The Witches of Salemville

One day, back in the Dark Ages – I think it was around 1975 – we kids were shown a movie in Social Studies about the witch trials of colonial New England. There was a scene in which the girls making the accusations against their neighbors started acting as if they were choking. As if on cue, sitting in a darkened room of 200 fourth graders, I threw up.

I saw the movie in full some years later, although I am still not sure what it was. It may have been a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), perhaps one of the ones made for television, but I have an inkling that it was something different. It doesn’t really matter. What stuck with me was the feeling that I had watching all those young women – they were actresses, after all – pretending to be attacked by some invisible enemy. And having everyone in the room – both on- and off-screen – believe them.

Fast forward to the summer of 2017. You all know what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. A motley group including neo-Nazis and members of the KKK staged a rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park, but arguably to create a scene. They succeeded.* (I’m with Michael Brendan Dougherty on what they were up to. To coin a phrase: “It was a trap!”) In the ensuing melee between the protestors and counter-protestors, an innocent woman – Heather Heyer, herself white – was killed when a self-identified white supremacist rammed his car into the crowd. Many more were injured in the clash, and two police officers died in a helicopter crash on the way to assist at the scene.

Instantly, professional associations and universities across the country leapt to assure their members that they were not on the side of the neo-Nazis and KKK. 

On Monday, August 14, the Executive Vice President for University Life at Columbia University sent out a message:
It is not every day that white supremacists march on a university campus, torches lighted, chanting “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us,” and brawling with students and others who protested their racist, neo-Nazi and other violent messages. Yet to see the events in Charlottesville as an isolated incident would miss those groups’ commitment to spreading their white nationalist views far and wide. 
Our responsibility on a university campus is to face the depth and breadth of this hostility directly. At Columbia, we reject the white supremacist violence and hatred that are at odds with our core values and our commitment to a diverse, inclusive community here and in society at large.
On Tuesday, August 15, the president of Northwestern University posted a statement:

As did the president of MIT:
History teaches us that human beings are capable of evil. When we see it, we must call it what it is, repudiate it and reject it. 
This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, we witnessed a strand of hatred. White supremacy and anti-Semitism, whether embodied by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or others, are bankrupt ideologies with a wicked aim as plain as our need to repel it. 
The United States must remain a country of freedom, tolerance and liberty for all. To keep that promise, it must always remain a place where those who hold radically opposing views can voice them. However, when an ideology contends that some people are less human than others, and when that ideology commands violence in the name of racial purity, we must reject that ideology as evil. 
I write to you this morning because I believe that the events of this weekend embody a threat of direct concern to our community. 
A great glory of the United States is the enduring institutions and ideals of our civil society. The independent judiciary. The free press. The universities. Free speech. The rule of law. The belief that we are all created equal. Each one reinforces and draws strength from the others. When those pillars come under attack, society is endangered. I believe we all have a responsibility to protect them—with a sense of profound gratitude for the freedoms they guarantee. 
At MIT, let us with one voice reject hatred—whatever its form. Let us unite in mourning those who lost their lives to this struggle in Charlottesville. And let us work for goodwill among us all.
On Wednesday, August 16, the president of Yale University posted a statement: 
Yale condemns violence, racism, and bigotry... Yale will always support in the strongest terms freedom of expression on its campus, but...this commitment in no way conflicts with our dedication to fostering a truly inclusive, diverse, and welcoming community at Yale.... At a time when the spirit of hate, bitterness, and division seems stronger than ever, Yale must foster a community of inclusion. We reject hate, violence, and intimidation.
And on Friday, August 18, the Medieval Academy of America added its response:
In light of the recent events in the United States, most recently the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the undersigned community of medievalists condemns the appropriation of any item or idea or material in the service of white supremacy. In addition, we condemn the abuse of colleagues, particularly colleagues of color, who have spoken publicly against this misuse of history. 
As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades-or, indeed, whether the idea of “crusade” is a medieval one or came later-but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.
There is fear here. You can feel it. But what, exactly, are my academic colleagues so afraid of? More particularly, what are they afraid will happen if they – the professors and presidents of our institutions of higher education – do not explicitly condemn what happened at Charlottesville?

Everybody knows that the universities at large are liberal institutions and that by far the majority of the faculty votes Democrat. Whatever you think of President Trump’s statements about these events, it is surely inconceivable that anybody would think the universities approve of anything the neo-Nazis and members of the KKK might say. You might as easily condemn them for not issuing statements about what happened in Chicago over the same weekend (two homicides on Saturday, August 12; nine on Sunday, August 13) or what happened in Barcelona on Thursday, August 17 (thirteen killed in a terrorist attack), as if not to do so would suggest they support gang violence or the Islamic State.

And yet, here they are, insisting that they do not condone what James Alex Fields, Jr. (the driver of the car), and his fellow white supremacists say, above all, the way in which the white supremacists invoke certain historic events and symbols.

