Today the Salem witch trials are perhaps the most well-known witch-hunt to have taken place in the Western world. At various times used as a metaphor for behavior deemed to be fanatical, irrational, or unjust, the Salem witch trials have long been a common cultural reference used to criticize and condemn behavior. While Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible is one of the most famous examples, the use of the Salem trials as a metaphor was common in public discourse well before the twentieth-century!
In one fascinating eighteenth century example, we can see Salem witch trials used in social discourse as way to condemn the behavior of the government of New York. In 1741, approximately 200 enslaved people were suspected of setting fires across New York City over the span of several weeks. Contemporary accounts indicate the first fire was set on March 18 at the home of then Governor George Clark, followed by subsequent fires at regular and increasing intervals. Panic gripped the city, as rumor spread that a black man had allegedly been spotted running from the scene of one of the fires. The story of a full-blown conspiracy erupted and a series of trials followed. In striking similarities to the events of Salem 1692, witnesses testified under obvious duress, eventually weaving together the elaborate story of a conspiracy hiding in plain sight. As a result, 13 black men were burned at the stake, 17 more were hanged, 84 men and women were sold to slave traders in the Caribbean, two white men and two white women (accused of being ringleaders) were hanged, and seven more white men were pardoned on the condition they went into exile.
Much like the Salem witch trials, these events took place during a complex and tense political moment, as New York grappled with issues relating to freedom of the press, the appropriate behavior of a governor, and the role of political parties. In this environment, when fires were ignited in 1741, the new governor turned his suspicions away from his political opponents, instead blaming the incident on a slave revolt. The ensuing investigation had haunting similarities to the Salem witch trials, a comparison that was not lost on an anonymous author who circulated a letter in July of that year. Copies of this letter were sent to, and published in, both Boston and New York. The author, who has been identified by historian Douglas Winiarski as Plymouth judge Josiah Cotton, noted he had read of the executions taking place in New York, and stated these “put me in mind of our New England Witchcraft in the year 1692.” After reminding the reader that “New York justly reproached us for & mocked at our Credulity” during the Salem witch trials, Cotton warned against the evidence used in the present proceedings (which, he argued, was comparable to that of the highly controversial spectral evidence used in Salem) and urged caution in accepting the mounting confessions. The conclusion of this account affirmed this advice was given by “one that ever desires to be of the merciful side.”
Josiah Cotton had cause to understand the gravity of such events, as he not only had an immense personal interest in the events of 1692, but was also the first cousin of Boston’s Reverend Cotton Mather, who infamously authored the court sanctioned account of the Salem witch trials. Having graduated Harvard in 1698, Josiah Cotton went on to become a judge, schoolmaster, and Native American missionary in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As an adult, Cotton was fascinated by the events of 1692. According to historian Jill Lepore he was “all but obsessed” (Lepore, 290). He had been 12 years old when the witch trials broke out in Salem, and had believed in the guilt of the accused at the time. Notably, he credited the change in his opinion largely to the influence of John Hale’s Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, and was such an advocate for this text, that in 1735 he attempted to induce a Boston printer to assemble dozens of unbound copies of this text, which he hoped to distribute to the public for free, seeing it as “A service to God & profitable to future Generations” (Lepore, 290).
The behavior which drove the Salem witch trials in 1692 is not limited to the seventeenth century, as evidenced by this and innumerable other examples. The similarities were not lost on Josiah Cotton nearly half a century later, as he watched fear and paranoia grip another community yet again, leading to senseless violence and cruelty. The lessons of these events provide an essential reminder of the tendency to scapegoat during times of escalated tension. Now more than ever, it is important to learn from our past, so as to strive to avoid the same mistakes.
Province of the Massachusetts Bay 1741 [July 23?],” in The Letters and Papers of the Cadwallader Colden Papers: Additional Letters and Papers (New York: New York Historical Society, 1937)
Jill Lepore, New York Slave Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (New York: Vintage Books, 2006)