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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Meahl

Field Trip: Peabody Essex Museum's "The Salem Witch Trials 1692."

Recently, on a damp and cloudy New England winter day (typical!), I decided to pay a visit to the Peabody Essex Museum's (PEM) exhibit on the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. Even though I am researching Connecticut people and places, this tragic event has connections to Margaret Baret Huntington Stoughton (MBHS) and the family she married into. Also, by going to this particular exhibit, I can see more 17th century artifacts to help form my narrative. Finally, everyone, if they have the chance should visit the PEM show because it informs us about who we were back then and what it must have felt like to be accused of such bogus crimes as practicing witchcraft on others.

Possibly caving to local pressure over the past few years as well as the publication of recent scholarly works on the tragedy, PEM decided to take a moment and finally give proper documentation and respect to what happened in Salem so long ago.

Appropriately, the focus of this smallish and carefully curated exhibit was on the people who were affected: accused and accusers. Most of the 25 that died (mostly by hanging) were women. The groupings are document-heavy--no surprise as the Puritans were organized even while they were killing their fellow womankind. The handwriting is surprisingly legible on the 17th century paper, however, more transcriptions would have been helpful.

All documents and possessions that PEM owns that relates to the families affected by the witch trials were put on display. The artifacts were few but perhaps "less is more" in this instance. From a front door to an exquisite band sampler, it was informative to see reminders of useful 17th century household objects.

A 17th century halberd owned by Francis Peabody. Used as a weapon or to show sign of strength.

Rare example of a New England 17th century door. Note the carved decoration, hardware, and carved initials.

I was hoping to see information on William Stoughton, the chief magistrate of the sham trial. He was the nephew of Thomas Stoughton and step-nephew of Margaret Baret Huntington Stoughton (MBHS) of Windsor, CT. His father, Israel Stoughton was a controversial figure in early Massachusetts Bay Colony.

It is interesting to note that the book The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather is one of the possessions on display. MBHS's great-grandson, Joshua Huntington, had "Wonders" listed in his inventory in 1745, the year of his death.

Mather's book was a defense of the judges (including Stoughton) and Governor Phips who put to death 19 innocent people. Reportedly, William Stoughton never apologized for his actions. His fellow judge, Samuel Sewell was remorseful, apologetic, and even took to wearing a hair shirt (worn by penitents) and conducted days of fasting as an admission of wrongdoing.

A page from Cotton Mather's best seller, The Wonders of the Invisible World. A hastily written book defending the judges and governor's decision to put to death innocents.

A remarkably well-preserved band sampler is on view. Wrought by Mary Holingsworth English as a young girl. Mary survived the witch hysteria by hiding out in New York colony with her husband. Here is a link to her story:

Incredible piece of needlework by the educated Mary Holingworth English. She and her husband were accused but they escaped to New York. She died shortly thereafter.
A small documents box carved in the Mannerist style that was popular at the time. Purchased in 2000 for a whopping $2.4+million by PEM. It was originally owned by the Pope family of Salem Village. Joseph and Bathsheba Pope were accusers. Bathsheba was Benjamin Franklin's aunt.

Finally, the last section of the exhibit points the curious to other witch trial sites around Salem and Danvers, including a memorial to the women and men hanged at Proctor's Ledge in Salem, behind a Walgreens.

The circa 2017 memorial to the victims of the Salem Witch Trials, at the site of their hangings in Salem.

The exhibit runs thru April 4, 2021. Here is a link to an excellent re-cap of the exhibit by Dan Lipcan:

Also, I just finished reading A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson "Tad" Baker, a foremost scholar on the witch trials and popular professor at Salem State University. It is the most thorough overview of what happened to date. I highly recommend it if you are looking for serious, yet readable, scholarship and analysis on the whole damn tragedy--its origins and legacy.


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