Artists and the Witch Trials

For centuries, witch trials took place across Europe and its colonies. In certain areas, such as the Basque Region of Spain and Cologne, Germany, enormous and vicious witch-hunts resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. While it is difficult to know with certainty, it is estimated that approximately 45,000 individuals were executed for the crime of witchcraft, 75% of whom were women. Though legal witch trials eventually came to an end, these tragic events lingered in our cultural memory. At various times interpreted as an illustration of injustice, prejudice, sexism, discrimination (and much more), witch trials have inspired generations of artists. In this virtual exhibit, you will see a selection of creative projects inspired by historic witch trials, from the eighteenth-century to the modern day. These works of art utilize a variety of mediums, including illustration, fiction, poetry, and dance. While this is a very small sample of the wide array of creative projects inspired by witch trials, the goal of this exhibit is to highlight the talented and diverse creative minds who have found, and continue explore, the meaning and relevance of these events.

As you view this exhibit, take a moment to consider these questions:

  • What are the central themes of each work?
  • What are the major similarities and differences between these projects?
  • What events or experiences might have influenced the way each artist has interpreted the witch trials?
  • If you were to create a work of art inspired by the witch trials, what medium would you use? What themes would you incorporate?

 

Eighteenth Century

“Witch Trial at Mount Holly”
Benjamin Franklin
Short Story
October 22,1730

In 1730, Benjamin Franklin anonymously published the satirical essay “Witch Trial at Mount Holly” in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It is unclear if this story was based on an actual event— though it is speculated the piece may have been inspired by a real witchcraft episode that took place in rural New Jersey. Though witchcraft was decriminalized by Britain in 1736, the complex political landscape of colonial North America presented challenges in the broad enforcement of this law. In this sardonic essay, Franklin described a gathering of 300 spectators as they watched officials subject two individuals to folk tests to determine if they had committed the crime of witchcraft. Emphasizing the use of mob justice and the illogical nature of these tests, this story was a criticism of popular superstition. Franklin, who was the nephew of Bethsheba Pope (one of the afflicted witnesses during the Salem witch trials), also referenced witch trials in other works of satirical fiction.

Full text can be read here: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-01-02-0056

 

Witches Flight
Francisco Goya
Oil on Canvas
1799

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is considered to be one of the most important Spanish artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Though he began his career painting for members of the nobility and royal commissions, after experiencing the bloodshed brought on by the Napoleonic wars, followed by the reestablishment of absolute monarchy and the Inquisition in Spain, Goya’s later career primarily included dark, pessimistic, highly critical themes and imagery. These works of art, such as the print series Los Caprichos, utilized nightmarish images, including witches, ghosts and demons, as a way to symbolically criticize the vices and errors of human nature. A darkly satirical series, Goya pointedly criticized contemporary Spanish society. This work targeted issues surrounding class, marriage, gender and the corruption of the clergy and Inquisition.

The artist continued to criticize the Inquisition in his series of oil paintings commissioned for the Duchess of Osuna, which prominently featured disturbing images of both witches and demons. This image is one of the six painted for the Duchess of Osuna. Though witch-hunts and executions had ceased in Spain by this time, Goya was in-part inspired by a recently republished account of the Basque County witch-hunts of 1609-1611, during which thousands confessed to practicing witchcraft. These works were most likely a criticism of the recently reinstated Inquisition and the superstitious fanaticism it encouraged.

 

 

Nineteenth-Century 

“Alice Doane’s Appeal”
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Short Story
1835

Nathaniel Hawthorne first published this fictional tale-within-a-tale anonymously, in 1835. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, the short story depicts a narrator who reads a story he’s written about incest, murder, and ghosts to two young ladies as they visit Gallows Hill. When his companions are not as frightened as he’d hoped, the narrator then tells them the true story of 1692, and learns truth is more horrifying than fiction.

 

You can view a fully virtual edition of this famous short story here: https://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/nh/ad.html

You can also purchase a handmade copy produced on-site in Salem from our museum store here: https://salemwitchmuseum.com/product/alice-doanes-appeal/

“The Witch’s Daughter”
John Greenleaf Whitter
Poem
1857

But still the sweetest voice was mute
The river-valley ever heard
From the lips of maid or throat of bird;

For Mabel Martin sat apart,
And let the hay-mow’s shadow fall
Upon the loveliest face of all

She sat apart, as one forbid,
Who knew that none would condescend
To own the Witch-wife’s child a friend.

