Expert: In 320 Years, Message of the Salem Witch Trials Morphed Through History

Today the Salem witch trials, which began March 1, 1692, stand for bad government leaders overstepping boundaries, McCarthyism and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” but a Texas Tech historian says the trials haven’t always had the same meaning throughout history.

Pitch

Today the Salem witch trials, which began March 1, 1692, stand for bad government leaders overstepping boundaries, McCarthyism and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” but a Texas Tech historian says the trials haven’t always had the same meaning throughout history.

 

Expert

Gretchen Adams, associate professor of history and author of “The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Ninteenth-Century America,” Texas Tech University, (806) 885-4567 or gretchen.adams@ttu.edu.

Talking Points

  • In her book “The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America” she discusses how the metaphor’s use in political rhetoric and meaning to Americans in the 1800s differs from how people view the story today.
  • Though also used against Catholics and Mormons during the 19th century, the most important rhetorical use of the Salem witch trials was during the Civil War.
  • When railing against Massachusetts abolitionist Rep. Horace Mann, Rep. Henry Bedinger of Virginia countered back that someone from a state such as Massachusetts had no moral high ground to call slavery a form of barbarism considering the fact that Massachusetts government officials burned witches at the stake.
  • None of those found guilty of witchcraft in the U.S. were ever burned at the stake. But even today, some people associate witch burnings with the trials.
  • Following the conclusion of the war, the rhetoric changed to try and connect the South and North again.
  • By the 1920s, Prohibition, the first Red Scare and anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiments changed the story to become a moral of how bad leadership could abuse government authority to carry out egregious behavior.
  • It again became important in the 1950s – the days of McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Quotes

  • “We think of the Salem witch trials now as a story of poor leadership and abuse of the government’s investigative powers. In the 19th century, people thought of it as a tale of mass hysteria and going back to the ways of the Old World. That was a surprise to me. I didn’t expect to find this when I got into it.
  • “Back then, the story was about excessive public emotion and the potential of a political movement that might overthrow the government. It was about, ‘you go back to these Old-World, hysterical practices, and you’ll risk the republic.’ It’s a history of meanings and how we create national symbols to support things or to fight against things.”
  • “The cast of characters changes, but the Salem witchcraft symbolism rolls on through.”