The Salem Witch Trials Digital Archive: How and Why

Benjamin Ray

University of Virginia

(Published in Arkiv Information Teknik, No 1 2022)

The Salem witch trials began in late February, 1692 and lasted until the end of May 1693. The accusations spread across twenty-four communities in eastern Massachusetts Bay Province. At least 155 people were arrested and jailed, thirty were convicted, nineteen were executed by hanging, one man was crushed to death with stones, and five more died in prison due to harsh conditions. Compared to the large seventeenth century European witch-hunts the Salem episode was a small scale tragedy. But it was the worst witch-hunt in American history. In October 1692, Governor William Phips ended the special Court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem. In January, the new Superior Court of Judicature began to try the remaining cases for the purpose of clearing the jails. During the Salem trials, more people were accused and executed than in all the previous witchcraft trials in New England. After Salem trials, no one was convicted of witchcraft in New England. The Salem debacle eventually led to the collapse of the Puritan government in Massachusetts.

In 1999, as a faculty member of the department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, I started to create a web-based archive of primary source materials relating to the Salem witch trials in order to teach a new seminar for Religious Studies majors. The seminar would use scholarly studies as well as the primary sources, especially the Salem court records, about 950 documents. These sources would enable the students to not only learn about a new subject but also engage in evaluating different methodologies that scholars use to interpret it, for example, sociology, theology, history, psychology, and comparative religions. I chose the Salem episode purposely without knowing much about it. I wanted to be fresh to the subject without any preconceived ideas. I knew that many of the students would be somewhat familiar with the Salem tragedy because of the popularity of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, which is widely taught in American high schools. At the time I was unaware that I had a personal connection to it.

Since the students would need to regularly consult the court records in their work and since there was only one copy of the most recent but now out of print compilation the three volume publication The Salem Witchcraft Papers, edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, 1977(hereafter, SWP), it was necessary to provide maximum availability of these volumes. The simple solution was to digitize the volumes with the publisher's permission, and put them online at the University's new Electronic Text Center, created by its founding director David Seaman. I received a small grant for this purpose, and the three volumes were accurately keyboarded in India.

I was also fortunate to collaborate with Professor Bernard Rosenthal of the English Department at SUNY Binghamton, N.Y. who was looking for a partner to create a digital archive of Salem court records in order to assist his international team of scholars who were going to create a new transcription of the 1692-93 court records for a print publication, Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (Cambridge, 2009). There were many mistakes in SWP, which incorporated the transcriptions made in in 1938 as part of the WPA program. There were occasional missing words and sentences, and mix up of documents between people with the same last names. Despite these errors, Rosenthal's team needed to consult the transcriptions as a baseline standard. The transcribers were located in the United States and Scandinavia, and they also needed to work with the original manuscripts, without the logistical problems of working primarily in the archives. Digitization of the original manuscripts was the solution.

The manuscripts were held in several Boston area archives, principal among them the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston. Later, thanks to several substantial research grants from NEH, the American Academy of Religion, and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University, headed by its founding director John Unsworth, I was able to develop the digital Archive further by placing document images next to the transcriptions on each web page. IATH was also able to develop various search tools and digitize several out-of-copyright books and newly discovered court records to enhance higher level scholarly research. My aim was for the site to be used by advanced scholars as well as high school and university teachers and students and also the general public. To accommodate such a wide range of users it was necessary to spend a good deal of time planning the site's design and functionality so it would be as easy to navigate its textual, manuscript, image and geographical resources.

In the course of teaching the seminar, I discovered that four of my ancestors were directly involved as defenders of one of the accused. The family name was then spelled Rea, and two married couples signed a substantial document in defense of the victimized seventy-one-year-old Salem Village resident Rebecca Nurse. Unfortunately, like other defense efforts, the petition testifying to Nurse's exemplary Christian character had no effect on the court's decisions, and Nurse was convicted and executed. One frightened twelve-year-old named Jemima Rea, whose parents had defended Nurse, accused Nurse of bewitching her. Fortunately, Jemima's accusations were not deemed worthy of legal attention, and they were not used by the prosecution.

After learning of my family's involvement, my goal was to enable as many voices as possible of the people involved to be heard: those of the accusers, defendants, their family members, husbands and wives and children, confessors, magistrates, jury men, ministers, sheriffs, constables, and jail keepers. Altogether there are over 1,400 names in the court records. For this reason, the site also serves as an useful genealogical resource, and all the names are searchable in all of the records.

Some of the Boston area archives were initially hesitant about letting me scan their witch trial manuscripts which are among the most valuable in their collections. Once I was asked what would happen to the document images once they are 'out there' for anyone to download. "Might someone print them on coffee mugs as souvenirs?" But once the distinguished Massachusetts Historical Society gave me permission to digitize their small collection, I was able to use the MHS's example to open doors to other Boston archives. Of course, the archives also realized that digitization would assist with their goals of preservation and access.

In addition to digitizing the SWP my more interesting job as part of Rosenthal's team was to go into the Boston area archives and locate all the original manuscripts of the court records and digitize as many as possible and put them online together with the transcriptions from the SWP. In the process Margo Burns, Rosenthal's project manager, and I located over seventy previously unidentified documents and added them to the corpus of documents.

