Merlene Davis: 400 years later, Salem witch trials offer a lesson in tolerance

Because I am a mosquito's favorite meal, I tend to find history subjects to explore while remaining indoors during the summertime.

That's how I came upon the Salem witch trials over the weekend, and how I learned about three slaves in particular who were involved in the hysteria that, I was surprised to learn, lasted less than a year.

First, by all accounts, the insanity driving puritan residents of Salem Village in Massachuesetts to start seeing witches behind any malady or crop failure started when a new minister moved to town in 1691 with his wife, their 9-year-old daughter, an 11-year-old niece and two slaves, Tituba and John. The slaves were Arawak or Carib Indians from Barbados, where the minister had once lived.

Because their religion allowed them to do only a few things, the girls sought entertainment from Tituba, who told stories and claimed to read their futures. The two girls soon told their friends about Tituba.

Some of the girls, however, began to fear the slave, particularly the minister's niece. She began convulsing. The daughter later joined in, not wanting her cousin to get all the attention.

When a doctor could find no reason for the girls' illnesses, he said they were bewitched.

They pointed fingers at Tituba and two white women in the village who were considered outcasts.

The two white women said they were innocent, but Tituba confessed. It was discovered later that the confession came after a severe beating by the good reverend.

Arrest warrants for the three women were issued in February 1692. All three were convicted and sentenced to jail.

That didn't stop the accusations, however.

By the time the hysteria died down in the fall of 1692, 19 "witches" had been hung on Gallows Hill, most of them women, and only seven from Salem Village. The rest were from surrounding towns.

Eight others were under sentence of death, 50 awaited sentence, and 150 were in jail waiting trial. One man refused to answer questions and was "pressed" to death when heavy rocks were piled on him, eventually killing him. And some historians say that as many as 13 died in prison.

Eventually, two other slaves, both of African descent, were accused of witchcraft.

Benjamin C. Ray, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, said that Mary Black and Candy (no last name listed) were accused by the minister's daughter and niece and no one else.

Black was charged on April 21, 1692, when three teenage members of the family that owned her said she was a witch.

She denied the charge when confronted by the magistrate. The official noticed her fiddling with her neck scarf.

The official then made Black take the pin out of her neck scarf and put it back in. When she did, "several of the afflicted cried out they were pricked," according to court records.

On that evidence, Black was sent to jail in Boston, but her case was continually passed over.

And there was Candy, who admitted she was a witch, saying she was turned into one by her mistress, Margaret Hawkes. They both were charged on July 1, 1692.

According to court records, she was asked, "What did your mistress do to make you a witch?"

She said her mistress made her make a mark in a book. It was her way of showing she had signed the devil's book and gained demonic powers.

As proof, she asked permission to leave the courtroom and returned with two puppets, or cloths with two knots tied in them. When her accusers saw the puppets, "they were greatly affrighted and fell into violent fits," according to the court records.

She was never convicted, however.

It seems Massachusetts residents had finally had enough. On Oct. 12, 1692, Gov. William Phips issued orders protecting those imprisoned and suspended the arrest of suspected witches. Some noted that his wife had been accused of witch craft, prompting him to act.

He dissolved the special court that had been established to host the trials.

In January, both of those women were freed.

"In the context of the whole Salem witchcraft debacle and its flagrant miscarriage of justice," Ray wrote, "at least in the story of these two African slaves, it seems that justice was done."

They were lucky.

The law required those in jail to pay a fee for their upkeep even if they are determined to be innocent.

Tituba's master didn't pay her fees because she later recanted her confession. She remained in jail for 13 months until an unknown person paid the seven pounds she owed and bought her. No one knows what happened to her after that.

It was far too easy then for a person to be falsely accused and punished because of unreasonable fear.

I hope the same is not still true of our treatment of young blacks, illegal immigrants, Muslims and gays.