For centuries, witch trials took place across Europe and its colonies. While it is difficult to know with certainty, it is estimated that approximately 45,000 individuals were executed for the crime of witchcraft, about 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 a symbol of sexism, prejudice, superstition, 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 virtual exhibit is to highlight the talented and diverse creative minds who have interpreted, and continue to 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?
- If you were to create a work of art inspired by the witch trials, what medium would you use? What themes would you incorporate?
“Witch Trial at Mount Holly”
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.
Oil on Canvas
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.
“Alice Doane’s Appeal”
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 virtual edition of this famous short story here.
You can also purchase a handmade copy produced on-site in Salem from our museum store here.
“The Witch’s Daughter”
John Greenleaf Whitter
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.
Giles Corey of the Salem Farms
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Prologue and Illustrations
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
Published in Harper’s Magazine
“Witchcraft was Hung in History”
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 personal reflection and observation, including identity, self-discovery, 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.
You can also see the original poem written in Emily Dickinson’s handwriting here.
Excerpt from “The Broomstick Train”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Illustrations by Howard Pyle
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”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
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.
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.
You can also see the piece in this documentary about Mary Wigman here:
Arthur Miller was an 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.
Though set in the seventeenth-century, this play was clearly an allegory for the contemporary actions of the House Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy. As Miller’s comparison was blatant, 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 found themselves 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.
A recording of this play performed at London’s Old Vic theatre is available on the Digital Theatre YouTube channel here.
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.
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, many issues included content 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. A selection of digitized editions of this magazine can be found on JSTOR.
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”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Stille Skygger is a multiple award winning professional Artist and Art Director with extensive experience in the contemporary art industry. Her works are based on Dark Art and Surrealism. She loves to associate beauty with “dark” objects because she believes that the universe does the same. According to her, bad things contain a part of goodness in them and in the same way all the good things have a dark side. This point of view inspires her to create paintings housing fantastic creatures, mystic characters and witches alike.
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.