The Salem Witch Trials
Pages from The Athenian Mercury
Among some of the more unique items in our museum collection are two pages from the February 1693 publication of The Athenian Mercury. These pages are particularly fascinating as they contain an advertisement for Boston minister Cotton Mather’s account of the Salem witch trials, The Wonders of the Invisible World.
The Athenian Mercury was a London periodical published between 1691 and 1697. Distributed twice a week by an anonymous group known as The Athenian Society, The Athenian Mercury was no ordinary publication. The biweekly periodical consisted primarily of anonymous questions and answers relating to all manner of subjects; from history, to religion, science and personal questions. This was the first time this style (one could call it the “Dear Abby” style) was used in a publication and became extremely popular.
In 1693, John Dunton, the editor and chief of The Athenian Society, published his own edition of Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World. It is likely for this reason this advertisement was placed in The Athenian Mercury.
The Wonders of the Invisible World was published as the official, government-approved account of what took place during the Salem witch trials. This book included extensive writing about the phenomena of witchcraft, both in the colony and Europe, reminders as to how to lead a proper Christian life, and the specific evidence and testimony brought against five individuals executed during the Salem trials: Reverend George Burroughs (G.B. in the book), Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How, and Martha Carrier. Both Court Clerk Stephen Sewall and Chief Justice William Stoughton signed off on the work as an accurate portrayal of the events of 1692. The purpose of this book was primarily to explain the actions of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, give an account of five specific convictions, and demonstrate to the Crown that demonic forces had redoubled their efforts to overthrow the colony.
News of what had taken place in Salem during the year 1692 spread quickly in England. The reading public was aghast at the details given by Mather. Though the executions were over by September of 1692, individuals accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials were still in jail when this advertisement appeared.
The Wonders of the Invisible World has frequently been cited as evidence that Cotton Mather was a major supporter and advocate of the Salem trials. However, Cotton Mather was only peripherally involved with the events of 1692. Along with other notable Boston ministers, Mather advised against the use of spectral evidence, and recommended extreme caution from the onset of the trials. As an extremely well-read, intelligent man (he was accepted to Harvard College at age 11), his education affirmed that witchcraft was a real and frightening problem that could very well be the cause of this strange behavior. His upbringing would have also taught him to trust the judges as honest, earnest men of the law who were capable of making impartial rulings. This assumption would of course prove to be false. Unlike the magistrates of Stamford, Connecticut, who also presided over witch trials in the year 1692, the men who sat on the Court of Oyer and Terminer made irrational and dangerous decisions. Despite the warnings against spectral evidence, the magistrates allowed this controversial evidence to be used, resulting in a staggering number of convictions.
By October of 1692, it was clear the crisis had spun out of control. With twenty individuals dead, and hundreds awaiting trial in jail, Governor Phipps finally took action. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was disbanded, arrests were halted, and Governor Phips banned any publications on the subject of the trials. In a letter written by Governor Phips in mid-October, he noted, “I have also put a stop to the printing of any discourses one way or another, that may increase the needless disputes of people upon this occasion, because I saw a likelihood of kindling an inextinguishable flame if I should admit any public and open contests.” The exception to this publication ban was the book assembled by young Cotton Mather. Though he was not present at any of the examinations or trials, Cotton Mather volunteered to review the court documents and compile an official account of the witch trials.
When considering these events, it is important to keep in mind the precarious state of Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late seventeenth-century. The Colony’s charter had been revoked in 1684, and though issued a new charter in 1691, they had lost considerable autonomy. Many felt as though the great Puritan experiment was failing, and viewed the calamities of the past several decades as evidence of God’s punishment for their sins. Baker speculates this action was taken by Phips so as to “preserve the Puritan state and maintain the status quo,” though ultimately these actions would serve the opposite purpose, beginning a wave of dissatisfaction that would forever alter the colony and its future.
