Spectral Evidence in Salem 


John Proctor was a man of substance. At sixty years of age in 1692 he owned a thriving tavern on Ipswich Road, a lane that divided Salem Town from Salem Village in Massachusetts. The tavern was ignored by the noble Puritans of the Village but it became an important rest-stop for wayfarers traveling the road. It became a center of news and ideas reflecting the rapidly changing world as many Puritans sloughed off the old world to become "Yankees."

A native of Ipswich, Massachusetts, Proctor had come to the Salem area in 1666. Due to the fluid conditions of the time and his own native skills and ambitions he was able to move up the economic ladder quickly. Movement up the political and social ladders was slower but a certainty until stalled by his crime. He had leased considerable land and conducted a successful farm while his wife and daughter ran the tavern. Other pieces of land and commercial activities added to his wealth. Although, he lived in Salem Village his social sphere had shifted to Boston, Salem Town and Ipswich. He attended church in Salem Town, thus offending some in the Village. Most of his "trusted friends" were from the Town. There was only one friend from the Village, and his name was Israel Porter.

One day Proctor stood before the Village court accused. The accessors was Joseph Bayley, a son-in-law of Captain John Putman. Late in May of 1692, the accusation goes, Bayley was riding along the Ipswich Road with his wife when he felt two very hard blows to his chest "which caused great pain in my stomach and amazement in my head." Pointedly, Bayley chose in his deposition to indicate the precise spots in his journey where he suffered these shocks to his system. The first came when he came in sight of where John Proctor lived; the second was near the Proctor Tavern.

By the 1690s the generation of original settlers had given way to their children. External threats that had brought the older immigrants together had declined considerably. They were replaced by internal ones. Before, these Puritan settlers looked around and saw the hand of God in everything; now the new generation thought they saw the hand of Satan. For those of a more older persuasion threaten by the apparent fast changes underway there was a desire for a stable [static] society. They like a community based upon the notion that every one knew and accepted their place in the scheme of things. Deference was important with a strict hierarchy of class, status and courtesies dictating everyday life. This older view was being displaced and threatened in several tangible and personable ways.

Salem Town had been established first, in 1626. Although originally it had some agriculture because of its geographic situation, having several rivers passing through or nearby and perched on a beautifully natural harbor, Salem became more commercial. Because of this commercial activity, with new more cosmopolitan ideas and people arriving with the commercial goods, Salem Town soon lost a lot of its original pristine and Puritan character. It seem to be reneging on the original covenant ideas of the founders; its status as a "city on the hill" seemed to be in jeopardy.

In 1630 Salem Farms, later to be called Salem Village, was settled. Only a few miles away, it seemed a world apart sharply divided by a boundary trail called Ipswich Road. At first the inhabitants were simply known as "The Farmers." They chafed under the power of the Town, the Village wanted greater autonomy. But the thriving fishing and mercantile Town wanted the Village and the farm foods it provided. Consequently every attempt at political and social independence was put down. The villagers even had to travel to Town to attend church meetings and thus considerable anger and contempt grew between the two areas. This was exacerbated even more when the Town continued to grow and prosper and the Village began to decline. Agriculture was too precarious in the rocky soils of New England and soon all but a few Villagers began a downward slope in economic and social status. To make matters worse, not all villagers agreed with the more conservative element; there were incidences of neighbors against neighbors based upon economic and social issues. Those in the Village who looked toward the Town for cues of development, or tried to mimic and defend those "damned Yankees" were seen as enemies. This neighborhood civil war was no clearer seen than in the establishment of the Village church.

After considerable battles with the Town, in 1672 the Village was allowed to have its own Church. The divisions in the Village were soon manifested in the Church especially when it came to hiring and supporting a minister. After several ministers came and went, in 1688 Samuel Parris arrived to head up the church of Salem village. Parris had been a failed businessman who lacking any other opportunities took up the ministry. He wanted desperately to succeed at something. But at the same time he disliked anyone who had succeeded. Almost immediately he alienated many in the Village [and all in the Town] by his salary demands. While the church members of the Town were well-to-do, those of the Village were considerably poorer. Then he inflamed many [but also tapped into the frustrations of many of his flock] with his sermons attacking those who seemed to be money hungary. He posed his religious position in social terms. Old time Villagers agreed with his position that it was a matter of "private will" or self interest v. community. For him and most of his loyal parishioners, the Town [and those in the Village who sided with the Town] had shifted the paradigm; it had become commerce v agriculture, selfishness v. righteous, independence v. interdependence, Town v. Village, Devil v. God. Such a dichotomy could be seen in the fortunes of two families: the Putmans and the Porters.

John Porter's family was one of the earliest settlers in the Village area and by the 1690s their wealth and position were secure. They had extensive lands on the Town side of the Village. They had diversified into commerce and established many economic and social connections with the Town. John and his male heirs were commonly accepted by the Town elites. On the other hand, John Putman's family had fallen considerably by 1692. They had vast land holdings as well but further west of the Village. They had been marginally successfully in farming but failed at any attempts at business. They were becoming economically, socially and politically displaced; they were only at the fringes of power in the Village and completely powerless in the Town. As their fortunes declined they took to heart, and became the chief supporter of, the sermons of Samuel Parris. Larger forces beyond them were responsible for their decline, they felt. Then eight young girls, five of whom lived in or were apart of the households of Samuel Parris and Thomas Putman, came up with the answer. And that is how John Proctor found his way into court and his life was changed forever.


Questions to Ponder

1. What crime is Proctor a suspect?

2. What is spectral evidence?

3. What are the real motives and tensions underlying this incident?

4. How does this kind of incident play out throughout American history?

5. What does it mean to go on a witch hunt?

6. What is scape goating?






Suggested Further Reading

Paul Boyar and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974).

Kai Erikson. Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance (1966).

Carol Karlsen. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987).