The court records in the SWP were organized alphabetically according to the names of the accused individuals, each person having their own case file of court records. Following English criminal law, since the trials were under the authority of the state (not the church), the documents represented all the stages of the legal process: complaints, arrest warrants, summonses, records of preliminary hearings, grand jury hearings, indictments, trials, and sentences. The records of the trials of the thirty individuals who were found guilty and convicted in 1692 are missing, some believe to protect the reputations of the various judges.

But about 90 percent of the other records survive, and they were used in all stages of the legal process. The SWP is organized around 140 case files of accused individuals, many more accused people are involved in these cases, altogether about 155 individuals. The case files cover proceedings of 1692-3 as well as some records extending through 1750.

In 2000 I was appointed a Research Fellow of the University's new Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, then headed by John Unsworth, and this enabled the project to be developed further.

One of the problems for researchers was that about half the court records are undated and hence not retrievable by date which is critical for historical study. Thanks to Rosenthal's work, dates and searchable date tags could be assigned to each of them. Nor were the names of the individuals searchable across all the case files. This being the late 17th century, many of the 1,400 personal names were not spelled consistently. The solution was to create a standardized index of names and searchable name tags. It was also necessary to create a word search tool, linked to the date tags. This would enable the tracing of all words and document types across time and make it possible to follow them through the course of the legal process.

Finding patterns in this large number of documents would be one of the site's key functions, patterns that are chronological or reveal how the role that certain people played out over time, or follow the patterns of the legal process. For example, all those who falsely confessed to acts of witchcraft were required to estimate the size of the threat to the village ministry because the Salem Village church was the focus of Satan's attack. According to one informant, "Satan's design was to set up his own worship, abolish all the churches in the land, to fall next upon Salem and so go through the country." Satan's aim was to defeat Christian worship in the village and replace it with Satanism. Indeed, a search of the records turned up the fact that confessors gradually increased the number of spectral witches they "saw" holding demonic rituals opposite the minister's house in order to reinforce their confessions, which would save them from trial, one of the oddities of the Salem court. Key word searches turned up dozens of reports of these Satanic rituals next to the minister's house in Salem Village which had driven the court's witch-hunt relentlessly forward. For the first time, the allegedly growing size of the threat and the lengthy legal process could be documented over time and identify the people who were responsible for it.

It was also necessary to digitize several extremely rare 17th century books that dealt with the witch trials and were held in the University library's department of Special Collections. We also digitized a well-known 19th century works, and a most valuable early 20th century abridged edition of these book that was out of copyright which was keyboarded and put on line. There were also 9 volumes of court records for Essex County where the Salem accusations occurred from 1636-1686. Among the most valuable sources is the ?Church Book Belonging to Salem Village? of 1692-3 written by the aggressive witch-hunter pastor of Salem Village, the Reverend Samuel Parris. This was digitized and transcribed in electronic text.

Other important resources were geographic maps of the town of Salem in 1700, a separate map Salem Village in 1692, and a map of the house locations of 17th century Andover. These three communities held a large number of accusers and accused victims. Images of these maps were digitized as part of the Archive. Most important in all this was the creation of a dynamic mapshowing the spread of the witchcraft accusations from their epicenter in Salem Village across 23 other towns, starting in February 29 and running through into February 1693. This map would give the students a sense of the chronological and geographic process, showing the locations of the 151 people accused and giving a sense of how the accusations spread across Essex county in geographic space. It is the only map of its kind based on the dates, and locations of the accusers in the court records.

One of my main priorities was to make the Archive's web interface as transparent as possible so it could be navigated by any user, thus all the contents are listed on the entry page, under major headings: records of various courts, church record books, historical maps, contemporary books, literary works, selected short essays by undergraduates in the years 2000-2002, together with press reviews of the web site.

What happened, then, to Rebecca Nurse? One of the most interesting documents in her case is the Petition on behalf of seventy-one-year-old Nurse, who was the fifth person to be accused. Her two sisters were also accused and one of them, Mary Esty, was executed. The accusations against the sisters were based on a conflict over a property boundary with the large and influential Putnam family, some of whom also signed the petition for her. On this document there are the signatures of 39 of her neighbors. All are individual signatures which suggests that the document was taken from house to house. Such petitions, however, had no standing in court because they were not sworn to, lest they be untrue and endanger the signer's soul. In Rebecca's case, the jury returned a verdict of innocent, but were told to continue their deliberations because Nurse's responses to the judges questions were not always clear. After further deliberations the jury returned a guilty verdict and Nurse was later executed. Her Death Warrant still survives. In the aftermath her family members took her half-buried body from Gallows Hill during the following night back to her home for burial on the grounds the Nurse homestead which is fortunately preserved today as a tourist attraction.

Salem's long suppression of the memory of its brutal witch-hunt resulted in the loss of the knowledge of the location of the execution site. As part of a team of five scholars from various disciplines, I worked with the GIS department at the University using view shed analysis to help confirm its historic location based on the early twentieth century work of local historian Sidney Perley. The site was recently commemorated in 2017 by the city of Salem with a memorial. It is rare that historians, using digital technology, can help change how and where events can be studied and remembered, and indeed be suitably memorialized.

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