Kierkegaard said, “Boredom is the root of all evil.” In the case of the Salem Witch Trials, he was correct. Historians have debated the cause of the fanatical witch hunt for ages, but after one visit to Salem, Massachusetts I knew boredom started it all.
Our morning leaving Boston began in the most irksome way: a dead battery. The family truckster died of boredom sitting in a hotel parking garage for two days. We joined Triple A auto club for this supposition, so Greg made the call and a mechanic was duly dispatched. Greg stood by our vehicle while the kids and I sat on the curb waiting.
Triple A called. “Traffic on I-90 is shutdown. The mechanic is looking for side streets to your location. It may be another thirty minutes.”
Wyatt leaned his head on my shoulder. Emma sprawled over the curb with her head in my lap. Anabel paced with her dad. We waited.
The mechanic called. “Wheh is youh cah pahked? I can’t find the entrance.” Greg explained the back alley/underground entrance to the Hyatt Hotel. We waited.
(Are you bored yet? I fell asleep while writing this.)
Finally, the mechanic found our vehicle and assessed that we needed two new batteries to the tune of $350.
“Aw, you’re kidding me! I had those replaced last year. They can’t be dead yet!” Greg said knowing three hundred and fifty dollars was not in our budget.
“Wheh’d you get ‘em? You can return ‘em fa a refund. If you got’em at a Triple A affiliate, I won’t chahge you.”
Greg couldn’t remember, but called our hometown mechanic to find out. Suddenly, Greg’s ennui was relieved by the slowest Southern drawl in one ear and a Southie’s rapid dropping of Rs in the other. I kept the kids out of the way while Greg’s brain tried to translate.
“Hey, Greg. How’re you? Yeah. Heard y’all were traveling. Where’re y’all at? Boston, you say. Well, how bout that. What’s that bout your car? Yeah. We replaced them batteries for you… let me see… seems like it was last year. Where’d we get the batteries? Let’s see… seems like it was that place down the road…”
“Wheh’d he get ‘em? Wheh’d he get ‘em? We got a Auto Zone ‘round the corneh can deliveh them a sap.”
“Well, Greg. I’m trying to think. Most times we get our parts from that Auto Zone up the road in Macedonia. You know the one just past the church there. Yeah. Down by the Ace Hardware. But now I’ma thinking we might of got‘em at that other place.”
Greg to the Boston mechanic while still listening to our old mechanic:
“Order them. I’ll take the dead batteries with me and sort it out later.” Boredom cost us $350 bucks; evil, indeed.
Two hours later, we arrived at the village of Salem in time for the noon tour at Salem’s Witch Museum. Walking up to the door I pointed to a statue in the street. “Look kids! They have a statue of a witch.”
“Mom, that’s a pilgrim man.”
“Oh. Yeah. I see that now. Roger Conant- first settler of Salem, 1626. Never mind.”
The Salem Witch Museum tour began with a interactive show that took us through the entire witch trial drama. We were led into a church/court-like room and sat around the edges of the stage on benches. The lights were dimmed and only a circle of names glowed in the middle of the room. I had goosebumps. Then, a curtain opened and an animatronic pilgrim came out to tell the story. My goosebumps receded.
Seventeenth Century New England’s Puritan culture demanded that children be seen and not heard- and I thought waiting for a mechanic was boring. In January of 1692, Salem Village wanted to get rid of their new minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, having become disenchanted by his greed. Parris’s nine-year-old daughter, Betty, felt the stress in the household and sought release. It was the dead of winter with the entire village covered in snow. What can a girl do to fight stress and boredom? Gather your girlfriends for some fortune telling with the family’s Barbados slave, of course. Betty and her friends, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam delighted in the devilish entertainment of Tibuta’s tales. What could make this more fun? Pretending to be afflicted and possessed, obviously. Soon Betty began writhing on the floor and speaking gibberish. When Ann and Abigail saw the great diversion Betty was having, they joined in. Each cowered under chairs, frightened of unseen specters. They convulsed in fits and flung themselves against walls and furniture. The honorable Reverend Cotton Mather said upon witnessing their afflictions, “The girls’ agonies could not possibly be dissembled.” Without natural causes, the Puritans declared the girls to be under supernatural control… bewitched.
In March, the girls pointed their undulating fingers toward three of the town’s lowest folks: a beggar- Sarah Good, an infirm- Sarah Osburn, and Tibuta- the slave whose tales first broke the boredom. Osburn declared her innocence, as did Good, but Good declared Osburn to be a witch. Tibuta, thanks to the lashes of her master- the good Reverend Parris, sang like a bird. She confessed to being a witch and enchanted the entire village with her stories of Satan’s army of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a white haired man who made her sign the devil’s book. She claimed there were several undiscovered witches living in Salem whose primary goal was to destroy Puritanism. Ironically, the Salem Witch Hunt almost did just that.
Within six months, hundreds were arrested and twenty-two were tried and convicted of witchcraft. The bored girls put on an entertaining show at each trial: Ann suddenly goes limp. Abigail and Betty shriek in response. Ann jerks awake and begins flying about the room flapping her arms as wings and screeching an ungodly sound. The overwrought judges implore her to name her tormentors. She silently points another finger. Puritans from near and far came to witness the nineteen innocent villagers hung till their deaths at Gallows Hill. Five more- including one infant- died in prison awaiting their trials. One man, Giles Cory, refused to enter a plea of innocence or guilt and was pressed to death with massive stones added atop him- one at a time- by his neighbors hoping to make him confess.
At this point in the multimedia show, Emma climbed in my lap. The mannequin Giles Cory grimaced in great pain as the stones lowered onto his body. This was not part of her elementary school’s reenactment of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. It was our children’s first exposure to the dour side of Puritan life. Between the stone pressing and the grotesque statue of Satan, I hoped Emma didn’t have nightmares due to this history lesson. But reservations aside, what a way to learn about history! We had witnessed the positive effects of the pilgrim spirit with the American Revolution, and we were seeing what happened when that Puritanical work ethic turned into fanaticism.
After reading the names of the twenty-five people who died in the Salem Witch Hunt, we were guided into the second phase of the tour: the history of witches and the devastating results of witch hunts around the world from the Middle Ages to present day. From midwifery to the Wizard of Oz, the transformation of women healers to wicked witches with green skin and pointy hats would have been comical if it wasn’t so disturbing. Then, the museum’s attempts to promote an understanding of the Wicca religion today would have been moving if it wasn’t for the comical pandering of Bewitched items for sale in the museum gift shop. I loved Samantha, but the old episode- the one where she was chased around Salem by an enchanted bed warmer from Nathaniel Hawthorn’s House of Seven Gables- playing in the background as we shopped for a Christmas tree ornament of a witch made the whole thing feel silly. But at least, I wasn’t bored.
Before leaving Salem, we discussed hysteria and false accusations over a delicious lunch of comfort food at the Scratch Kitchen.
“I think teenagers blow everything out of proportion,” said the girl who would be turning thirteen in six months. Anabel gleaned another reason not to grow up from our tour of Salem.
Downplaying age as a factor, I said, “I think the lesson is: beware of bored people. Now finish your grilled cheese and let’s head to Maine!”