The seasons scarce had gone their round,
Since curious thousands throng to see
Her mother at the gallows-tree;

And mocked the prison-palsied limbs
That faltered on the fatal stairs,
And wan lip trembling with its prayers!

Few questioned of the sorrowing child,
Or, when they saw the mother die,
Dreamed of the daughter’s agony.

They went up to their homes that day,
As men and Christians justified:
God willed it, and the wretch had died!

Dear God and Father of us all,
Forgive our faith in cruel lies,--
Forgive the blindness that denies!

Forgive thy creature when he takes,
For the all-perfect love Thou art,
Some grim creation of his heart.

Cast down our idols, overturn
Our bloody altars; let us see
Thyself in Thy humanity!

Young Mabel from her mother’s grave
Crept to her desolate hearth-stone,
And wrestled with her fate alone;

With love, and anger, and despair,
The phantoms of disordered sense,
The awful doubts of Providence!
Oh, dreary broke the winter days,
And dreary fell the winter nights
When, one by one, the neighboring lights

Went out, and human sounds grew still,
And all the phantom-peopled dark
Closed round her hearth-fire’s dying spark.

And summer days were sad and long,
And sad the uncompanioned eves,
And sadder sunset-tinted leaves,

And Indian Summer’s airs of balm;
She scarcely felt the soft caress,
The beauty died of loneliness!

The school-boys jeered her as they passed,
And when she sought the house of prayer,
Her mother’s curse pursued her there.

And still o’er many a neighboring door
She saw the horseshoe’s curved charm,
To guard against her mother’s harm:

That mother, poor and sick and lame,
Who daily, by the old arm-chair,
Folded her withered hands in prayer;—

Who turned, in Salem’s dreary jail,
Her worn old Bible o’er and o’er,
When her dim eyes could read no more!

She tried and pained, the poor girl kept
Her faith, and trusted that her way,
So dark, would somewhere meet the day.

And still her weary wheel went round
Day after day, with no relief
Small leisure have the poor for grief.

This poem is part of a longer work entitled “Mable Martin.” You can read the entire poem here http://myweb.northshore.edu/users/sherman/whittier/amesbury/ft_mabelmartin.html 

Giles Corey of the Salem Farms
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Prologue and Illustrations
1863

 

Prologue

Delusions of the days that once have
been,
Witchcraft and wonders of the world
unseen,
Phantoms of air, and necromantic
arts,
That crushed the weak and awed the
stoutest hearts, –
These are our theme to-night; and
vaguely here,
Through the dim mists that crowd the
atmosphere,
We draw the outlines of weird figures
cast
In shadow on the background of the
past.

Who would believe that in the quiet
town
Of Salem, and amid the woods that
crown
The neighboring hillsides, and the
sunny farms
That fold it safe in their paternal
arms,—
Who would believe that in those
peaceful streets,
Where the great elms shut out the
summer heats,
Where quiet reigns, and breathes
through brain and breast
The benediction of unbroken rest,—
Who would believe such deeds could
find a place
As those whose tragic history we re-
 trace?

‘Twas but a village then: the good-
man ploughed
His ample acres under sun or cloud;
The good wife at her doorstep sat and
spun,
And gossiped with her neighbors in the sun;
The only men of dignity and state
Were then the Minister and the Ma-
gistrate,

Who ruled their little realm with iron
rod,
Less in love than in the fear of
God;
And who believed devoutly in the
powers
Of Darkness, working in this world of
ours,
In spells of Witchcraft, incantations
dread,
And shrouded apparitions of the dead.
Upon this simple folk “with fire and
flame,”
Saith the old Chronicle, “the Devil
came;
Scattering his firebrands and his pois-
onous darts,
To set on fire of Hell all Tongues and
hearts!
And ‘tis no wonder; for, with all his
host,
There most he rages where he hateth
most,
And is most hated; so on us he brings
All these stupendous and portentous
things!”


Something of this our scene to-night
will show;
And ye who listen to the Tale of
Woe,
Be not too swift in casting the first
stone,
Nor think New England bears the
guilt alone.
This sudden burst of wickedness and
crime
Was but the common madness of the
time,
When in all lands, that lie within the
sound
of Sabbath bells, a Witch was burned
or drowned.

Arresting a Witch
Howard Pyle
Published in Harper’s Magazine
Illustration
1883

“Witchcraft was Hung in History”
Emily Dickinson
Stanza
1883

Though she lived much of her life in isolation, and was not famous during her lifetime, today Emily Dickinson is regarded as one of the most gifted and prolific poets in American literary history.  Though she published little during her lifetime, Dickinson wrote thousands of poems. These works covered a wide array of subjects, drawn from person reflection and observation, including identity, self-discover, love, nature, and religion. This brief poem is just four lines, but is a beautiful and poignant comment on the history of witchcraft and its connections to the modern world.

