Freethought Month

Salem Witch TrialOctober is Freethought Month because October 12th is Freethought Day. The abbreviated explanation for this is that the Salem witchcraft trials were essentially ended in October of 1692 by Massachusetts Governor Sir William Phips. One of the chief concerns was the "spectral evidence" — the apparitions claimed to be seen by the accusers but no one else — that was being allowed in court. By that time, 19 people had already been hanged, another had been crushed to death with stones and hundreds more were in jail or accused. What is not generally realized today is that the hysteria involved the whole region, not just Salem Village. The New England authorities had even been corresponding with ministers in New York over theological and "satanological" questions.

PhipsIn a letter dated October 12th, 1692, Phips wrote to the British Crown, King William and Queen Mary and their Privy Council. This was also a critical time in British history, only 3 years after the Catholic King James II fled the country in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Phips had been recently fighting against the Indians when he wrote in his letter:

I hereby declare that as soon as I came from fighting against their Majesties Enemyes and understood what danger some of their innocent subjects might be exposed to, if the evidence of the afflicted persons only did previle either to the committing or trying of any of them, I did before any application was made unto me about it put a stop to the proceedings of the court.

The proceedings did later resume, finally finishing in the spring of 1693. "Spectral evidence" was not completely excluded, but it was discounted. And no one else was executed.

Historians and others have puzzled over the Salem hysteria — better referred-to as the Essex County witch hysteria — for a long time. As is noted in the bulletin, ergot poisoning and other biological explanations don't fit the facts. There were certainly economic and political strains that may have played a role &mdash Salem Village was a kind of "captive" agricultural region subordinate to the town of Salem. But one factor did not get much attention until historian Mary Beth Norton published her analysis in her book In The Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

King William's WarNorton was the first to draw attention to the fact that the New England colonists at that time were in the midst of what is now known as King William's War, and, for them, it was a kind of war of terrorism. England and France were then at war and the woodland Indians to the north and east were supporting the French in joint operations. Less than two years previously, on February 8, 1690, a war party sent from Canada slaughtered everyone they could find in Schenectady in a predawn attack. The following month, the same thing happened in Salmon Falls, New Hampshire. And in May of that year five hundred Canadians and Indians struck at Fort Loyal at Casco Bay, Maine, now the city of Portland, Maine. There, the defenders held out for four days, surrendering when they were promised their lives. But as they filed out unarmed, the Indians killed and scalped almost everyone while the French troops stood by.

The very month in which the "witchcraft" in Salem Village began, the "Candlemas Massacre" took place in what is now York, Maine, less than 50 miles away. The settlement was reduced to ashes, about 100 people were killed, including the town's minister, and 80 others were taken on a forced march back to Canada from where some were ransomed. Mercy Lewis, one of the accusers in the witchcraft trials, had come from Maine where she had lost her entire family in one of the attacks. And most of the other participants in the episode were related to or knew others who had suffered.

Twin TowersThere is much more. But it shows that there is a greater context than most people are aware of when it comes to the witchcraft hysteria in 1692. And that terrorism is not a modern phenomenon.