We will never know why Cotton Mather agreed to author this account. Perhaps he felt the need to protect the colony given the mounting struggle for autonomy and could not refuse to assist the Governor when called to do so. Or perhaps he really believed those executed were guilty, and truly felt the court had saved the community from the Devil’s followers.
Despite his relatively minor role in the Salem witch trials, the publication of The Wonders of the Invisible World has permanently altered the perception of Cotton Mather. Today, television, film, and public history sites, frequently describe Cotton Mather as a cruel and ferocious witch-hunter. The television series Salem (2014-2017) went so far as to cast him as a perverted, expert in witchcraft. In the early episodes, he is shown regularly visiting a brothel, and goes so far as to force an accused witch to parade through the streets of Salem gagged and choked. While this show is not known for its overall historical accuracy, and is particularly extreme in its portrayal of Cotton Mather, the emphasis of Mather as a crazed witch-hunter is unfortunately all too common.
After the Salem witch trials, Cotton Mather went on to be an important Puritan scholar and educator. He was one of the first in the West to advocate for inoculation, insisted both his sons and daughters learn to read and write, and was known among his parish as a kind and generous leader until the day he died.
Cotton Mather is a controversial figure in history. To some, he is a villain, blamed for encouraging the trials and supporting the proceedings. To others, he is one of the most misunderstood figures in pre-Revolutionary American history. Perhaps neither of these designations is accurate, and instead he falls into a middle ground. Though at first glance the over three hundred-year-old pages from The Athenian Mercury may appear as mere fragments of this period, the advertisement listed on these pages gives us a glimpse at the turbulent world of Massachusetts Bay Colony. By considering this story, and the mythological figure that has developed over the past three hundred years, we are reminded that history is complex, multilayered, and can often be found hiding in unexpected places.
Signature of Governor William Phips
Added to our museum collection in 2014, this is the signature of William Phips, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1692 Salem witch trials. Though the exact date of the signature is unclear, this document definitely pre-dates his appointment as governor.
Born in the remote village of Woolwich, Maine to a family of fur and weapons traders, William Phips was one of fourteen siblings. As a young adult, Phips moved south to Boston to make his fortune. Though he eventually gained the status of sea captain, it was only after he married a rich widow and became a shipwright that he began to establish himself in society. Phips seems to have been looked down on by many because of his rustic origins, particularly as he was unable to read until the age of twenty-one.
After two previously failed attempts, William Phips received funding for a treasure hunting expedition in the Caribbean in 1683. While this was a risky excursion, it ultimately proved to be tremendously successful. Upon returning to London with his bounty, the 36-year-old William Phips was knighted by King James II. Though his share of the profits (£16,000!) allowed Phips to secure a government position in Massachusetts Bay colony, upon arrival he found the disliked Governor Andros had already filled the position, and evidently had little respect for the newly-knighted treasure hunter.
After this embarrassment, Phips returned to England. It was during these years that he worked closely with Boston minister Increase Mather. As the Massachusetts Bay colony charter had been revoked in 1684, Mather and Phips both sought to persuade the crown to grant Massachusetts a new charter. When the charter was finally granted on January 3, 1692, Phips was selected to be governor of the newly-reestablished Massachusetts Bay Colony.
However, Phips did not arrive in Massachusetts Bay Colony until May 14, 1692. By this time, witchcraft accusations and arrests had been going on for months, and prisons were beginning to fill with those awaiting trial. Because of the new charter, precise Massachusetts law was still uncertain, new office holders needed to be sworn in, and courts had to be reestablished. Due to the pressing need in Salem, Phips established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer to deal with the growing number of witchcraft cases. This court is responsible for the 20 executions that took place during the Salem witch trials, the most significant number of casualties of any witch trial in colonial America.
