Monday, November 18, 2013

The Girls

 At the heart of the darkness that consumed Salem were the girls. What motivated them? There’s been much speculation over that question. But it must remain speculation, for we’re dealing with the complexities of hearts and minds. And no one answer can be applicable to all. Though they were the “afflicted girls” and were thus subject to group pressures, they were different people in different life situations, influenced by different forces. Yet they were not assaulted by witches, so supernatural explanations for their actions cannot apply. We must look at them from a human perspective.
            Of the inner circle that gathered in Tituba’s kitchen, the youngest was nine-year-old Betty Parris. Her role, though crucial, was a very limited one. She was the first to be afflicted, but after the initial hearing, in which she participated, Reverend Parris and his wife sent her to live with the Seward family in Salem Town, where she was carefully shielded from the rest of the proceedings. A reason for this action by her parents comes readily to mind: they saw in their child signs of an emotional breakdown. Mrs. Seward didn’t give sustenance to Betty’s fears. When the girl talked of nightly visitations from the devil, Mrs. Seward told her that the devil was a liar, and that when he came again Betty should tell him that she didn’t believe a word he said. This Betty did, and eventually the visitations ended.
            With Betty gone, eight remained. The two youngest were Abigail Williams (eleven) and Ann Putnam (twelve); they would, throughout the craze, be the most fervent and convincing accusers, with Ann the acknowledged leader. The other six girls, four of whom were in their mid-teens, mainly served as a supporting cast. The two oldest, Sarah Churchill and Mary Warren, were twenty, and it’s notable that they were the only ones who defected. Perhaps their maturity gave them a more developed sense of conscience. That they returned to the fold is understandable, considering the pressures they were subjected to (jailed, questioned unrelentingly, threatened with hanging). Both were orphans and servants. If Salem was a menacing place at the time, it must have been especially menacing to them.
            All the girls were illiterate (any letters or depositions submitted by them had been dictated to others); only two could sign their names. The Puritans valued education, but for rural villagers in the late seventeenth century it was not a matter of high priority. Some males were taught to read because it was necessary in business matters. But many young men followed the trade of their fathers, which was farming and caring for livestock; for this they didn’t need schooling, nor did the hard work and long hours put in from an early age allow for it. Females, generally not involved in business and barred from the clergy, had even less need to be educated. Daughters learned the skills they would need for their roles as wives and mothers. The illiterate could learn God’s word — which the Puritans considered to be of great importance — from sermons or having the Bible read to them.
            The girls were far from refined young ladies; they were, in the words of a contemporary observer, “cut from the coarsest clothe.” Refinement was not valued by the Puritans; bluntness in words and actions was looked upon favorably. The Puritans perceived the world they lived in to be a hard one, and they needed to be hard. Aid to the needy was freely given — this was the Christian thing to do — but pampering wasn’t proper behavior; this was true even for the young. When children reached their teenage years Puritans believed that a “necessary distance” should be established; sons and daughters were often apprenticed out or sent to live with other families. Only three girls (after Betty’s departure) were residing in the homes of their parents; though Ann Putnam was one of those, her family was in disarray. Those staying with relatives, and especially the maidservants, were not in nurturing environments. Three of these girls had experienced trauma; two had lost parents in Indian attacks and the other had witnessed the aftermath of massacres – mutilated bodies, homes burnt to the ground. A bonding between girls who were physically or emotionally separated from their parents could have taken place, and the three children of disaster could have served to cultivate a fear mentality in the group.
            Place these girls in Salem Village in 1692. Though a divided and contentious community, the danger of Indian attacks united the residents in the conviction that any threat must be dealt with swiftly and resolutely. Give these girls a steadfast belief in the existence of a devil and witches and the black arts. Then have them gather in Tituba’s kitchen to wile away the winter hours.
