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Professor’s discovery prompts scholars to reexamine records of Salem witch trials

By : Sandy Paniccia


Bernard Rosenthal’s interest in the Salem witch trials began about 15 years ago when he was shopping in a Salem, Mass. gift shop.

Spying a coffee mug emblazoned with a stereotypical witch — an old hag resembling the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West riding a broom — the Binghamton University English professor began to wonder how the modern-day images depicting the trials have become so distorted.

“I understood, at the time, that the only people executed were those individuals who insisted they were innocent, fearing the damnation of their immortal souls,” Rosenthal said. “Seeing them depicted as hags and not as the martyrs they were, made me think ‘Why is this so?’”

That question started him on his research studying America’s original witch-hunt, where the hysteria led to the deaths of 24 people — 19 hanged on Gallows Hill in Salem Town and more than 200 imprisoned, with some dying.

As he wrote his book, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, Rosenthal discovered he had inadvertently included an erroneously transcribed court date. Upon closer scrutiny, he found more.

“I found that there were things that didn’t make sense,” he said. “There was an arbitrary piece of manuscript put together with another where it didn’t belong. Before seeing that, I couldn’t figure out why a particular event didn’t make sense to me.”

Rosenthal discovered that the printed edition he was using was based on an incorrect manuscript. After further research, he noticed a number of other errors. “They were minor but the discovery showed that the manuscript was not transcribed as closely as it could have been,” he said.

According to Rosenthal, there were two major attempts to transcribe the original trial documents. The first transcription was completed as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression. In the 1970s, despite historians attempting to modernize the WPA transcripts, they didn’t check them for accuracy. Those transcripts became the standard for witch trial information.

“I don’t mean to imply that all the history is incorrect,” Rosenthal said. “Mistakes have been made in just about every book written on the subject — mine included. But now that we are aware of it, we know secondary sources need to be checked. We need to be much more careful with work on this particular issue.” Now, Rosenthal and a team of historians, linguists and other scholars have started their newest endeavor — the creation of a Manuscript Transcription Database housed in a private intranet site, which includes a scribal database for the trial documents.

“Some of the historians I’m working with are decoding who wrote which manuscript, so that with any document you look up in the database, you’ll also have an identification of the scribe,” he said.

Scribal information will include genealogical or family connections including kinships and relationships, which he said is important to consider since information could have been manipulated or omitted depending on who wrote a particular document. A majority of the work has been completed by studying the original records found in Salem and Virginia.

Although many of the transcripts have been scanned onto CDs, researchers rely on original records in order to view the ink color that would indicate changes to the original documents. “The colored ink shows significant clues to things being changed,” Rosenthal said. “The ink colors and crossed-out portions of documents are very revealing. You can tell if the manuscripts have been doctored or changed. But you can only do this by looking at the original documents.”

Since even the smallest mistakes can change the story of the witch trials, in order to ensure that no new mistakes are introduced, transcripts will be scrutinized by an anonymous peer review.

Rosenthal hopes his research will correct errors and find new documents that can add context to the events and lives of the trials’ victims. “When we’re done we hope to have a collection of comprehensive and accurate documents pertaining to the Salem witch trials,” Rosenthal said.

The collection will include 30 to 50 documents discovered since this project began that do not appear in current standard editions. Some have appeared in print in obscure sources but were missed by the WPA. Others have never been printed.

According to Rosenthal, events leading up to the witch trials actually occurred in what is now the town of Danvers, then known as Salem Village. “Not a lot in Salem is authentic, just a lot of tacky touristy things,” Rosenthal said. “But they do have the Phillips Library, which is part of the Peabody Museum. A lot of the transcripts pertaining to the witchcraft trials are there.”

Because of Rosenthal’s experience one day in a Salem gift shop, researchers are now working toward a more complete and accurate depiction of history. Thank goodness for tacky commercialism.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08