Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Victims of Salem
By Charles Wentworth Upham (18021875)
[Born in St. John, N. B., 1802. Died at Salem, Mass., 1875. Salem Witchcraft. 1867.]
THE WHOLE force of popular superstition, all the fanatical propensities of the ignorant and deluded multitude, united with the best feelings of our nature to heighten the fury of the storm. Piety was indignant at the supposed rebellion against the sovereignty of God, and was roused to an extreme of agitation and apprehension in witnessing such a daring and fierce assault by the Devil and his adherents upon the churches and the cause of the gospel. Virtue was shocked at the tremendous guilt of those who were believed to have entered the diabolical confederacy; while public order and security stood aghast, amidst the invisible, the supernatural, the infernal, and apparently the irresistible attacks that were making upon the foundations of society. In baleful combination with principles, good in themselves, thus urging the passions into wild operation, there were all the wicked and violent affections to which humanity is liable. Theological bitterness, personal animosities, local controversies, private feuds, long-cherished grudges, and professional jealousies, rushed forward, and raised their discordant voices, to swell the horrible din; credulity rose with its monstrous and ever-expanding form, on the ruins of truth, reason, and the senses; malignity and cruelty rode triumphant through the storm, by whose fury every mild and gentle sentiment had been shipwrecked; and revenge, smiling in the midst of the tempest, welcomed its desolating wrath as it dashed the mangled objects of its hate along the shore.
The treatment of the prisoners, by the administrative and subordinate officers in charge of them, there is reason to apprehend, was more than ordinarily harsh and unfeeling. The fate of Willard prevented expressions of kindness towards them. The crime of which they were accused put them outside of the pale of human charities. All who believed them guilty looked upon them, not only with horror, but hate. To have deliberately abandoned God and heaven, the salvation of Christ, and the brotherhood of man, was regarded as detestable, execrable, and utterly and forever damnable. This was the universal feeling at the time when the fanaticism was at its height; or, if there were any dissenters, they dared not show themselves. What the poor innocent sufferers experienced of cruelty, wrong, and outrage from this cause, it is impossible for words to tell. It left them in prison to neglect, ignominious ill-treatment, and abusive language from the menials having charge of them; it made their trials a brutal mockery; it made the pathway to the gallows a series of insults from an exasperated mob. If dear relatives or faithful friends kept near them, they did it at the peril of their lives, and were forbidden to utter the sentiments with which their hearts were breaking. There was no sympathy for those who died, or for those who mourned.
It may seem strange to us, at this distance of time, and with the intelligence prevalent in this age, that persons of such known, established, and eminent reputation as many of those whose cases have been particularly noticed, could possibly have been imagined guilty of the crime imputed to them. The question arises in every mind, Why did not their characters save them from conviction, and even from suspicion? The answer is to be found in the peculiar views then entertained of the power and agency of Satan. It was believed that it would be one of the signs of his coming to destroy the Church of Christ, that some of the elect would be seduced into his servicethat he would drag captive in his chains, and pervert into instruments to further his wicked cause, many who stood among the highest in the confidence of Christians. This belief made them more vehement in their proceedings against ministers, church-members, and persons of good repute, who were proved, by the overwhelming evidence of the afflicted children, and the confessing witches, to have made a compact with the Devil. There is reason to fear that Mr. Burroughs, and all accused persons of the highest reputation before for piety and worth, especially all who had been professors of religion and accredited church-members, suffered more than others from the severity of the judges and executive officers of the law, and from the rage and hatred of the people. It was indeed necessary, in order to keep up the delusion and maintain the authority of the prosecutions, to break down the influence of those among the accused and the sufferers who had stood the highest, and bore themselves the best through the fiery ordeal of the examinations, trials, and executions.