            The behavior of Betty Parris, and then of Abigail, was mystifying to the reverend and his wife; they reacted with concern, but they didn’t attempt to explore the psychological origins of what they observed. They lived in a pre-Enlightenment world; medieval beliefs had a strong hold among the Puritans. Still, wisdom and perception are human attributes. There was a time, as the odd behavior of the girls spread, for adults to respond differently — to ascribe what was happening as originating in the girls, not in the realm of the supernatural. Instead another explanation, one backed by the village doctor, was seized upon and grasped firmly: they were bewitched. Once witchcraft was established, the girls found themselves thrust in the role of the afflicted, under assault by the powers of darkness.
            Given their new status, what was going on in their minds? One can construct a logical sequence in their thoughts and feelings.
            The inner circle of nine did things in Tituba’s kitchen that they knew were wrong, and for which they could be punished. Some of their activities had a sexual aspect. Tituba gave them recipes for potions to catch a boy’s fancy, and when she read their fortunes with a makeshift crystal ball they were particularly interested in learning about their future husbands. Potions, fortunetelling — they had insidiously moved into the black arts, into witchcraft. A conflict arose for them. Had they gone too far? Were they under Satan’s influence? Betty’s outburst seems to have been an expression of real terror. She was not treated as someone suspected of wrongdoing; instead she was viewed as a victim of mysterious forces and was given solicitous attention by her parents and others. One by one the rest of the girls copied her actions — for as innocents attacked by the same forces as Betty, they too could escape punishment for any misdeeds they had committed. They threw themselves into the role open to them; their behavior followed similar patterns because this would engender credibility. So it was that the initial outbreak spread and gained momentum.
            It’s unlikely that they could have foreseen the repercussions that followed. As afflicted girls they had knowledge of the utmost importance which only they could experience and describe. They were constantly urged to answer the same question: “Who afflicts you?” When the first three names were spoken the die was cast, and after the first hangings there was no turning back; a full commitment was demanded of them. The inner circle of girls remained in close contact; they provided support for one another; also, they could act in coordination. Since more accusations were necessary to retain their position — and accusations were constantly sought by adults — they moved ahead with desperate resolve. They were snared in a trap of their own making.
            But they had also attained an intoxicating — and corrupting — position of power. They had been of no consequence prior to the accusations. Suddenly they became the most important personages in the community; crowds of people, including men who held high-ranking positions, hung on to their every word and gesture. Their bizarre behavior was encouraged by adults who saw it as a confirmation of diabolic possession. As proper Puritan girls they had been obligated to conduct themselves in a grave manner. Now, as the afflicted girls, they acted with abandon; they seemed to revel in the freedom allowed them. Nathaniel Cary of Boston, who accompanied his wife to her hearing, described them as “tumbling like swine.”
            They didn’t stand as lone accusers. They were joined by a multitude of others — first an outer circle of girls, then adults, both men and women, in Salem and in neighboring communities. Witches confessed and testified. All this served to support the validity of what the girls said and did. Anyone who cast doubts on their truthfulness was a threat and must be immediately attacked (especially if it was one of their own who wavered). Like actors in a gruesome drama they stared rigidly into space, their heads snapped uncontrollably, their bodies were locked into odd positions.
            There’s a theory accounting for the girls’ behavior that lies outside the realm of human nature. It proposes that they were suffering from ergot poisoning. Convulsive ergotism comes from the ingestion of grain contaminated with ergot fungus. Symptoms can include hallucinations and painful muscular contractions resulting in epileptic-type seizures. But though the girls’ visions and fits might legitimately be attributed to ergotism, the theory fails in that it is limited. If ergot contaminated grain was present in Salem, and thus consumed by many, why were the striking outward symptoms of poisoning restricted to so few? Though some others (not all, by far) showed signs of terror and hysteria, these are common responses to emotional stress. The people of Salem believed in witchcraft — this cannot be discounted — and witches had been revealed in their midst; others felt themselves in danger of being accused. Fear and panic, not ergot poisoning, is a logical cause for the aberrant behavior that was so widespread in Salem. When a fire breaks out in a crowded building with only one exit, many deaths result from people being trampled or crushed. This is true today; it was true in Salem.
