A Storm of Witchcraft: Salem in 1692 & Ballyvadlea in 1895

December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments

IMG_0629I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend.  Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here.  My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw

upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials.  I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem.  Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover.  Some of the trials took place here, though.  Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.

But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events.  I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria.  But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England.  Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs.  In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts.  There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica.  The economy was suffering.  Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.

Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace.  Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston.  In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts.  All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.

The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that.  Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries.  Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.

Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland.  She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title).  But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.


The Working-Class and Community, Griffintown and Beyond

February 1, 2013 § 6 Comments

Almost to a person, every former Griffintowner I talked to over a decade of working on the neighbourhood commented on the sense of community they felt in living there, how it was a place where people took care of their neighbours.  David O’Neill, who helped me extensively during the research and who put in me in contact with many former Griffintowners, commented that when he was growing up there in the 1940s and 50s, it was like having a community of parents, everyone watched out for each other’s children on the streets.  And if O’Neill and his friends got up to something they shouldn’t have, by the time they returned home, their parents would be waiting for them with the intelligence, ready to punish the kids.

But Griffintown was never unique for this characteristic, this is a commonality to nearly all former working-class neighbourhoods I’ve ever read about, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  It is also a way that is lost today.  People who grew up in close-knit working-class communities are almost always nostalgic for what has been lost.  They miss the community and comaraderie they experienced in those communities.  They miss what kept them in line, be it the Church or work, or just the simple existence of real and authentic community.

The universality of this mindset hit home the other day in Salem, MA, at the National Park Service’s Custom House site.  When the Park Service created the site, they removed a set of derelict buildings that had popped up in an alleyway behind the old Customs House on Derby Street.  In the early 20th century, an entire working-class immigrant community existed along Derby Street, and in the alleys behind the Customs House.  Here there were tenement houses of varying quality and shops and services that served, first, Irish immigrants, and then, in the 20th century, Poles and Russians and Ukrainians.  Taking aside the question of the authenticity of the Customs House site given the destruction of the homes of this long-gone working-class community, what struck me the most was the description of what was once there, including a quotation from a former resident, Dorothy Philip, as seen in the photo here.photo-1

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