It is indeed a very remarkable fact, which has justly been enlarged upon by several who have had their attention turned to this subject, that, of the whole number that suffered, none, in the final scene, lost their fortitude for a moment. Many were quite aged; a majority women, of whom some, brought up in delicacy, were wholly unused to rough treatment or physical suffering. They must have undergone the most dreadful hardships, suddenly snatched from their families and homes; exposed to a torrent of false accusations imputing to them the most odious, shameful, and devilish crimes; made objects of the abhorrence of their neighbors, and, through the notoriety of the affair, of the world; carried to and fro, over rugged roads, from jail to jail, too often by unfeeling sub-officials; immured in crowded, filthy, and noisome prisons, heavily loaded with chains, in dungeons; left to endure insufficient attention to necessary personal wants, often with inadequate food and clothing; all expressions of sympathy for them withheld and forbidden,those who ought to have been their comforters denouncing them in the most awful language, and consigning them to the doom of excommunication from the church on earth and from the hope of heaven. Surely, there have been few cases in the dark and mournful annals of human suffering and wrong, few instances of mans inhumanity to man, to be compared with what the victims of this tragedy endured. Their bearing through the whole, from the arrest to the scaffold, reflects credit upon our common nature. The fact that Wardwell lost his firmness, for a time, ought not to exclude his name from the honored list. Its claim to be enrolled on it was nobly retrieved by his recantation and his manly death.
There is one consideration that imparts a higher character to the deportment of these persons than almost any of the tests to which the firmness of the mind of man has ever been exposed. There was nothing outside of the mind to hold it up, but everything to bear it down. All that they had in this world, all on which they could rest a hope for the next, was the consciousness of their innocence. Their fidelity to this sense of innocencefor a lie would have saved themtheir unfaltering allegiance to this consciousness; the preservation of a calm, steadfast, serene mind; their faith and their prayers, rising above the maledictions of a maniac mob, in devotion to God and forgiveness to men, and, as in the case of Martha Corey and George Burroughs, in clear and collected expressions,this was truly sublime. It was appreciated, at the time, by many a heart melted back to its humanity, and paved the way for the deliverance of the world, we trust forever, from all such delusions, horrors and spectacles. The sufferers in 1692 deserve to be held in grateful remembrance for having illustrated the dignity of which our nature is capable; for having shown that integrity of conscience is an armor which protects the peace of the soul against all the powers that can assail it; and for having given an example, that will be seen of all and in all times, of a courage, constancy, and faithfulness of which all are capable, and which can give the victory over infirmities of age, weaknesses and pains of body, and the most appalling combination of outrages to the mind and heart that can be accumulated by the violence and the wrath of man. Superstition and ignorance consigned their names to obloquy, and shrouded them in darkness. But the day has dawned; the shadows are passing away; truth has risen; the reign of superstition is over; and justice will be done to all who have been true to themselves, and stood fast to the integrity of their souls, even to the death.
The place selected for the executions is worthy of notice. It was at a considerable distance from the jail, and could be reached only by a circuitous and difficult route. It is a fatiguing enterprise to get at it now, although many passages that approach it from some directions have since been opened. But it was a point where the spectacle would be witnessed by the whole surrounding country far and near, being on the brow of the highest eminence in the vicinity of the town. As it was believed by the people generally that they were engaged in a great battle with Satan, one of whose titles was the Prince of the Power of the Air, perhaps they chose that spot to execute his confederates, because, in going to that high point, they were flaunting him in his face, celebrating their triumph over him in his own realm .
Witch Hill is a part of an elevated ledge of rock on the western side of the city of Salem, broken at intervals; beginning at Leggs Hill, and trending northerly. The turnpike from Boston enters Salem through one of the gaps in this ridge, which has been widened, deepened, and graded. North of the turnpike, it rises abruptly to a considerable elevation, called Normans Rocks. At a distance of between three and four hundred feet, it sinks again, making a wide and deep gulley; and then, about a third of a mile from the turnpike, it reappears, in a precipitous and, at its extremity, inaccessible cliff, of the height of fifty or sixty feet. Its southern and western aspect, as seen from the rough land north of the turnpike, is given in the headpiece of the Third Part, at the beginning of this volume. Its sombre and desolate appearance admits of little variety of delineation. It is mostly a bare and naked ledge. At the top of this cliff, on the southern brow of the eminence, the executions are supposed to have taken place. The outline rises a little towards the north, but soon begins to fall off to the general level of the country. From that direction only can the spot be easily reached. It is hard to climb the western side, impossible to clamber up the southern face. Settlement creeps down from the north, and has partially ascended the eastern acclivity, but can never reach the brink. Scattered patches of soil are too thin to tempt cultivation, and the rock is too craggy and steep to allow occupation. An active and flourishing manufacturing industry crowds up to its base; but a considerable surface at the top will forever remain an open space. It is, as it were, a platform raised high in air.
