Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Vexatious Woman

We’re several centuries past, if not beyond, the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, and yet someone considered a credible candidate for president of the United States has charged the incumbent with not using the proper “theology” when running the country. Somewhere the doctrine of separating church and state, God and Caesar, has gotten misplaced. How’d that happen? How could it happen in our modern and secular age?

I live atop a hill that is accepted to be the general spot where 19 folks were hanged for practicing witchcraft back in 1692. There’s a lovely park across the street where I walk my dog, a black lab and pit bull mix with one brown and one very bright blue eye. A perfect Salem dog. Perhaps because of the dog, I am often approached by tourists – and seekers – and asked, “Is this where they hanged the witches?”

“No, dear,” I reply, “There would have been a forest growing atop the hill three hundred years ago. They were all dispatched into the realm of spirits at the foot of the hill ... right behind Walgreens.”

I then direct them to follow my street to the bottom of the hill, take a right and walk to the next intersection where, on the corner where the aforesaid Walgreens stands open for business, they will find a plaque. The plaque does not honor the victims of the hysteria, but notes the origin of the Great Salem Fire of 1914. I can only imagine their disappointment; surely they expected their quest to lead them to something less mundane than the loading dock of a discount pharmacy store.

But that’s history for you, for most of us. Ordinary human beings in ordinary venues finding themselves thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

Three hundred years ago in my town the proper theology was applied to government every day. Puritan theology demanded one keep God in mind during every waking moment, and every endeavor. This included sex. Puritans, notwithstanding their dour image, had no qualms about sex, and very much enjoyed it. Every orgasm was punctuated by a “Praise the Lord.” Unwed brides were not that uncommon, so long as they conformed to community standards by entering into wedlock.

Conformity was the key. You dressed, worshipped, and carried on your everyday life along an accepted norm.

And in the midst of all this conformity dwelled a pair of ladies named Bishop. Historians today believe the accounts of these two accused wives have been mixed up. Bridget, destined to be the first person executed for witchcraft during the Salem hysteria, was likely in her sixties when she faced the bar of (in)justice. She was also likely the only one of the 19 victims hanged, and one tortured to death, who really did practice witchcraft.

Sarah Bishop ran a couple of taverns with her husband, and was in her forties when she was accused. More like roadhouses, her public houses were pitched just outside the jurisdictional limits of Salem Town and Salem Village. She sold hard cider made from sour apples (in those days all apples were sour) and the local kids liked to blow off steam there playing the forbidden game of shuffleboard and getting loaded.

Bridget had been accused earlier of bewitching her second husband to death, but acquitted through lack of evidence. She was known to enjoy vexing her neighbors (a great word: vex) and was said to have cursed a neighbor’s pig with a dirty look.

One of these women – we’re not sure witch, I mean, which – customarily wore showy garments, specifically a scarlet bodice. Utterly scandalous.

Evidence against Bridget included testimony from several men in the community who claimed she came to them at night and straddled them in their beds, even as their wives slept beside them, and they were not able to resist her. Or, did the cases also get confused and perhaps it was the younger Sarah who engaged in such spectral three-ways. Either way, it would appear the men of Salem were scared to death of the notion of a woman overpowering them in an intimate environment. Kind of puts you in mind of the stories, perhaps apocryphal, of female interrogators grilling suspected terrorists at Guantanamo while topless.

“By the beard of the Prophet! Please, I’ll tell you everything; just don’t make me see your breasts!”

Judge John Hathorne, whose progeny would include Nathaniel Hawthorne, is recorded as goading Bridget, “Are you a witch?” To which she replied if she were a witch he’d damned sure know about it. Judge Hathorne took that as a threat.

So here was a woman who intimidated men. And Sarah, another woman who flouted the norm, and pushed the boundary of conformity. If they have been confused in history, it’s no wonder.

One thing is certain; their nonconformity made them easy victims, both ended their days at the end of a rope.

So, what’s changed since 1692? We’re all agreed the Salem witch trials were an outrageous miscarriage of justice. Twenty people dead. A drop in the bucket if you consider the scale of atrocities that have followed, and all the victims people who didn’t conform, or just weren’t the right kind of people, because they didn’t believe in the right god, or didn’t look like the prevailing US, whoever they happened to be.

We’re living in scary times, but then, I think we always have. You just can’t write off someone who wants to control your beliefs, regulate what you do in your bedroom, or tell you with whom you can do it. Yeah, maybe they’re nuts, but enough of us have to stand up and call them out.

In the meantime, I think we ought to appreciate the weird, the eccentric, those among us who make us feel just a bit uncomfortable, lest we become the US who are set perpetually against them.

Robert Buckley


  1. I'd love to be a vexatious woman. The hanged part? Not so much.

  2. Hi Robert,
    That was a great blog and so interesting. Glad I didn't live in those days. Vexatious is an intriguing word. Have to remember it and use it in my next novel.



  3. I know the politican you;re thinking of, Rick Santorum, who said he didn;t believe Obama was running the government in line with Christian values, as if he were supposed to. And that's the party that's always beating its chest about freedom.

    In my Unitarian church we have a witch, a real one, a highly active member of the congregation, who often helps with services and is much valued. I like her too. She's actually a local pagan priestess, not a common thing in the deep south, but it at least shows that tolerance, though not perfect, is much improved.

    I remember a service last year when she was leading the part of the program where a learning story is read to the childen who gather in front of the congregation. I marveled to realise a witch was teaching a gathered group of children about basic spirituality and I thought "I am looking at the realized Harry Potter!"


  4. You men always get sex confused with magic...but wait, it IS, isn't it?

    Wonderful post, Bob - if only the people who SHOULD be listening would.

    Thank you so much for joining us at the Grip. Come back any time!

  5. Three hundred years and yet it sounds as if it could have been just like yesterday. Oh, wait... it was and it's just so easy to picture that politician in the Puritan garb condemning everyone who doesn't believe as he does, to hang or burn.

    What's especially scary is that it's also so easy to imagine that same suppression, mostly of women, but I'm sure men wouldn't be exempt, all over again, when you hear these guys talk.

    An excellent essay, Robert. I love your knack for making history intersting (or maybe history *is* interesting and you just have a knack for not making it boring).


  6. Wonderful blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Many thanks.sbobet

  7. Thanks to all for your reactions and comments. If any of you find yourself in Salem, I'll be happy to give you the nickel tour, or just "hang around for a spell."


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