You can read this poem here: https://hellopoetry.com/poem/4048/witchcraft-was-hung-in-history/

You can also see the primary source document written in Emily Dickinson’s handwriting here: https://acdc.amherst.edu/view/asc:6832

Excerpt from “The Broomstick Train”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Illustrations by Howard Pyle
Poem
1891

 

Look out! Look out, boys! Clear the track!
The witches are here! They’ve all come
back!
They hanged them high,-- No use! No
Use!
What cares a witch for a hangman’s noose?
They buried them deep, but they wouldn’t lie
still,
For cats and witches are hard to kill;
They swore they shouldn’t and wouldn’t
die,--

--A couple of hundred years, or so,
They had knocked about in the world below,
When an Essex Deacon dropped in to call,
And a homesick feeling seized them all;
For he came from a place they knew full well,
And many a tale he had to tell.

They long to visit the haunts of men,
To see the old dwellings they knew again,
And ride on their broomsticks all around
Their wide domain of unhallowed ground.

In Essex county there’s many a roof
Well known to him of the cloven hoof;
The small square windows are full in view
Which the midnight hags went sailing through,
On their well-trained broomsticks mounted
high,
Seen like shadows against the sky;
Crossing the track of owls and bats,
Hugging before them their coal-black cats.

Well did they know, those gray old wives,
The sights we see in our daily drives:
Shimmer of lake and shine of sea,
Brown’s bare hill with its lonely tree,
(It wasn’t then as we see it now,
With one scant scalp-lock to shade its brow;)
Dusky nooks in the Essex woods,
Dark, dim, Dante-like solitudes,
Where the tree-toad watches the sinuous snake
Glide through his forests of fern and brake;
Ipswich River; its old stone bridge;
Far off Andover’s Indian Ridge,
And many a scene where history tells
Some shadow of bygone terror dwells”

 

Twentieth Century

“Witch-Wife”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Poem
1917

Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American poet and playwright. Millay won fame at an early age with the publication of her poem “Renaissance” and went on to received a Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Millay’s poetry frequently dealt with topics related to the female experience and feminist struggle. Her 1917 poem “Witch-Wife”  used the figure of the witch to  compare the qualities of the ideal woman (a wife) with those who failed to fit within traditional gender norms (the witch). In her biography Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford notes Millay may have composed this poem as a self-portrait.

You can read the poem in its entirety here: https://poets.org/poem/witch-wife 

“Hexentanz II”
Mary Wigman
Interpretive Dance
1926

This interpretive dance was created by German artist Mary Wigman as an update to her 1914 piece “Hexentanz” (in English “Witch Dance”). The piece was initially performed during her solo debut in Munich. The second iteration of this work, performed in 1926, was altered from the first in several distinct ways. In this version, there is percussive music (while the first had no accompaniment) and Wigman donned a different costume, including a full facial mask. Mary Wigman was a unique artist for her day, as she choreographed her own pieces. In “Hexentanz,” Wigman interpreted the witch as a figure related to women’s empowerment and independence. Wigman described the witch in this piece as “The image of one possessed, wild and dissolute, repelling and fascinating. The hair unkempt, the eyes deep in their sockets, the nightgown shifted about, which made the body appear almost shapeless: there she was—the witch—the earth-bound creature with her unrestrained, naked instincts, with her instable lust for life, beast and woman at once and the same time.”

You can view a clip from this piece here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hk7Ie3rbcSQ

You can also see the piece in this documentary about Mary Wigman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFCVWVaeevA

 

The Crucible
Arthur Miller
Play
1953

Arthur Miller was American playwright born in New York in 1915. The Crucible is a dramatic retelling of the Salem witch trials focused primarily on the experience of John Proctor, one of the 19 individuals hanged for witchcraft in 1692. While The Crucible is a phenomenal piece of American literature, it is very much a work of fiction. Miller took significant dramatic liberties with this story and fabricated many of the major plot points, such as the romance between Abigail Williams and John Proctor and the supposed circle of girls who met in the woods to practice the occult with Tituba.

Despite being set in the seventeenth-century, this play was clearly an allegory for the contemporary actions of the House Un-American Activities and Joseph McCarthy. As Arthur Miller was quite blatant with this comparison, it is no surprise he was later accused of communism and called before HUAC. After refusing to implicate any of his friends or coworkers as communist spies, Miller was cited in contempt of congress and blacklisted. This ruling was eventually overturned, but Miller is just one of many who were accused and blacklisted for the crime of speaking out against Joseph McCarthy.