A magnificent panorama of ocean, island, headland, bay, river, town, field, and forest spreads out and around to view. On a clear summer day, the picture can scarcely be surpassed. Facing the sun and the sea, and the evidences of the love and bounty of Providence shining over the landscape, the last look of earth must have suggested to the sufferers a wide contrast between the mercy of the Creator and the wrath of his creatures. They beheld the face of the blessed God shining upon them in his works, and they passed with renewed and assured faith into his more immediate presence. The elevated rock, uplifted by the divine hand, will stand while the world stands, in bold relief, and can never be obscured by the encroachments of society or the structures of art,a fitting memorial of their constancy. When, in some coming day, a sense of justice, appreciation of moral firmness, sympathy for suffering innocence, the diffusion of refined sensibility, a discriminating discernment of what is really worthy of commemoration among men, a rectified taste, a generous public spirit, and gratitude for the light that surrounds and protects us against error, folly, and fanaticism, shall demand the rearing of a suitable monument to the memory of those who in 1692 preferred death to a falsehood, the pedestal for the lofty column will be found ready, reared by the Creator on a foundation that can never be shaken while the globe endures, or worn away by the elements, man, or timethe brow of Witch Hill. On no other spot could such a tribute be more worthily bestowed, or more conspicuously displayed. The effects of the delusion upon the country at large were very disastrous. It cast its shadows over a broad surface, and they darkened the condition of generations. The material interests of the people long felt its blight. Breaking out at the opening of the season, it interrupted the planting and cultivating of the grounds. It struck an entire summer out of one year, and broke in upon another. The fields were neglected; fences, roads, barns, and even the meeting-house, went into disrepair. Burdens were accumulated upon the already overtaxed resources of the people. An actual scarcity of provisions, amounting almost to a famine, continued for some time to press upon families. Farms were brought under mortgage or sacrificed, and large numbers of the people were dispersed. One locality in the village, which was the scene of this wild and tragic fanaticism, bears to this day the marks of the blight then brought upon it. Although in the centre of a town exceeding almost all others in its agricultural development and thriftevery acre elsewhere showing the touch of modern improvement and culturethe old meeting-house road, from the crossing of the Essex Railroad to the point where it meets the road leading north from Tapleyville, has to-day a singular appearance of abandonment. The surveyor of highways ignores it. The old, gray, moss-covered stone walls are dilapidated and thrown out of line. Not a house is on either of its borders, and no gate opens or path leads to any. Neglect and desertion brood over the contiguous grounds. Indeed, there is but one house standing directly on the roadside until you reach the vicinity of the site of the old meeting-house; and that is owned and occupied by a family that bear the name and are the direct descendants of Rebecca Nurse. On both sides there are the remains of cellars, which declare that once it was lined by a considerable population. Along this road crowds thronged in 1692, for weeks and months, to witness the examinations.
The ruinous results were not confined to the village, but extended more or less over the country generally. Excitement, wrought up to consternation, spread everywhere. People left their business and families, and came from distant points, to gratify their curiosity and enable themselves to form a judgment of the character of the phenomena here exhibited. Strangers from all parts swelled the concourse, gathered to behold the sufferings of the afflicted as manifested at the examinations; and flocked to the surrounding eminences and the grounds immediately in front of Witch Hill, to catch a view of the convicts as they approached the place selected for their execution, offered their dying prayers, and hung suspended high in air. Such scenes always draw together great multitudes. None have possessed a deeper, stronger, or stranger attraction; and never has the dread spectacle been held out to view over a wider area, or from so conspicuous a spot. The assembling of such multitudes so often, for such a length of time, and from such remote quarters, must have been accompanied and followed by wasteful, and in all respects deleterious, effects. The continuous or frequently repeated sessions of the magistrates, grand jury, and jury of trials; and the attendance of witnesses summoned from other towns, or brought from beyond the jurisdiction of the Province, and of families and parties interested specially in the proceedings, must have occasioned an extensive and protracted interruption of the necessary industrial pursuits of society, and heavily increased the public burdens.