Interview with Kelly Gascoine, The Witch House
Interview by Mayra Calvani
I understand The Witch House is the only historic home with direct ties to the witch trials of 1692. Could you elaborate? In fact, the Witch House is not just the only historic home, it is the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the witchcraft trials of 1692. The Witch House derives its connection with the witchcraft trials from the 17th century residents of the house, the Corwin family. Jonathan Corwin purchases the house in 1675 and was living here with his family in 1692. Jonathan Corwin was a magistrate in Salem and was one of nine judges presiding over the witch trials.
Other buildings in Salem involved with the trials did not survive into the 21st century, leaving behind the Witch House to carry the legacy of 1692. Plaques scattered around downtown Salem mark their original locations.
While the Witch House is the only site in Salem, there are several sites in nearby Danvers with connections to the trials. In 1692, the present day town of Danvers was Salem Village where the witch hysteria actually started.
We hear ‘witch’ all the time, but what is the actual origin and definition of the word?
Definitions of “witch” have changed over time. Puritans in the 17th century defined a witch as a man or a woman who had made a pact with the devil to do his evil deeds. They signed his black book, did his bidding, and in exchange received supernatural powers. This is the only concept of a “witch” that applies to the Witch House since we focus on Puritan life.
The mass hysteria seems to have started with a mysterious witch who cast a spell in Salem, as well as with two young girls. Who was this witch? What happened to these girls?
Actually, the myth that a coven of witches existed in 1692 or that spells were cast has been disproved by historians who have examined this area of history ( specifically Rosenthal and Norton). According to their research, there is no contemporary evidence that anyone, including Tituba, was practising magic and/or witchcraft prior to the hysteria. The mysterious witch may have been a later invention.
There were two girls, however, who were afflicted with hysteria fits, Abigail William and Elizabeth (Betty) Parris. Family members and doctors could find no physical reason for their affliction and assumed a more diabolical origin for their illness. Under pressure from adults to admit who was tormenting them and causing their fits and convulsions, the girls named Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne as witches. Soon, other young girls started to have similar fits, and this group became the core circle of accusers during the witchcraft trials.
Elizabeth Parris was removed from the Parris household early in 1692 and sent away to a relative to get better. She played no further role in the witchcraft trials. Abigail Williams was one member of the circle who accused people of witchcraft and was present at the trials. Betty Parris married, had five children, and died in 1760. Abigail Williams’ story after 1692 is lost to history. No mention is made of her past the trials. Some have speculated that she died, unmarried.
It is important to note that the actions of these two girls, Betty and Abigail, did not cause the witchcraft trials. They were part of a larger picture, the pieces of which were all necessary for the events of 1692 to take place.
Many innocent women were persecuted and killed during the witch hunt. Please give us a little historical background to understand the ‘mind’ of the people at that time and how the mass hysteria escalated to such a level?
Historians have spend their professional careers trying to decipher the mindset of the Massachusetts Bay colonists and understand how events could have escalated so much. One of then enduring mysteries of the trials, and something that many have struggled to understand, is how people could have allowed such events to occur. I would suggest several publications that can give a much more comprehensive answer than I could, specifically Boyer and Nissenbaum’s book Salem Possessed. It is important to understand that there really is no one short, easy answer to this question, just many different theories.
What ‘symptoms’ would have made a person a suspect of being a witch?
People were suspected of witchcraft for many reasons during the hysteria of 1692. There really was no set list of ‘symptoms’ that labelled a person a witch.
Some of the accused were the children of suspected witches, and they carried the taint of their parent’s reputation. When accusations began in 1692, the community remembered and accused the children of suspected witches of being witches themselves. People on the outskirts of acceptable society were also accused of witchcraft. Sarah Osborne had overstepped the bounds of acceptable society when she took her servant for her second husband.
Others were suspected of witchcraft or malefic acts by the rest of the community. For example, one woman had an argument with a neighbor about the neighbor’s pigs that had gotten into her garden. A few months later, the neighbor died. Three years after that, this woman was suspected of witchcraft and of killing that man through her witchcraft.