In mid-August, Phips was called away to deal with mounting defense problems in Maine. Conflict with Natives and their French allies had caused enormous damage and bloodshed in the north for years prior. Leaving the Salem trials in the hands of officials he trusted, Phips departed to attend to the troubling situation in Maine. Upon his return, the governor was confronted with 20 executed individuals, more still convicted, and growing public dissension. In addition, a witchcraft accusation had been brought against his own wife, though Lady Phips was never formally charged.
In response, Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and assembled a new court to try the remaining cases. This court no longer allowed the use of spectral evidence as admissible proof of guilt and few people were found guilty due to a lack of evidence. Those that were convicted by the new court were saved from execution due to a pardon issued by Phips, to the considerable anger of Chief Justice William Stoughton.
Following the Salem witch trials, Phips once again turned his attention to regaining control over the areas gained by French and Native American forces. After several years of continued failure, he was ultimately recalled to England by the king. William Phips died of fever at the age of 44 in London on February 18, 1694.
Beam from the Original Salem Jail
One cannot truly understand the traumatic and devastating events of the 1692 witch trials without considering the experience of imprisonment. While the exact number remains uncertain, approximately 150 individuals were arrested on charges of witchcraft during this terrible year, and were brought to one of four jails in Essex County located in Salem, Boston, Ipswich and Cambridge. Though most survived imprisonment, it is challenging to describe the physical and emotional toll the months of imprisonment took on these individuals. Five innocent people perished while in jail, awaiting their trials or the payment of their jail fees. Several people, including the haunting case of five-year-old Dorothy Good, lost their mental faculties while imprisoned, suffering permanent damage that made them incapable of caring for themselves for the rest of their lives.
In 1692, the Salem jail was located on Prison Lane, today known as St. Peter Street. Originally constructed in 1684, according to historian Marilynne Roach, this small wooden structure measured “thirteen feet stud, and twenty feet square, accommodated with a yard” and was likely surrounded by a fence. The conditions of imprisonment were appalling. It was a dirt-floored, lice-ridden, rat infested, dark, and dismal place. Reports note it stank of tobacco and human feces. It was unbearably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Despite popular lore, historians believe the Salem jail was above ground. Though sometimes referred to as a “dungeon,” this likely referred to the main room on the first floor. Iron bars across the windows prevented escape attempts, and the accused (both young and old) were also kept firmly shackled, both for added security, and to prevent their specters from flying free. Prisoners were charged for their shackles, as well as room and board (costing approximately two shillings, sixpence a week). Some went broke during their imprisonment, and even if declared innocent, were not released from prison until they paid their jail fees.
In 1760, the original wooden jail was taken down, rebuilt, and enlarged. It is believed some of the timbers from the original 1684 jail were used in the construction of this new prison. In 1813, a new stone prison was built down the street from the original location. Wood from the old jail was used to construct a residence on the original location in 1863 by Abner Cheney Goodall. In the 1950’s, the New England Telephone Company razed this nineteenth-century building to make way for their new office building, located at what is now 10 Federal Street. During the excavation for the new building, seventeenth-century beams were discovered. It is believed these beams were part of the original Salem jail. The beams were generously donated to three Salem museums, the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and our museum. Today, this beam is on display in our second exhibit “Witches: Evolving Perceptions.”
Witches Through History
The image of the witch has evolved and changed dramatically over time. Witch trials began in the 1400’s and continued until the mid-1700’s. During this time, witches were evil, frightening figures—these images most frequently portrayed witches as haggard, menacing, and cruel individuals engaged in all types of monstrous behavior. After legal witch trials came to an end, the witch eventually became the stuff of stories. As time went on, the image of the witch was transformed, adapted and reimagined—expanding far beyond its original definition. The objects included in this section each relate to the evolving image of the witch from the nineteenth-century onward.
The Witches’ Flight: Galop-Caprice
Composer: H.M Russell
Published: White, Smith & Co., Boston
The Witches Dance: Grand Galop de Concert
Composure: J. DeLancey
Published: McKinley Music Company, Chicago
Witches have been included in theater, art and music for centuries. During the witch trials era, we can see many examples, such as Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur or Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These creative works interpreted the mythology and legacy of the witch, resulting in stories and artwork we still enjoy to this day.
