19th century life and 17th century witch trials

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Working farm at Old Sturbridge Village             Rebecca Nurse on trial in Salem

Two different parts of American history gained our attention after arriving in Massachusetts. The first was typical New England life in the early 19th century and the second was the world renowned witch trials that took place in Salem in 1692.

Old Sturbridge Village is a living history museum that sets out to show life in a New England agricultural village in the 1830s, although some parts date back as far as the 1790s.

It is a massive site that includes more than 200 acres of land, some 60 antique and replica buildings, a farm complete with animals, three different types of mills close to a mill pond – with costumed guides ready and willing to explain life in the 19th century.

Started as the result of the historical collections of antique furniture and clocks, and spurred on by one family, the village has grown since its beginnings. While the project was put on ice during the second World War, it reopened in 1946 and has steadily expanded the number and type of buildings it possesses; often relocating them from their previous sites throughout the New England states.

It was a real eye-opener to see, at first hand, such a great example of living history and it was an absolute delight to see, and talk, various costumed people working in the village. During our visit, these included a farmer working as a potter as the farm permitted, a schoolmistress, family and workmen at the working farm, a tin worker, two blacksmiths, a tinsmith and a printer, to name just a few.

The village is both entertaining and educational; it is well worth a visit.

A two-hour drive took us to Salem that was the location of the infamous witch trials that took place in 1692. There are a number of museums dedicated to those events and we chose to visit the Salem Witch Museum.

The museum sets out to both examine the events surrounding the trials and explore today perceptions of witches and witchcraft. To do this, it has two presentations:

The first is based on actual trial documents. In that, we experienced the drama of that dark time though thirteen life-size stage sets, figures, lighting and a stirring narration that unveiled the web of lies and intrigue of the Salem Witch Hunt.

In the second presentation, Witches: Evolving Perceptions, an extremely knowledgeable guide took us through changing interpretations of witches, the truth behind the stereotypes, Wicca and witchcraft practice today and the frightening phenomenon of witch hunting.

Afterwards, Lisa and I spent a most pleasant few minutes talking with our guide during which we congratulated the museum for its handling of the whole story and the modern day part which had been so very well researched.

To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to look at the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village families and rivalry with nearby Salem Town combined with a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring native tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion.

Soon, prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem; their names had been ‘cried out’ by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England – the practice of witchcraft.

In June 1692, a special court sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop who was found guilty and was hanged. Thirteen women and five men followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October that year.

The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the “witchcraft” court, did not allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried earlier. The new court released those awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch trials were over.


The accused

Hanged: Bridget Bishop, Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How, Sarah Wilds, George Burroughs, John Proctor, John Willard, George Jacobs Snr, Martha Carrier, Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeater, Margaret Scott, Wilmott Reed, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker.

Pressed to death: Giles Corey.

Accused, not hanged but died in prison: Sarah Osborne, Roger Toothaker, Lyndia Dustin, Ann Foster.


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