Despite mixed reviews, the production won a Tony Award for Best Play and is still performed around the country to this day.

 

You can hear a reading of this play in its entirety in this multi-part series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPyf8JCYVd0

“Witch Burning”
Sylvia Plath
Poem
1959

Today, Sylvia Plath is considered to be one of the most important female poets of the twentieth-century. Plath’s major works include the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and her poetry collections The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. Writing in a field largely dominated by men, Plath sought to break into this discipline with her own unique poetic voice. Much of her work was influenced by her life-long struggle with depression and she frequently incorporated themes and imagery related to the experience and struggle of contemporary women in her writing. In this poem, Plath used the metaphor of a witch burning to examine topics such as female identity, isolation, and individuality.

Read the full poem here: https://allpoetry.com/Witch-Burning

“Malleus Maleficarum”
Melanie Kaye
Poem
1975

WomanSpirit was a quarterly magazine published by a small collective in Oregon from 1974-1984. Created by a group of women who found a community in the female spirituality movement, this magazine included illustrations, poems, and short stories about music, art, ancient goddesses, history, women’s lifecycles, nature, politics, and feminist news Though the magazine was not specifically for women who identified as witches, each issue covered topics related to magic, ritual, Wiccan holidays, and the history and mythology of witches. This poem is from the perspective of a suspected witch in the early modern period and focuses on the physical and emotional pain experienced by a woman  in prison awaiting execution

1
all of us here we
worshipped the horned god
read books birthed children
healed illness and
knew things secrets
things they wanted to know
these men who came to us with
questions questions
and screws for our thumbs

2
I lie on straw
it stinks of shit and piss
my own I have been here
how many days i cannot
remember i
stare at my thumbs pierced through
thumbs of a stranger i do not
recognize my thumbs only the
pain throbbing pulsing my body is
alive with pain only and
fear lest they come to me again with
more pain i will say anything
anything to stop the pain
            who is this god i serve
birth flesh grain they call this god
satan i have said i
kissed his tail and when i
said it i could believe i had
done it steeped in sin
i had thought our bodies
good our own bodies now i lie on
stinking straw the stench of my
body searing my nostrils
pain of my thumbs scouring my mind
i cannot remember the god i serve
did i kiss his tail does it
matter

3
o sisters who from prison howled your
                             pain i want to
see beyond before your pain what was
                                    it like
to think your body good
to pray to a god who was himself
fleshly
it is not hard to imagine anguish and
shame tight as a damp handkerchief
screwed into a ball
what is harder to imagine is
joy open as a cup of wine a worship of
pleasure a wholeness
we come into the air
kicking squalling
adoring our parts
as a child
I hugged my stuffed rabbit to my
body felt my insides stir
and was ashamed

how to construct that
bridge through time
between humiliated child
and squirming infant each
cell its own pleasure source
between the blown-out minds broken bodies
on that stinking straw and what i
cannot see who you were

no matter: i must make of you
who i need you to be sometimes
from the center of my body
rises a longing a surety of delight and
power compelling as a river bursting its
                                     sides
and as muddy and i need to see it
clear

This poem was published in WomanSpirit Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 3, pg. 43. You can read this poem and view the entire magazine here: https://voices.revealdigital.org/?a=d&d=DBBDEEG19750401.1.45&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN—————1

Please be advised, this magazine contains images of nudity and refers to subjects such as sexual assault and violence against women.

“In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692”
Alexander McQueen
Fashion Show
2007 Autumn/Winter

Lee Alexander McQueen was an English fashion designer born in 1969. McQueen drew inspiration from historical events on numerous occasions, including the collections “Highland Rape” and “Joan.” His catwalk shows were known to be theatrical, and were occasionally provocative and controversial. This show was inspired by McQueen’s  family history, as he was an ancestor of Elizabeth How, a victim of the Salem witch trials. McQueen and his creative director visited our museum while conducting research for this show. Alison D’Amario, our former Director of Education, fondly remembered this visit for years to come. In one of her favorite anecdotes from the occasion, she recalled bringing McQueen to the Old Burying Point cemetery, a seventeenth century burial ground in the heart of downtown Salem. During this visit, McQueen unceremoniously stamped on the grave of John Hathorne, one of the judges who presided over the Salem witch trials and was thus one of the individuals responsible for the death of his ancestor.

