While thinking about The Crucible today, I decided to look at John Proctor’s indictment

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You can take the girl out of the history department but maybe not the historian out of the girl? Anyway, my mind sort of drove me off the road in southern Kentucky and I stopped to write a little bit about The Crucible (which I will publish tomorrow, I think) and for some reason I thought it would be interesting to look at the legal docs from the Salem episode.

There have been a number of editions — or scholarly transcriptions and commentaries — of these records since the nineteenth century, of varying quality. The one friendliest to novices is probably that of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, two of the foremost authorities on this incident, originally prepared in 1977 in conjunction with their landmark work, Salem Possessed; revised and indexed for the Internet in 2003; and corrected again and augmented with images of the documents in 2010.

This is what the Internet edition calls the case file for John Proctor. There is no actual “case file” that you can order in any archive; rather, these are collections of documents from different repositories indexed by researchers for our convenience. If you were on the trail of this topic for the first time, you would have to trace these people through the different records collections where you might anticipate finding them. In terms of this particular incident, people have been combing archives and private collections for decades, so it’s unlikely that much new material will be found, but every historian who starts out on a path has to trace the steps of his/her predecessors in order to verify their plausibility, and then has to brainstorm about any additional places where a historical subject might have left an archival trace, to make sure the entire evidential base has been brought to light.

The Salem records were written by scribes trained for the purpose, but they did not write “chancellery hands” as European scribes of their period did — which makes these records really easy for us to read. It helps to know the abbreviations in common usage, but a separate paleography course is probably not necessary.

Here’s the first trace of Proctor from the Salem-related records (note that as a major landowner in the area, roughly sixty years old at the time of the indictment, he was someone important before the trials, and thus left a much longer archival trail that we’re not looking at here):

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It’s a passage in a collection of Essex County records concerning witchcraft. The document was labeled “Village papers concerning Sundry persons Under Suspition of Witchcraft Abigail Williams ag’t John procter” and from its form, this looks like it might possibly have been taken as an excerpt from an earlier, no longer surviving document that recorded either all of Abigail Williams’ accusations or the documents made by the girls making the accusations. Remember that in history, Abigail Williams was eleven when this was happening; she had not been the Proctors’ servant; and in fact, there’s no evidence to suggest that she even knew him (or his wife). She probably accused him because one of the other possessed girls, Mary Warren, did so first.

Here’s a closeup:Screen shot 2014-06-07 at 12.00.07 AMScreen shot 2014-06-07 at 12.00.26 AMScreen shot 2014-06-07 at 12.00.40 AMScreen shot 2014-06-07 at 12.00.59 AM

1692 Apr. 4: Abig: Williams complained of Goodm: Procter & cryed out wt xxx are you come to, are you come to, you can pinch as well as your wife & more to that purpose

Three bills of indictment about Proctor were brought to the court; one was returned “ignoramus” (today we would call this “no bill”) and two were returned as true bills, i.e., indictments.

Here’s the text of the first indictment — note that the manuscript page is decaying along the margins and so the archivists have mounted it to help preserve it:

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Here’s the text of the indictment:

Anno Regis et Reginae Willm: et Mariae nunc. Angliae &c Quarto. Essex ss

The Jurors for our Sovereigne Lord and Lady the King and Queen psents That: John Procter of Salem Husbandman in the County of Essex: the Eleventh Day of Aprill in the fourth Year of the Reigne of our Sovereigne Lord & Lady, William and Mary by the Grace of God of England Scottland France and Ireland King and Queen Defenders of the faith &c and divers other Dayes and times as well before as after Certaine Detestable Acts, called Witchcraft and Sorceries, Wickedly. and felloniously hath. used: Practised and Exercised at and within the Towneship of Salem in the County of Essex aforesd. in upon, and ag’t one Mary Wolcott of Salem Villiage in the County of Essex Single Woman — by which said wicked Arts the said: Mary Wolcott the II’th Day of Aprill in the Year abovesaid and Divers other Dayes and times as well before. as after was and is Tortured, Afflicted, Pined, Consumed wasted, and tormented, ag’t the Peace of our Sovereigne Lord & Lady the King and Queen, and ag’t the form of the Statute in that case made and provided Witnesses

Mary Wolcot Jurat

Mercy Lewis Jurat

Ann Putman Jurat

or, rationalized into our idiom:

In the fourth year of the reign of King and Queen William and Mary now of England, etc.

Essex County.

