The Salem News
Thursday, April 01, 2004

Online records become valuable tool for historians and genealogists

The Original Court Log

SALEM - Some of the most fascinating ar eas of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive have nothing to do with the hysteria of 1692. Probate records, for example, provide an amazing window into everyday life in the Massachu setts Bay Colony, with meticulous lists of household items, from land to furnishings to the contents of the kitchen cupboard.  

Likewise, the records are a boon to the most active users of Salem's Phillips Library -- genealogists.

Better yet, anyone with an In ternet connection can reach all this at

Site creator Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia can't hide his enthusiasm when he discusses the court records of Essex County, volumes going back to 1636. He points out that 20th century archivists at the Phillips Library did yeoman's work in laboriously cataloging what's offered.

"What   we're doing is leveraging work done at the Essex Institute," he says.

The site's index alone is a treat to read. For example, in the period from 1636 to 1656 a list of crimes includes such remarkable accusa tions as "careless grinding and toll taking," "kissing," "meddling," "lust" "wearing silver lace
contrary to God," and "uncharitable ness to a poor man in distress."

Sometimes the crimes are not as exotic as the charge might indicate, and a simple mouse click can take you right to the actual language of the documents

  • While the recordreads, "Jonathan Platt indevoring to drawe away the afections of m. Rogers, his mayd is Judged to haue broken the law and is fined," without the consent of friends."
  •   The ledgers show the Puritan concern for propriety, but they seem eager as well to set things right in the end, as when, "Math ew Stanley and Ruth Andrewes fined 50s or to be whipped for for nication, but the fine to be remit ted if they marry together."

Some of the entries are poignant, leaving the reader with haunting questions:

"Mary Bidgood was required to appear for not repairing to her husband in England. Neighbors testified that he could not maintain her, nor did he require her to come to him, and by his letters had left her to herself and her friends here. She was permitted to remain for the present and 'to see what the pvydence of god may lead unto afterward.'"

Establishing an American tradi tion, debt is the most common crime, with more than 100 entries.

Drunkenness is also a frequent charge, a fact perhaps not unrelated to numerous citations for slander and defamation, a serious matter to a people who very much saw the value of a good name.

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