When legal witch trials came to an end, witches only increased as a popular topic of inspiration in the creative arts. A particularly intriguing example is the incorporation of witches in musical compositions. Perhaps inspired by Niccolo Paganini’s popular 1813 Le Streghe (Witches Dance), several musicians created compositions featuring witches during the nineteenth-century.
Our museum is fortunate to have two examples of this unique music in our collection. Originally composed by H.M Russell in 1878, this first image depicts the celebrated composition “The Witches’ Flight: Galop Caprice.” You can hear this lively piece played here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yw4i13KSZPU
The second image shows parlor salon sheet music entitled “The Witches Dance: Grand Galop de Concert.” This piece was composed by J. DeLancey and dates to 1909.
Notably, Salem’s notorious band leader, Jean Marie Missud also followed this trend, composing “March of the Salem Witches” in 1896. You can read more about this piece by visiting this excellent Salem focused blog- https://streetsofsalem.com/tag/sheet-music/
Your Fortune in a Tea Cup
Buffalo, New York
This early twentieth-century women’s health pamphlet was produced by the World’s Dispensary Medical Association. This booklet focuses on female-specific ailments and contains treatments, stories, poems, and products that primarily advertise the products of a New York based doctor referred to as Dr. Pierce. Stories with titles such as, “What She Saw in the Looking-Glass,” “The Marriage Question,” and “Care of the Face,” contain anecdotes from women who claim to have used Dr. Pierce’s products and give glowing reports of their health benefits. Remedies in this booklet include treatments for severe medical ailments such as ovarian tumors and kidney problems, as well as cosmetic issues, like skincare.
Interestingly, this largely medical-focused booklet begins with instructions for reading one’s fortune in tea leaves. The first few pages of the booklet describe two methods for reading tea leaves, noting “the appointed prophetess of the occasion” shall do the reading. The booklet then provides a list of symbols that may be identified in the leaves with their appropriate divinatory meanings. This list includes symbols such as an anchor, ring, flowers, star, and serpent, as well as more abstract shapes such three dots side by side and a dot in a triangle. It is worthy to note, instead of promoting the medical advice contained inside, the front cover of the booklet presents three smiling witches flying over a cup of tea. The inclusion of witch images and fortune telling in this female health booklet illustrates the changing perception of witchcraft during this period. By the turn of the century, Halloween and its various symbols (including the witch), had become an increasingly beloved and accepted American holiday. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, middle- and upper-class society began to embrace Halloween traditions, eventually evolving into a holiday that warranted invitations, decorations, and party games. These gatherings were particularly popular with young, unmarried adults and quickly became a chance to dress up, tell ghost stories, and engage in divination games that almost always foretold one’s romantic future. Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, author of Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, notes these gatherings were particularly popular with young women. At this time, women’s magazines gave advice regarding how to throw the best Halloween parties and women around the country embraced this opportunity with enthusiasm. This booklet is an excellent illustration of the increasing interest in Halloween, with its themes of divination and witchcraft, and its particular connections to women during this period.
While a compilation of seemingly benign advertisements, the booklet also provides a dark window into the world of women’s healthcare at the turn of the century. The last pages of the booklet promote Dr. Pierce’s medical institute located in Buffalo, New York. While the advertisement claims, “Many are brought to our institution from distant places on beds, and go home in a few weeks well and strong,” a disturbing image of a woman in this sanitarium leaves a very different impression. This woman is shown laying on her back, encased in a circular cage. Under this image, the booklet notes this apparatus is “For the Treatment of Chronic Disease of Women” and is used “at the Invalids’ Hotel, Buffalo, New York.”
