, Salem, MA

November 5, 2010

Taking a fresh look at the Salem Witch Trials

By Will Broaddus
Staff Writer

SALEM — Generations of scholars have studied the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, but they're still uncovering new insights.

Benjamin Ray, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, will discuss important new evidence, discovered by applying historic forensics to legal documents from the trials, in a talk this Sunday at The House of the Seven Gables. His talk, "A New Look at the Salem Witch Trials: Report on the Most Recent Research," will address "Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt," a 1,010-page book Ray edited that was published in 2009.

Ray is descended from Salem villagers who signed a petition in defense of Rebecca Nurse, who was eventually hanged as a witch, and he is also co-project leader with Bernard Rosenthal of the online Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.

The talk is at 2 p.m. Admission is $10, $5 for The House of the Seven Gables members. Call 978-744-0991, ext. 104, for tickets. For more information, visit

What is your talk about?

It's on the most recent research on the trials. It's not just my research; it's associated with the publication of a new edition of the Salem Witch Trials court records.

How many court records are there?

There are nearly a thousand individual documents that survive in archives in Salem and Boston. It's a new edition, a scholarly transcription of the original manuscript, with notes. The key thing is, it's a chronological organization of these documents for the first time.

How were they originally arranged?

According to cases. They were dockets, organized by the name of the person accused, so when these were transcribed and published, they were alphabetical. We can now see more clearly how things happened. That's key: the legal process from beginning to end is now more fully understood. The what and the how and the when — those key historical questions — it is now much more productive to work on them.

What does the chronology tell you?

You see the decisions made by magistrates, villagers and church members who set up the framework, which made the initial legal procedure such that it could go out of control. We can see who's playing very large roles, who's a principal figure, people we've known about but are seeing in a new light. Samuel Parris, the minister of the village, and Thomas Putnam. They were instrumental in forwarding the legal process.

What went wrong with that process?

It looked like a normal situation. Hey, what's two or three people accused of witchcraft? Nothing unusual about that. But they relied on spectral evidence (testimony about supernatural visitations from demons), used it in such a way it could not be stopped. The reason why they did that, in my view, had to do with an unprecedented attack on the very institution of the church. Not just neighbor against neighbor, but an assault on the central Puritan institution.

If the documents were unsigned, how were you able to determine who wrote them?

The transcriptions team has identified the handwriting. It's like looking at a set of cold-case files. The handwriting analysis was discovered by transcribers as they were working with depositions — hundreds of depositions — and identifying the handwriting because they are seeing the same handwriting in many documents.

What do the documents tell us about Putnam?

Thomas Putnam is the person writing the most depositions, over 120 that we know of, on behalf of the core group accusing witches in the village. So now we can look at: Who is he writing on behalf of? What are his social connections, his position in the church, to most of the accusers in the village and the people writing what are called "the complaints"? These are mostly members of the church in the village, and they feel they're under threat.

Will this book allow people to do their own forensic investigations?

At $150, it's very expensive. But it's putting in the hands of everyone what scholars have achieved in a 10-year project. It's introduced by essays on how language is used at the time, what the legal process is, then some general introduction to how the chronology is raised. Only about a third of the documents are dated at the time when they were used in court, so it's necessary to use contextual evidence, and that is discussed. I'll bring a copy of the book to my talk and show people how it's organized.