Killing the Witches: The Horror of Salem, Massachusetts
Bill O’Reilly, along with Martin Dugard, have, in my opinion, written one of the best American History books I have ever read. Killing The Witches is a thorough account of the horrible time in Salem, Massachusetts when women and men were jailed, tried, and hung for being witches. The tragedy is, of course, that none of them were.
The book begins with The Pilgrims sailing from England on the historic Mayflower. It tells how they were aiming for Virginia, but they ended up, due to storms, in what we now call Massachusetts.
When they land and finally begin to disembark, they name the new settlement Plymouth. It is bitterly cold, and as the book states, “the dying begins.” Plymouth eventually begins to evolve into a settlement. There are problems. The Pilgrims are an extreme religious group. They do not tolerate sin in any form or anything that may cause sin. However, they did come over with people who did not believe as they did. These people were called ‘strangers.” There was social trouble from the beginning. For instance, celebrating holidays, especially Christmas, was illegal in Plymouth and Massachusetts. It made Christmas illegal due to the drunken excess with which it was celebrated in England. That Law was not repealed until 1856.
If someone was caught intoxicated or committing adultery, the letter D was sewn onto their clothes for drunk or A for adultery. There were even laws against the showing of public displays of affection. When a husband and wife embraced and kissed on the dock after the husband had returned from a long sea voyage, they were observed and promptly punished by time spent in the stockade.
Salem began as an offshoot of the Plymouth colony. It was a small community, made up of, at least at the beginning, ‘strangers”, who grew tired of living under a religious law. They withdrew and founded Salem, but the Plymouth colony would not leave them alone. More pilgrims, also known as Puritans, arrived and settled there. The governing of the settlement was handed over to the Puritans, who imposed a stricter set of rules than those in Plymouth.
At this time, the relationships with the Native Americans began to break down, and the colonists feared for their lives. Native Americans were raiding colonies and killing settlers. Fear mixed with strict religious law was what began what we have come to know as The Salem Witch Trials.
The Salem Witch Trials occurred when several young girls in Salem began to act strangely. The reason for this has never been revealed, just the consequences. Witches were believed in, and their power was feared. It was thought these girls were under a spell, and the witches had to be exposed. The girls themselves began to accuse people of being a witch. When the accusation was made, the person accused was tried. Now, trials in this period were not as they are today. There was a prosecutor but no defense attorney. The accused had to admit to their crime or prove themselves innocent. There were methods used to prove a person was innocent of witchcraft. These included things like throwing someone in the river. If they floated, they were a witch; if they sunk, they were innocent and likely dead. Admitting that you were a witch would save your life, but you would lose your freedom and spend most, if not the rest, in jail.
Soon, people, adults, joined in the accusations—some for political power and some for financial gain. The girls assist these accusations by becoming hysterical when the accused enters the room. In the long run, people who did not confess to being witches and could not prove themselves innocent were hung. The total number of people killed in Salem was nineteen. Fourteen were women, and five were men. Others died in prison while awaiting trial, but how many of those there were is unclear.
The Salem Witch Trials were well documented, so we know what happened in court in great detail. Dramatizations, like The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller, must have relied heavily on these documents to tell the story, as the book Killing The Witches has many of the same details. Miller gives fictional motivations and background for the girls’ which history does not.
The book does not end with the witch trials. It goes further and explores early American history through the Revolution. It shows the ties our founding fathers had to Massachusetts and Salem. It delves a bit further into the religious beliefs of such people as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. There was a lot in this book that I didn’t know, and so I was delighted by this turn.
The book jumps from The Revolution to 1949 when an actual exorcism occurs in Maryland. The book details the exorcism and trauma to the one possessed and the family. This exorcism is the series of events that led William Peter Blatty to write the book The Exorcist. The book was not a great success, but it became a best seller when the movie came out.
The book Killing The Witches leaves us with much to think about in the book’s afterward. We live now in a world of fear. Wars are happening, and people are beginning to wonder what will happen next. We are in a post-Christian society, and fewer people believe in God. The internet via social media has taken over our lives, and we have become judges, jury, and executioners of any that disagree with our way of thinking. This happens on the small scale, where long-time friends no longer speak due to political disagreements, and it happens on the large scale, where people’s lives are ruined because of false information about them on the internet. You can add to this the number of suicides in our youth due to malicious things posted on platforms like Facebook or Instagram. The author is proving that, without a doubt, the spirit of The Salem Witch Trials lives on.
There are two other times in our history when this same spirit came into this country. The first was in 1939 when Orson Welles gave us his radio drama The War of The Worlds. We were on the brink of World War Two, and people were scared. This broadcast, which was done is a series of fictional news broadcasts, made people believe that Martians were invading the earth. A widespread panic occurred, and people fled their homes; lives were nearly lost. Of course, the authorities were called in, and things eventually returned to normal. But fear driven by misinformation caused an event that we still remember today.
The second event occurred during the 1950’s when Senator Joseph McCarthy set out to rid the United States of communism. McCarthy set up The House on American Activities Committee, and this committee was given the power to bring in and question any American citizens the committee felt were communists. A big part of the committee’s focus was on people in the arts, and many actors, directors, and writers were brought in for questioning. They were asked to name names of other communists that were known to them. Those that cooperated went on with their lives; those who didn’t were blacklisted and not allowed to work. Again, the spirit of Salem reared its ugly head.
The book Killing The Witches is a great read and one I highly enjoyed. I learned a lot I didn’t know and certainly learned how history repeats itself. It brings to mind the adage, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”