The jurors for our sovereign lord and lady the king and queen present that — in the fourth year year of the reign of our sovereign lord and lady, William and Mary by the grace of God King and Queen of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, defenders of the faith, etc. — on April 11th and at various other days and times before and after as well, John Proctor, husbandman of Salem in Essex County, used, practiced and exercised feloniously and wickedly certain detestable acts, called witchcraft and sorceries, at and within the township of Salem in the aforesaid Essex County, in, upon and against Mary Wolcott, a single woman of Salem Village in Essex County, by which said wicked arts on April 11th in the year stated above and at various times before and after as well, the said Mary Wolcott was and is tortured, afflicted, made to suffer grief, consumed, wasted, and tormented, against the peace of our sovereign lord and lady the king and queen, and against the form of the statute.

Mary Wolcot swears.

Mercy Lewis swears.

Ann Putman swears.

And on the reverse, we can see the labeling of the bill (No. 1. Jno Procter):

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and the return of the bill “ignoramus”:

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I don’t have the tools here to determine if it’s known why the first indictment was returned “no bill.” I won’t bore you by summarizing Procter’s paper trail, but you can read all the known surviving documents at the website, including a petition from a number of his neighbors protesting his innocence, and a petition of his that pointed out that the torture to which his family members had been subjected were like papist cruelties. Interestingly, while a number of depositions survive in this case, interrogatories and interrogations, often the most interesting part of a witch trial, do not. In addition to his refusal to confess, these gaps facilitated Miller’s retelling of Proctor’s story — the less that is known, often the better from the perspective of a dramatist.

Sometimes, you just wanna look at the paper trail. For notorious historical episodes like this one, doing so is now so much easier than it was when I was in college. Still, the archival traces of most of humanity — ordinary people who paid their taxes, probated wills, transferred property — still remain untouched in archives for us to explore.

~ by Servetus on June 7, 2014.

17 Responses to “While thinking about The Crucible today, I decided to look at John Proctor’s indictment”

  1. Fascinating. When engrossed in the play, I often forget we are talking about real people who lived and died in the this story.


    • yeah — that’s who they are for me first (for better or for worse) — historical drama is hard for me, even when it’s as high quality as this piece is.


      • Historical dramas are a challenge for me, also. If I am ‘into” the production, I don’t feel the impact of the reality of events and characters until the end. Since many (most, all?) historical dramas are not laugh fests, it is easy to become somber, at best.


        • I feel like history is the ultimate reminder that we only know ourselves. Here are these people who lived and died, as CarlyQ writes, and yet this is all that survives of them. I can look at these rather hasty scrawls of what Abigail Williams said. She didn’t live that much longer. That was it for her.


  2. Fascinating indeed! I also enjoy the obvious political anti-McCarthyism stance Miller was eluding to.

    However, at the moment I am really drawn to the enduring social phenomenon called ‘witchhunts’ that still prevails. More recently with regards to the recent investigations into British media icons as a result of the Jimmy Saville investigations. No, I’m not saying these all of these people are innocent, far from it, but seems to me the witchhunt theme is very prevalent in that there are innocent people being dragged into this mess. Innocent people who’s lives will now forever be adversely affected by this. When I first found out about this production I wondered if these ongoing investigations and trials influenced the producer’s decision in choosing to re-examine this play. Still wondering.

    Thank you for this, Serve. 🙂


    • I agree that the primary meanings of the play for us are metaphorical, but this post wasn’t supposed to be about the play — this is just a breakout because while I was writing about the impressions I had of the play in grad school, I thought, hmmm, Miller said he read the historical records, what was there to read about John Proctor?

      I disagree strongly that what’s going on in the Saville cases has much to do with this even metaphorically, but that’s a problem with the really super loose use of the term “witchhunt.” I’ll talk more about that in the next post, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What makes this event an historical event that it is known today? I don’t get the importance.


  4. Thanks for the links to the ‘case files’! I almost forgot that the play was based on true events. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post


  5. Thank you so much Servetus for the links to the case files. It was like opening Pandora’s box for me where I found case files for my ancestor Martha Carrier who was executed with John Proctor on August 19 1692. Once again many thanks.


  6. This is a great read and very helpful to introduce me more to the history of those events. Only just this minute I realised, that coincidentally I bought a ticket for the performance of “The Crucible” on 19th August!! Now I wonder whether they are going to mention this special John-Proctor-date in any way?


    • yeah, buy one get one free executions? 🙂

      I also thought it was interesting that it’s so close to the date of death of Richard III. However, one is pre-Gregorian calendar and the other is post.


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