            After the girls crossed over a line, one they must be committed to, they acted with frightening calculation. Mary Warren, who was part of the original inner circle and who tried to separate herself, said of them, “They did but dissemble.” Which is what they did. We’re faced with a group of girls who told lies that could lead to a person’s death. All the spectral evidence they gave, which was accepted as the truth, were lies — because no specters existed. When they claimed to see a black man whispering in Rebecca Nurse’s ear, they weren’t suffering from a common hallucination; they were engaging in a common lie. They lied when they pulled up the sleeves of their clothing to display bite marks which they said had been made by a specter; the only possible explanation for the marks is that the girls came to the hearings with them already self-inflicted, or inflicted by one girl upon another. Their actions when possessed and tortured were clearly choreographed. At a hearing the girls screamed that they saw a most horrible figure whispering into a witch’s ear; they cringed in fear as this creature approached them; the girl nearest to the creature fell to the floor with a shriek, writhing in pain; then the next in line shrieked and fell and writhed, then the next. It’s easy to imagine them, in their private gatherings, thinking up new tricks and rehearsing how they’d act them out. They were fully aware of the deception they were engaging in.
            The two youngest girls displayed a willful impunity. Abigail Williams, sitting in the church meetinghouse, interrupted a sermon by saying, “Tis a long text.” She was bored, and let it be known; this would have been unthinkable previously. With all eyes on her, she then looked up at the ceiling and pointed. “Look where Goodwife Corey sits on a beam suckling her yellow bird betwixt her fingers.” Ann Putnam joined in, crying out excitedly that the bird had flown down to perch on the reverend’s hat where it hung on a hook by the pulpit.
            There were some at the time who said that the devil was indeed loose in Salem, and that he took the form of the girls. This accusation actually offers an explanation for their actions that gives them a measure of absolution. The girls were responsible for death and suffering. Possibly this brought on, for some at least, an unbearable guilt. A way to deal with this guilt was to believe that they were, in reality, possessed — because if Satan was dictating their actions they were freed of personal responsibility. They acted crazed, they accused capriciously, they lied and concocted tricks because they were unable to do other than the devil’s bidding. After the witchcraft craze had passed, the girls’ one defense was that they had been deluded by Satan.
            But what went on in the heart and mind of each girl will forever be a mystery.
            We don’t know what manner of lives they led after the witchcraft craze passed. Records show that three (including Betty Parris) married, but most disappear from the pages of history. Resentment toward the girls might have caused those not living with their parents, particularly the maidservants, to leave Salem. Though possibly they received forgiveness. The “we” in the words of Reverend Hale — “We walked in the clouds and could not see our way” — may have applied even to the girls.
            Thomas Putnam and his wife remained in Salem; his name would stubbornly appear on more lawsuits. He died in1699, at age forty-six; his wife died two weeks later. His estate was small and saddled with debt.
            Of their daughter Ann — who had played such a central role — we know some significant facts. As the oldest child, she helped her ailing mother in the raising of her siblings. She was nineteen when her parents died, and all responsibility fell on her. Her brothers and sisters, as soon as they were of age to do so, left Salem; only Ann stayed. As the years went by she became more and more reclusive, seldom venturing from her home. She was sickly, then became an invalid. She never married.
            In 1706, ten years before her death at age thirty-six, she stood, head bowed, in the crowded church meetinghouse while the congregation sat in silence.
            Reverend Joseph Green read the confession she had dictated to him.
I desire to be humbled before God for the sad and humbling providence that befell my fathers family in the year about 92, that I then being in my childhood should by such a providence of God be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just ground and good reason to believe they were innocent persons, and it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear that I have been instrumental with others though ignorantly and unwittingly to bring upon myself & this land the guilt of innocent blood. Though what was said or done by me against any person I can truly and uprightly say before God & man I did not out of anger, malice, or ill will to any person for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly being deluded by Satan. And particularly as I was a chief instrument in accusing Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters I desire to lye in the dust & to be humbled for it in that I was a cause with others of so sad a calamity to them & their familys, for which cause I desire to lye in the dust & earnestly beg forgiveness of God & from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow & offence, whose relations were taken away or accused.

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