It is almost as if my academic colleagues fear that if they do not speak, the Devil wins.** They have, after all, been looking for signs. As one of their number (A.B. Harvard, honorary doctorate University of Glasgow) recently wrote:
An Army of Devils is horribly broke in, upon the place which is the Center and after a sort, the Firstborn of our English Settlements: and the Houses of the Good People there, are fill’d with the doleful Shrieks of their Children and Servants, Tormented by Invisible Hands, with Tortures altogether preternatural. After the Mischiefs there Endeavoured, and since in part Conquered, the terrible Plague, of Evil Angels, hath made its progress into some other places, where other persons have been in like manner Diabolically handled.
These our poor Afflicted Neighbours, quickly after they became Infected and Infested with these Demons, arrive to a Capacity of Discerning those which they conceive the Shapes of their Troublers; and notwithstanding the Great and Just Suspicion, that the Demons might Impose the Shapes of Innocent Persons in their Spectral Exhibitions upon the Sufferers, (which may perhaps prove no small part of the Witch-Plot in the issue) yet many of the persons thus Represented, being Examined, several of them have been Convicted of a very Damnable Witchcraft: yea, more than One Twenty have Confessed, that they have Signed unto a Book, which the Devil show’d them, and Engaged in his Hellish Design of Bewitching and Ruining our Land.
No, I’m sorry, I got my notes mixed up. This is the Reverend Cotton Mather, writing in 1693, to justify his participation in the trials of the women and men of Salem and Andover who were executed for witchcraft. Here he is attempting to justify believing the witness of those who said that the witches appeared to them not in body, but as “Spectral Exhibitions” who were nevertheless able to hurt them.

For example, Martha Carrier, tried August 2, 1692,
was Indicted for the Bewitching of certain Persons, according to the Form usual in such Cases. Pleading Not Guilty, to her Indictment, there were First brought in a considerable number of the Bewitched Persons; who not only made the Court sensible of an horrid Witchcraft committee upon them, but also deposed, That it was Martha Carrier, or her Shape, that Grievously Tormented them, by Biting, Pricking, Pinching, and Choaking of them. It was further deposed, that while this Carrier was on her Examination, before the Magistrates, the Poor People were so Tortured that every one Expected their Death upon the very Spott; but that upon the binding of Carrier, they were eased. Moreover the Look of Carrier, then laid the Afflicted people for Dead; and her Touch, if her Eye at the same Time were off them, raised them again. Which things were also now seen upon her Trial.
Carrier was convicted and hanged on August 19, 1692, after her children Richard (aged 18) and Sarah (aged 7) were tortured to testify that she had made them witches, too.

Why didn’t the people of Salem realize that they were being had? I blame the Devil. No, I really do. Not because I believe that Martha Carrier or any of the other nineteen people executed in Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693 were witches, but precisely because I don’t, any more than I believe the United States now is about to be overrun by white supremacists. It isn’t. And yet many of my academic colleagues would seem to believe that it is.

Intellectuals are notoriously prone to inventing such scares and giving rational reasons for them. For example, the argument that it was the Jews who were somehow responsible for the plague that hit Europe in the summer of 1348. (Pope Clement VI tried to set them straight by pointing out that the Jews were dying, too.) Or, even better, the accusation of witchcraft itself, invented and amplified in the later fifteenth century by intellectuals like Heinrich Kramer, author of the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1487. Kramer was so convinced that there was such a thing as diabolical witchcraft (as opposed to the ordinary kind) that he believed almost everything his so-called “informants” told him, including my favorite, that witches were able to capture men’s penises and keep them in trees.

And then there was Cotton Mather, son of the president of Harvard University, convinced that there were witches in his midst.

“But there were neo-Nazis at Charlottesville!” you will say. “How can you say that that is okay?!!!!!”

Therein lies the trap that Dougherty opined. Nobody, except the few hundred people calling themselves neo-Nazis and Klansmen, thinks that it is okay, never mind American, for people to be calling for an end to our racial diversity. And yet none of the statements that I have seen issued by university presidents mentions the fact that it takes two to rumble, that both sides came armed and willing to fight. None in fact mentions that there were two armed sides, which is interesting in itself.

This is how the Devil works. He sows lies and dissension by creating divisions between people of goodwill, forcing them to take sides against each other, and scaring them with the thought that if they do not take sides, they will be seen to side with him. Perhaps the best take that I saw from one of my Facebook friends over the weekend was along these lines: “National socialists fighting international socialists, don’t get caught!”

Perhaps it would have been better if President Trump had started with this warning, rather than trying to find a way to allow that maybe there were others caught in the neo-Nazi and KKK trap than just those who died. But Americans have been susceptible to believing in witches from before there was a United States – and in blaming each other when they do not see the Devil so manifestly at work.

Not a white supremacist

*It seems to have been their third attempt. Similar rallies had been held at the same site on May 13 and July 8.
**Another possibility is that my colleagues are channeling the guilt of the academic community in Europe for not more forcefully opposing the original Nazis in the 1930s, but what happened in Charlottesville is an American story, which means witches have to be involved.

Images: Witch trial, from William A. Crafts, Pioneers in the Settlement of America: From Florida in 1510 to California in 1849 (Boston: Samuel Walker and Company, 1876). Penis tree: thirteenth-century fresco from Massa Marittima, Italy.

H/t to Nicole Suzanne Perry for telling me about her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother Martha Carrier.


  1. This could be easily spun around, the little raindrops of truth turned into a witchscare can also apply to the many conservatives afraid of "communists" taking over.


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Risus et bellum

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

Notes from the Electric Underground: A Mosaic

Mask Addiction

“There's a fencing analogy for that"*