Professor Benjamin Ray of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia lectured to a sold out room at the House of Seven Gables this week. Professor Ray is the project director of Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project where everyone “from teachers to fourth graders” can now readily access 8,000 searchable pages from source documents online.
After sharing with the group that he is descended from four people who signed the petition to save Rebecca Nurse, he chronicled the events of 1692. He clarified some points previously misunderstood, including that the triggering event was not likely Tituba’s frightening storytelling and games of divination but rather a visit from the first-accused witch Sarah Good. It had been previously understood by some historians that the provocation of the girls’ “hysteria” had been the use of a fortune telling game consulted to find out the occupations of their future husbands. While Reverend Hale in his 1697 publication A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft writes that he was told by a reliable source that two girls were afflicted after consulting a fortune telling glass, there is no proof that these two girls were in fact Betty Paris and Abigail Williams, nor that the these games necessarily led to hysteria and accusations. Instead, Professor Ray explained, Sarah Good had been begging for food at the house of Reverend Paris and in departing turned away muttering, which was at that time construed as a witch’s curse. Judge John Hathorne sites this as the grounds to imprison Good.
Professor Ray was also an associate editor, together with General Editor Bernard Rosenthal, for Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt a comprehensive printed collection of all legal documents, in chronological order, pertaining to the Salem witch trials. This new assembly of papers helps researchers to, “…focus on the historical and narrative character of the witchcraft trials as they progressed over time, to see the important relationships among the cases as they proceeded through the courts and through the Salem community on a daily basis, and to understand the developing opposition to them.”
Anita Blackaby, Executive Director of the House of Seven Gables, pointed out that this lecture stands as one of many examples that Salem does indeed offer extensive insights and interpretation of the witch trial period in our history, contrary to the recent Boston Globe editorial, “Salem needs a new museum to explore its witch-trial past,” of October 17th.
On behalf of the Salem Witch Museum, I’d like to thank Professor Ray and the House of Seven Gables for this informative lecture, and all of our local sites dealing with the witch trial history for their scholarly attention to this still-intriguing aspect of America’s past.