You can view a clip of this fashion show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcNNvA3rQXY

“Court Scene”
Marilynne Roach
Illustration
1996

This illustration was drawn by Marilynne Roach for her non-fiction children’s book In the Days of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Marilynne Roach is a historian of the Salem witch trials and is currently one of the leading experts in this field. Her published work includes The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege and Six Women of Salem. Roach was also a key member of the Gallows Hill Project, a group of experts who came together to determine the location of the hangings during the 1692 Salem witch trials.

Twenty-First Century

 

“Swimming Test”
Lyssa Adams
Acrylic
2018

Artist Statement:

The “swimming tests” used during witch trials have always baffled me, because it was thought to be a simple test to reveal the true nature of a woman, but the odds were never in a woman’s favor. Either they float and live, and then are persecuted for being a Witch. Or they sink and are proven to be innocent, and most likely drown in the process. The top of the canvas has an absence of color to symbolize how society viewed the test of being a Witch in black-and-white perimeters. The emptiness creates a juxtaposition against the water and represents the bleak outcome of what’s to come next. The contrast between the white and the color creates a heaviness that almost mirrors the weight of the situation she’s in. The brightness of the water draws your attention towards it, as there appears to be freedom and movement in the color of the water compared to the rigidity of the world above her.

 

Three Poems from The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One
Amanda Lovelace
Poetry
2018

to
everyone
who said
my
great-grandmother
had a
wee bit of witch 
in her:

she’s
got nothing
on me.

-& i’ve only just begun. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“bitch,” he spits.

“witch,” he sneers.

& I say,
“actually, i’m both.”
-reclaim everything

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

dear match-boys,

you know
all those she-devils

you executed during
1692 & 1693?

well, they made sure
we inherited their power

by injecting sparks
directly into
our veins

& planting flames
at the ends of
our fingertips

& imbedding
one word at the tops of
our tongues:

“erupt.”

-katniss only wishes.

 

Photographs from Saltonstall’s Trial: The Untold Story of the Salem Witch Trials
Written by Michael Cormier and Myriam Cyr
Produced by Punctuate4Productions
Play
2019

Saltonstall’s Trial: The untold story of the Salem Witch Trials is the winner of 5 Broadway world awards. This play premiered in October of 2019 at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly, MA and is a unique take on the story of the Salem witch trials, as it is told through perspective of one of the magistrates—Nathaniel Saltonstall. Saltonstall was the only judge to quit the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and resigned following the first execution. The play follows Saltonstall as he is called to serve in Salem during the witchcraft crisis. As Saltonstall questions the legitimacy of the proceedings, he is forced to choose between integrity and self-preservation. The truth will put his loved ones at risk and himself on trial.

“Reclaim”
Ann-Marie Ciaraldi
Dance
2021

Artist Statement:

A true empath since birth, my mission is to explore the past to heal the future through movement. A classically trained dancer exchanging my pointe shoes for bare feet to dive into modern dance in my 20’s, justice plays a prominent role in my life as many of my dance works revolve around social change. As a dancer, dance educator, and choreographer, I believe fiercely that people’s stories need to be heard. Most recently, as my concentration has been on creating dance works originating from historical events, I am regularly circling back to a feminist perspective. I am quickly morphing into a feminist-centric choreographer focusing on women’s stories.

My work, Reclaim, in three sections, originates from a solo piece I performed on Proctor’s Ledge Memorial in the summer of 2020.  This piece was based on the “false stories” and betrayal that led to 25 deaths in the Salem Witch Trials between 1692-1693. In the fall, I decided to expand on the piece in a studio setting. Inspired by Katherine Dunham’s work Shango, I wanted to create a dance representing the pagan wheel of the year and the motif of the wild and free woman. I imagined women dancing in a circle around a fire. It became the prelude to the second section, and it is here that the work deepens its roots in feminism. The section begins with the dancers standing in the exact places they were at the end of the first section but with bonnets and in black and white, bringing the audience back to 1692. I wanted to give the feeling of opposition and oppression between the giving and receiving of weight. As the use of the bonnets progressed, it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale and the memes that were viral at the time regarding the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. I then implemented the feminist quotes, with the first quote from Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The third section is a reclamation bringing the women back to finding their wild and free selves. The many quoted women exemplify this path, who lived brave and extraordinary lives fighting for women’s rights. The taking off the bonnets embodies restoring their birthright of equality and freedom.

This work is dedicated to the innocent lives lost in the Salem Witch Trials between 1692-1693.