Daniel Low Souvenir Silverware
From right to left: Berry fork (first design), orange spoon (first design), 1970 T.T Inman Salem Souvenir Spoon (1970), tea spoon (first design), tea spoon (second design)
Regarded as the first mass-produced souvenir item to reference the 1692 Salem witch trials, the sterling silver “witch spoon” was created and sold during the late 1890’s in Salem by Daniel Low & Co. Beyond its significance within local Salem history, this spoon is also typically regarded as the first design to spark the souvenir spoon craze in America. Following Low’s initial witch design, American manufactures began producing dozens of collectible spoons which quickly became an extremely popular tourist keepsake across the United States.
The first spoon design was commissioned by Low in 1890 following a trip abroad. As the story goes, the idea to produce souvenir spoons originated from the observation of the burgeoning trade of commemorative silver spoons within the European tourist market. Upon returning home, Low commissioned Ww. B. Durin & Co. to design a singular souvenir spoon. These spoons are decorated with a simple interpretation of the now stereotypical witch astride a broomstick, alongside the word “Salem.” A tea spoon of this first design cost $2.00 in 1890– when adjusted for inflation this spoon would have cost approximately $54 in 2018.
With the massive success of the first spoon’s design, Low went on to commission Gorham Silver to create a second, more ornate design the following year. This succeeding pattern consists of a more substantial, intricate design, as it depicts a black cat with an arched back, a rope, a broomstick, the addition of both the place and date of the witch trials, and the witch flying aside a half moon. This design was an instant success and considerably overshadowed the simplistic first pattern. With the success of these designs, Low registered the “witch” trademark as U.S. Patent No. 18,838 in 1891, making him the first manufacturer to produce a souvenir denoting Salem’s witch-related past.
Opening its doors in 1867, the Daniel Low & Co. business was located at 231 Essex Street, the modern-day location of the restaurant Rockefella’s. The emporium specialized in high-class, elegant goods, ranging from small trinkets such as silver thimbles and pins, to the more intricate silver hair combs and diamond fitted jewelry, china sets, watches, writing sets, pocket knives, and far beyond. Daniel Low (1842-1911) was a savvy business man and brilliant innovator, particularly notable for his use of mail-order catalogs, which he titled the “Year Book.” These catalogs are cited by some as the first of their time, which Low distributed both across the country and abroad.
“The young man brought his blushing sweetheart to be fitted with her engagement ring. Later he came for the gold band which was to symbolize so much to both of them. And their friends came to buy their wedding gifts for the young folks. In short, Daniel Low became an important part of the life of the community”
— Robert Updegraff. “The Story of Daniel Low: Starting with a little corner jewelry store he built a business known from Salem to the most remote islands of the Sea,” Printer’s Ink Monthly, 1, no. 2 (1920). 9-10, 54.
With the popularity of Daniel Low’s first souvenir spoon, a trend was born, both sparking a souvenir spoon craze across the United States and also contributing to a growing trend that emphasized the Salem witch trials as a topic of public interest. After almost 200 years of near silence on the subject, the late nineteenth century saw a growing interest in the events of 1692. By 1880, the tourist industry had grown in Salem to the point where the very first Visitor’s Guide was published, notably mentioning some of the witchcraft related sites around the city.
As the twentieth-century began, Salem’s association with its witch-related history became a landmark of visiting the city. Throughout this time, notable pop-culture interpretations of the trials, such as the 1953 premier of Arthur Miller’s now infamous play The Crucible and the 1970 on-location recording of several episodes of the television series Bewitched in Salem, made the city’s branding as the “witch city” nationally recognizable.
In 2018, the Salem Witch Museum received the generous donation of four original Daniel Low sterling silver souvenir spoons and one fork. Three utensils, a Berry Fork, Orange Spoon and Tea Spoon are original, first design souvenirs. In addition, we also received a Tea Spoon with the more ornate second design, and a newer souvenir spoon made in 1970. We currently display these beautiful antiques in a small exhibit devoted to the history of Daniel Low, his Salem business, and the legacy of these remarkable spoons.