, and they are not alone. This clearly demonstrates the contradiction between not believing in witches yet embracing the image of a witch throughout the town.

Another contradiction present in Salem’s memory of the witchcraft trials is its identity with it. Residents and administrators struggle between the desire to distance themselves from an event widely recognized as the murder of innocents and the economic benefit from the tourist industry surrounding that event. Rosenthal describes this phenomenon as well: “The town of Salem has ambivalently accepted this connection, and has struggled between appreciation of tourist dollars and discomfort with its bad reputation stemming from associations with persecution and witchcraft” (Rosenthal 204). Another twist is added to this contradiction, however, when it is realized that Salem is not even the original location of the witch trials. It began in Salem Village, now known as Danvers, where most of the executed lived, and where many accusations, examinations, and imprisonments occurred. Some were tried and imprisoned in Salem, however, as well as the probable location of the actual executions on Gallows Hill. The connection between the trials and the city forged, however, and it stuck. As Hill wrote, “The journey from witch trials to ‘witch city’ was the result of confusion, historical accident, and economic pressure” (Hill 283). Salem has tried to distance itself from the trials in the past, but any attempts were futile, and the city now reluctantly embraces it, greatly benefitting from the tourism dollars surrounding witchcraft: “The town of Salem has struggled with its location as the place of witch trials, partly exploiting the tourism and partly looking for redemption. Salem, now comprising about 38,000 people, is a tourist attraction that brings in over a million people a year, 100,000 for the ‘Haunted Happenings’ Halloween celebration alone” (Rosenthal 206). Indeed from what I can remember as a seventeen year-old touring the streets of Salem, witch tourism is everywhere. I visited the Salem Witch Museum, took a tour of sites related to the trials throughout the city, shopped at giftshops, and visited the memorial. I visited Salem in July, so it was not even their busiest time of the year, yet the atmosphere of Halloween was already around, and I encountered people dressed in costume. Indeed it is impossible to escape witchcraft in the heart of Salem, although there are many non-witch related tourist attractions, most notably dealing with Nathaniel Hawthorne (even though he has faint connections to the trials), and maritime exhibits. Although the town may want to forget about the past and lose its association with the murder of innocent victims, it also wants to keep its tourism dollars, and this is demonstrated through the fact that these attractions and exhibits are allowed to stay, and indeed thrive. An example of this is the postcard I bought during my 2007 visit to Salem:

This postcard clearly shows the connection between Salem and witches, but is just merely one example of the city’s embracing of this unfortunate connection.

Finally, what is most striking about the memory of the Salem Witch Trials is that a lot of it isn’t true. They didn’t actually occur in Salem. The victims were hung, not burned at the stake. Many of the “afflicted children” were women up to age thirty, and even a male slave. Stereotypes surrounding certain victims are unfounded, such as Ann Pudeator as a sex symbol, or Bridget Bishop’s reputation as an eccentric tavern-owner. John Proctor likely did not have an affair, and most certainly not with Abigail Williams, as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Nobody knows where the victims were buried, and the site of the executions, and many other stops on the tours, are not certain to be those locations. It is this fact, however, that intrigues me the most. During my witch tour through Salem, we stopped a number of locations claiming to be this or that site related to the trials, most of which I cannot recall now, but one which stands out to me, and therefore do remember, was where the tour guide told us Giles Corey was likely pressed to death. The story of Giles Corey, for me and not surprisingly many others, stands out as uniquely intriguing. Giles, husband of Martha Corey, executed on September 22nd, was pressed to death by Sheriff George Corwin by placing a board on his body and slowly adding more and more rocks to the board, a process called peine forte et dure, for refusing to enter into a plea. An enduring myth surrounding the story is that he continued to cry out “More weight!” throughout the process, and never conceded into entering into a plea. It is said it took two days for him to succumb to the torture. I have been unable to determine whether or not the site our tour guide pointed out as being the probable site of Corey’s death is true. Indeed, I cannot even remember or determine from the photograph where in Salem it is. I have not set out, however, to prove what is true or is not true about the trials, but rather to talk about the memory associated with it, which will invariably include historical inaccuracies. It is the very fact that this gap between reality and memory exists.

The supposed location is now a cemetery, quietly surrounded by typical north-eastern America styled homes, with a chain-linked fence surrounding it. The cemetery seems unorganized and scattered, however, and few small headstones are scattered throughout. I took this photograph, however, and indeed remember what I was photographing, not only because Corey’s story struck me more forcefully, but also because it was strange for me to think, standing in the middle of a nice quiet neighborhood on a bright summer day, that at some point in time this was the site of the horrendous and enduring torture of an innocent man. I use this photograph for this project, not only because it is one which I took, but because it demonstrates an important fact to remember surrounding all events of the past, genocide or not: Photographs are not always reliable sources, but they are important for understanding how the past is remembered.


As we have seen, the memory surrounding the Salem Witch Trials is full of contradictions and misinformation. The town uses the image of a witch everywhere while denying their true existence. It also struggles with its identity as the place where the murder of innocent people yet, yet is also benefits from the tourism dollars from that struggle. And gaps between truth and memory exist, yet they exist for a reason, and they tell us something about how we deal with past tragedies. The Salem Witch Trials are certainly not the only events in history surrounded by misinformation and misconception, and Salem is not the only place where the memory of an event projects itself in a specific manner, whether true or not. Other posts in this blog can attest to this. But the usage of images can teach us about how people deal with the events of our past, whether tragic or happy, and this may give us a clue on how to proceed for the future.

Works Cited

Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.

Hill, Frances. “Salem as Witch City.” Salem: Place, Myth, Memory. Ed. Dane Anthony Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004. 283-296. Print.