M.E. Kemp on Salem Witch Trials

M. E. Kemp, author of DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE and DEATH OF A DANCING MASTER, was born in Salem in 1636 — whoops, that’s when the first family baby was born.  Her roots do go back to the first settlement of Oxford, MA in   1713, the town where her family still lives.  Kemp grew up in Oxford with a strong sense of local history, so when it came time to begin writing her first novel  — after a career in journalism — she returned to her early interest and set her first mystery in Boston with two nosy  Puritans as detectives.  Kemp lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with husband Jack and two kitties: Boris and Natasha.

 “Which Witch is Which? – The Salem Trials of 1692”

            There is no incident in our history that grabs our attention quite like the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  Even today the topic fills lecture halls and continues to inspire artistic endeavors in film, theatre, poetry and prose.  Indeed, the number of books written today on the topic would fill the average person’s bookshelves.  Just to recap: 19 people were hung and one man pressed to death as a result of the trials.  I like to point out that in Europe at this same period thousands of people of both sexes and ages were being burned at the stake as witches.  Kind of makes our twenty victims a dot on the map.  To be sure, the jails of Salem and Boston were filled with hundred of the accused, but these people were released as sanity returned.  The European victims were not so lucky.  Persecutions continued there well into the 18th century.  (By the way, the Salem victims were tried with the use of English law books.  Judicial proceedings were followed, not that that was any comfort to the families of the victims.  I give an actual sample of trial testimony in my book, DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE.)                         

            In the Colonies we did not burn witches, we hung them.  Since one man, Giles Corey, refused to plead guilty or not guilty, he could not be hung; he was pressed to death with huge boulders.  This incredibly brave act saved his property for his family.  We have to keep in mind that witches were very real to the early colonists, as were ghosts.  In fact, when the testimony of ghosts (“spectral testimony”) was finally disallowed, the trials collapsed.  How did this whole thing happen in the first place?  There are many books and television shows written about the causes.  One of them suggested “Ergot” or infected rye bread as the cause.  But it hardly seems possible that hundreds of people ate the same ergot-infected rye; most people grew their own.  

The French and Indian wars have been blamed; ostensibly the survivors came down from Maine to infect the Salem people with hysteria, but what has that got to do with witches?  People already recognized the dangers of the Canadians and their Native allies.  The media, even today, often blame Puritan cleric Cotton Mather for the Salem trials, but this is patent nonsense, as Cotton Mather at that time was only 26 years old.  The judges were colleagues of his father so he felt he was in no position to criticize these older pillars.  There is no evidence that he ever attended any of the trials, although he did ask the Secretary for transcripts so that  he could write a book about it.  Cotton Mather wrote over 400 books, so this was only to be expected.

            Town and village property and family quarrels has been proposed as the cause, and in some cases that may have been a part of the dispute, but hardly the cause.  Perhaps there was real witchcraft going on, as one book proposes?  They found an old rag doll in the cellar of one of the accused women, and that was enough to set the hounds in motion, but a toy left behind by a child in our minds today is just that: a toy left behind by a child.  One cause hits close to the truth — girls without husbands as yet.  The accusers were mainly in their teens and early twenties — had these girls been married, home and children might well have kept them too occupied for mischief.  As it was, it was a long, cold winter and a group of teen-age girls were bored.  They began to accuse some local old women of tormenting them by pinching and choking them through use of the old ladies ‘spirit’ selves.  “We must have our sport,” as one of them later said.  The village minister cried “Witchcraft!” and the hunt was on.  At first the victims were old and poor, unable to defend themselves from the charge, but seeing a chance to wreak more havoc, the “afflicted children” – remember, these girls were mostly in their late teens — began to accuse men and women more prominent in the community.  The only real defense was to run away and hide, which is what the son of pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden did.  It was either run or confess, if you wanted to stay alive, for if you confessed you were let go.  Let go for confessing?  Why didn’t the twenty victims just confess?  Because that would have been a lie and these were people of great Faith.  I’m sure I would have lied like a sneak-thief, like Baron Munchausen, like Pinnochio, if it meant saving my life!  Ah, but our Puritan forefathers were made of sterner stuff.  It’s not widely known that there was official remorse after the event and compensation was paid to the families of the victims.  One of the judges and several of the accusers later confessed their roles in the tragedy and apologized for their parts in the drama.  I doubt that ever happened in Europe.                 


“Kemp paints an entertaining picture of Colonial Boston and its surprisingly high-spirited Puritan inhabitants. Amateur sleuth Hetty Henry is plucky, independent, and a lot of fun.” –Beverle Graves Myers, author of the Tito Amato Mysteries

For more details about the author and her books, visit http://www.mekempmysteries.com