August 19, 2011

From The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History, by Peter Charles Hoffer Chapter 9, The Scoffers, pages 108-110:

John Proctor and George Burroughs were brought to trial on charges of witchcraft on August 2, 1692.  Despite their spirited defense, they were condemned to die.  The sentence was carried out on August 19, both men insisting to the end that the court was unfair to them. The Puritans of eastern Massachusetts were no more authoritarian in their views or ways than any comparable group of English men and women.  New England ministers and magistrates demanded the respect and obedience that any English pastor or justice of the peace could reasonably expect at home.  But in the midst of the witchcraft crisis, challenges to authority took on more sinister shape.  Critics of church and state cracked the wall of piety, allowing the sinuous Evil One to enter God’s land.  Indeed, cynicism and criticism were seen by some as evidence that a scoffer had already made a pact with the Devil.  Tavern keeper John Proctor and minister George Burroughs were two of these scoffers, and they paid for their attitude with their lives. The history of early Massachusetts was filled with remonstrances of religious and political dissenters.  Some dissenters, like Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson early in the century, were exiled for disputing the leading ministers’ self-proclaimed monopoly on conscience.  Others, like Samuel Gorton and Robert Child, were muzzled when they protested against the government.  The Quakers were persecuted and driven from the colony.  When a few of their number returned and persisted in their preaching, they were hanged.  By 1692 the English Act of Toleration had forced Massachusetts authorities to allow Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers to live and worship in the towns, but toleration was limited and grudging.  Proctor was associated with a small group of Quakers in Essex County, and Burroughs, though ordained a minister in conventional Puritan fashion, had veered toward the Baptist faith.  Proctor came under suspicion early in April, perhaps even earlier.  A friend of his overheard one of the girls saying that they “must have sport,” and that is why they turned their sights on the Proctors.  By the end of the crisis, nine immediate family members, including the Proctors’ three oldest children and Elizabeth’s Bassett kin, had all been arrested.  Most readers will know the family from Arthur Miller’s moving dramatic recreation of their case in The Crucible.  Miller read historical accounts but intentionally changed details.  He made Proctor younger and more attractive than he was at the time of the trials and invented an adulterous relationship between Proctor and Abigail Williams, whose age he changed from eleven to seventeen years.  In real life Proctor may or may not have had relationships out of wedlock, but they were not what he was accused of doing.  Instead, it was the usual chorus of girls seeing Proctor’s specter and feeling his pinching and punching. The girls knew that he and his wife were vulnerable, for Proctor’s wife and her kin were closely tied to Quakers.  More important, perhaps, was the fact that the Proctors were almost certainly openly contemptuous of the proceedings.  At Ingersoll’s tavern, jest became a forerunner of real accusation.  William Rayment, perhaps in drink(for there was a kind of tavern culture at Ingersoll’s, as in most of the colonial watering holes, where common people could joke, toast, fight, gamble and escape their betters’ indignation), told Ingeroll’s wife that he had heard Elizabeth Proctor would soon be examined.  Not so, replied Goody Ingersoll, or she would have heard of it.  Ingersoll was one of the semiofficial complaint makers, and he surely would have known and told his wife.  But Rayment’s companions were not so reticent – or so well informed.  Some of the accusers were there as well and began to clamor, “there good proctor, there goody proctor,” [sic] and Goodwife Ingersoll had to silence them.  The mockers then made jest of what had been, but moments before, the very sort of performance that was sending people to jail. The first accusations fell not on Elizabeth Proctor alone, as some historians have written, but on both John and Elizabeth.  He did not come to her examination unbidden and come under fire for his loyalty, as the common story reports, but had already been denounced by Abigail and Ann Putnam Jr. a week before the official inquiry into the couple convened.  He and his wife were arrested and brought to a hearing in Salem, not the Village, on April 11.  There Corwin and Hathorne were joined by Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and councilor Samuel Sewall.  Sewall had just returned from England and no doubt was curious to see what was going on in Salem.  He had long been a judge on the Court of Assistant and probably had more than an inkling that Phips would ask him to sit on the court to hear Proctor’s case.

To read more about John Proctor’s legal proceedings, please read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History.

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