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Edinboro students experience scenes of the Salem witch trials

10/29/2013

SALEM, Mass. – More than 300 years after hysteria over accusations of witchcraft gripped a tiny New England village, the Salem witch trials continue to capture the imagination and psyche of many Americans.

Nineteen people were executed by hanging and one, Giles Corey, was pressed to death by stones for allegedly practicing witchcraft in the Puritan town of Salem. 

The Massachusetts towns of Salem and nearby Danvers – once Salem Village, an agricultural district where the witchcraft hysteria actually took place – remain popular destinations for tourists and historians.  Every October, students join faculty and staff from Edinboro University to visit key historic sites, museums, and theatrical productions related to the 1692 Salem witch trials.

On this year’s trip, which took place Oct. 10-13, the students toured a number of sites in the two towns and learned the story of the trials through exhibits, narration, and dramatization. They also had an opportunity to tour the home of magistrate Jonathan Corwin, known as the “Witch House,” the site of several inquests and the only building in Salem today that existed during the trials. 

“I of course knew about the Salem Witch Trials, but while on the trip I learned a lot,” said Kierstin Kemmerer, a German major and Scholar-in-Residence on the Social Sciences Living Learning Community at Edinboro. “I now know the full story of the trials and the injustice of it all.”

At the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, about 5 miles from downtown Salem, the group learned the story of Nurse, a Christian and midwife who was accused of witchcraft.  Though innocent, she was subsequently executed by hanging. 

The overwhelming majority of accusers were young females between the ages of 9 and 18 who lived in Salem Village. They were joined by some adults who capitalized on the “hysteria” of the girls to accuse their neighbors of witchcraft. 

Dr. Jerra Jenrette, Chair of the History, Anthropology and World Languages Department at Edinboro and organizer of the annual trip, explained that petty jealousies, land disputes, wars on the border with Native Americans, poverty, disease, socio-economic and political conflict, the relationship between Town and Village, and the power of the Puritan Church all played a role in the Salem witchcraft trials. 

A highlight of the Edinboro group’s time in Salem was a dramatization of the experience of Bridget Bishop, the first person executed in June 1692. The actress portraying her is taken into custody and hauled through the streets to the Town Hall, where a hearing to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to hold her for trial.

“Cry Innocent,” a short play about Bishop’s case produced by nearby Gordon College students and others, provides opportunities for audience participation.  As the actors bring forth evidence against Bishop, audience members may question her and the witnesses. 

About 45 minutes into the play, the audience is asked by Judge Jon Hathorne to vote on whether or not the send her to trial. More often than not, 21st century audiences defy history and vote against sending her to trial.  The actress playing Bishop then explains to the audience how their vote is not in keeping with history.

Holly Williams, a social studies major and Women’s Studies minor, said she found learning about history through interaction to be especially engaging.

“We learned about the many different theories as to what cause the young girls to accuse members of their community of witchcraft,” Williams said. “My favorite was the explanation offered during the introduction at the dungeon exhibit, where they suggested the girls were bored with their gender roles, which led them to mimic Betty Parris when she began acting strangely and getting attention from the adults.”