Other accused witches were involved in land disputes or other disagreements with members of the Salem community. Some historians believe that the witchcraft accusations grew out of long standing disputes within and between Salem Village and Salem Town. These include land disputes, political difficulties, and clan divisions. During the Salem witchcraft trials, many prominent and upstanding citizens were accused of witchcraft as well. This may reflect discontent over social and economic differences.
How would the authorities ‘prove’ the guilt of the suspects? What are ‘witch’s pins’?
The Court established to try suspected witches looked for a variety of evidence to prove that a suspected witch was actually guilty of witchcraft. One method was to look for a witches’ mark. This was believed to be an unusual marking on a suspected witches’ body that she used to feed her familiar, or spirit creature, with. Another form of accepted evidence were accounts of maleficence by the accused whereby the accused was said to by responsible for injuries done to persons or property. Spectral evidence, perhaps the most infamous form of accepted evidence, was when an accuser stated that the accused witch was sending her spirit out to torment community members. Spectral evidence was controversial, and not universally accepted, and other forms of evidence were needed to convict a suspected witch.
Many people did confess to witchcraft.
I have never heard of witch’s pins.
Were men also accused of witchcraft?
Yes, men were also accused of witchcraft in 1692. 5 of the 19 people executed for witchcraft were men, and many more were accused of witchcraft.
Are the transcripts of the actual trials open to the public?
Documents from 1692 are housed in the Philips Library, part of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. The library is open to the public. Transcripts from the trials themselves have not survived until today. All we have left are transcripts from preliminary examinations, personal accounts of the trials, diaries, and letters from 1692. Documents are also available online at the University of Virginia’s website: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/.
Of course, Salem is now known as the ‘witch city.’ Do you have many visitors every year? Are there any special Halloween events?
20,000 people a year visit the Witch House for our house tours and other public programs. We do have special Halloween events. Haunted City: Tales at the Witch House is an annual October celebration of the macabre in Salem’s history. Haunted City continues a nineteen year tradition of storytelling, featuring costumed actors, startling new storeis, and authentic settigns. The successor to the Peabody-Essex Museum’s discontinued Eerie Event, this unique six-night program makes use of the 300-year-old Witch House to provide a historic and eerie backdrop for three original tales. Each year costumed actors perform in the kitchen, bedroom, and parlor of this 17th century mansion, once the home of Witchcraft Trials judge Jonathan Corwin.
This Halloween season, during the weekend days we will host children’s activities that take place on the front lawn.
What does The Witch House offers its visitors?
The Witch House offers a unique experience to visitors. We are the only site in Salem with a direct connection to the witch trials of 1692. As the home of one of the judges of the witchcraft trials, we combine information about colonial daily life, architecture, and Judge Jonathan Corwin’s role in the trials to create an authentic and historically accurate tour. Throughout the year, we also offer fun, educational programs for local and visiting children, lectures aimed at adults, reenactment groups, and Haunted City in October.
Is The Witch House open to horror authors for book signings? If yes, what is the best way to get in contact with you, and how much time in advance of the event?
Do you think what happened in the past still has an influence on the people of Salem? In what way? Are people there particularly superstitious?
The events of 1692 have had a lasting impact on the Salem community. The town was still coping with the trials well into the eighteenth century. In 1957 the state of Massachusetts formally apologised for the events of 1692. In 1992, on the 300th anniversary of the trials, a memorial was dedicated in Salem. Today, a thriving tourist industry rests on the events of 1692.
People in Salem are not particularly superstitious, no more than any other average American. However, there is a sizeable Wiccan community in Salem.
How do you think the incident with those two young girls would have been handled now?
Belief in witches and witchcraft has changed significantly since 1692. Since those trials, Europe has undergone the Enlightenment. Today, many look for rational explanations of events. Today, people might look for a scientific explanation for strange or unknown events and not consider witchcraft.
Thank you, Kelly!