Project to transcribe Salem witch trials adds new information

By Jay Lindsay, Associated Press, 6/8/2003 10:34

DANVERS, Mass. (AP) The little that was known about Ann Dolliver suggested an unhappy life during wicked times. Her husband, a layabout with an affinity for wine, deserted Ann and their child around 1683, leaving her
with nothing, according to court records. Nine years later, Dolliver was accused of being a witch.

But Dolliver may also have believed she was possessed, and tried to fight back with magic of her own, according to documents on the Salem witch trials that were discovered in recent years.

During a court examination, Dolliver admitted crafting wax puppets of her imagined tormentors and damaging them, hoping to cause real harm or protect herself. ''She thought she was bewitched and she read in a book that was (the) way to afflict them (that) had afflicted her,'' according to the records, unearthed by University of Virginia Professor Benjamin Ray.

Ray's work is part of 5-year-old project by a team of scholars to update the written transcript of the trials for the first time in 65 years. The project aims to correct errors and include new documents that can add context to events and life to victims such as Dolliver.

''It puts a little meat onto (Dolliver's) bones, because she was really basically a name,'' said Richard Trask, a Danvers historian and witch trials expert. ''It puts words in her mouth.'' The project combines grinding
research in dusty libraries with new technology, such as ultraviolet light and digital enhancement that can reveal faded writing and information that may have previously been missed. Rather than settle the record, the new
information may ultimately fuel more speculation about the events of 1692 because so many papers are lost that the new clues barely begin to fill in the gaps, Trask said.

But researcher Margo Burns, a New Hampshire-based linguist, said accuracy in existing records is crucial because of the unabated interest in America's original witch hunt, during which 20 people were executed and more than 200 imprisoned. ''Garbage in, garbage out. ... If you don't have accurate information to begin with, then the interpretations are going to be wrong,'' said Burns, a teacher at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H.

The project began in 1998 after University of Binghamton English professor Bernard Rosenthal discovered he'd inadvertently included an erroneously transcribed court date in his book ''Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692.'' It wasn't the only problem he'd found. ''In writing the book, I was starting to get an inkling that I couldn't
trust the sources,'' he said. ''It was that particular thing that said, 'Hey, we really have to go through all the transcripts.'''

The last transcription of the roughly 900 court documents was done in 1938 as a Works Progress Administration project, work that was reprinted during the 1970s. This time, Rosenthal has assembled a team of about 10 historians and linguists from Texas to Finland who have a keen interest in the trials. Trask and Burns, for instance, are descendants of accused witches. The updated transcript will include about 30 documents discovered since the project began, many found after being overlooked in local libraries for years. Ray found the documents about Dolliver when he visited the Boston Public Library in 1999 to digitally photograph other records.

Trask is also arranging the transcript chronologically for the first time. ''By seeing the ebb and flow of events, it's going to give us a clearer indication of what was happening,'' he said. To ensure they don't repeat mistakes or introduce new ones, sections of the transcripts are being dissected by pairs of researchers, whose work will then be reviewed by another pair, Rosenthal said.

So far, researchers have found errors ranging from misspellings to the deletion of entire chunks of testimony. Even small mistakes can change the story. Last week, Burns discovered that Tituba, an Indian slave who confessed to using witchcraft and accused others, never mentioned as long believed rats in testimony about numerous, sometimes bizarre animals she had seen. The ''c'' in cats had been misread as an ''r'' by the transcriber.

Crossed-out portions of the documents also are revealing. The name of Elizabeth Parris, daughter of the chief accuser, the Rev. Samuel Parris, was deleted in early examinations. Was it arranged by her father to protect her, Burns asks, or because her testimony against others was no good?

Another deletion indicates that Dorcas Good at 4, the youngest to be accused of witchcraft may actually have been named ''Dorothy,'' the name written over crossed-out portions of her transcripts, Burns said.
Researchers have become intimately familiar with the handwriting of the main players, and that has raised more questions about how the judicial system may have been manipulated. It's clear, for instance, that in depositions sworn by Rev. Parris he later added names of witnesses to back up his story, Trask said. He added that researchers have been struck with how involved Thomas Putnam, father of accuser Anne Putnam, was in taking down depositions, an obvious conflict of interest.

Corruption is also the theme in a theory Rosenthal advances, based on a recently discovered jury call notice issued by George Corwin, the sheriff at the time. The sheriff had confiscated property of suspected witches and stood to gain if more were jailed. ''If you're crooked and on the take, you might have a vested interest on who you pick for juries,'' Rosenthal said.

The new transcript was due to Cambridge University Press this summer, but Rosenthal said the painstaking work, which is being done for free, won't be complete until next year. Trask jokingly predicts the transcript won't make The New York Times bestseller list, but that it should cause quite a stir. The trials were a tragedy, Trask said, noting that in Danvers where the witch hysteria began when the town was known as Salem Village people
were ashamed to discuss the trials until just the past few years.

But they have an undeniable grip on the collective imagination that's shown in the continuing scholarship, he said. Rosenthal describes the trials as the America's ''original sin,'' painful because it countered the American myth that promised people a new beginning, but intriguing because people still don't understand the society-wide failure that allowed the trials to happen. ''We've never gotten away from it,'' he said.

Home | Introduction | Press Archive | Overview