The Crucible, Salem history and gruesome anniversaries

[Thanks to Trudy for providing the final impetus for this post, which had been churning around in my mind this morning after reading Twitter. See below.]

GH24[Left: current most plausible site of the hangings of the victims of the Salem witch trials. Source.]

Our fellow fan and frequent commentator Trudy just sent me this link about the research on the actual locations of the executions at Salem. (No, Trudy, I was not aware of this, although I am also not surprised either at the research or the results.) It’s a very interesting, meditative exploration by local historian Daniel V. Boudillion of where the hangings might have taken place on the basis of sources, local traditions, and historians’ claims. The author’s conclusion? After evaluating the claims of three authors who’ve written on the topic, he surmises that the place now known as Gallows Hill does not correspond to the site of the hangings — which, the author concludes plausibly, is probably now buried under the parking lot of a Walgreens. This link is really worth reading just for the pictures of the journey that Rebecca Nurse’s son must have taken in order to collect his mother’s body after the judicial murders were over.

(Servetus pauses to think of Richard III and his original gravesite, originally in a monastery church, found by the University of Leicester team under a modern-day car park.)

07192I don’t agree with Boudillion’s conclusion that only the accused deserve our prayers. As ex-SO said to me once about my lack of sympathy for Holocaust perpetrators who’d begged for forgiveness after 1945: if they didn’t have the hope of the charity of history and heaven, how could they go on living? Some of the accusers did apologize during their own lifetimes. And after four centuries, I hope we can understand a bit better about how incidents like this function as the consequence of a closed system in which accuser and accused both play predetermined roles. Moreover, [ETA: Thanks to the reader who pointed out that I misread this. Ich nehme alles zurück und behaupte das Gegenteil. Too much of a rush on my part. So I agree with the author, instead.] I don’t think Salem can be charged with having forgotten this incident, even if the modern memorials for the victims are located in an entirely different place, neither here nor on Gallows Hill, and even if some of us may be bothered by the more commercializing aspects of Salem’s current recollection of 1692.

07191But the piece made me think about the ongoing persistence of people to know what, where, and when, and to locate their memories precisely. As a historian this always confused me; I think that legends about history are not entirely separated from history themselves, and that tradition is certainly just as interesting as fact (even if both are important components of the historical endeavor). Why does the place we associate with the trials need to be in the exact historical location where the trials occurred?

I’d thought about a parallel problem first this morning after reading tweets from the cast of The Crucible in London:

Bridget Bishop was the first to be executed; she died June 10, 1692. The next five victims died on July 19, 1692 (links go to their documentary traces): Sarah Wilds, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Good, (played by Paddy Navin in “our production”), Rebecca Nurse (played by Anne Firbank).

But which July 19?

07195Tedious historical explanation follows: In 1692, following the English practice of the time, the Massachusetts colony still followed the Julian calendar, while today we use the Gregorian calendar. (The European calendar reform, which had been recognized as necessary for some time, got caught up in the squabbles of the Reformation so that Catholic countries went over to the new dating system first. So September 1, 1600, is a different day in Rome than in London. Isn’t that neat?) Reference works usually give dates for the deaths of the victims at Salem with the Julian day and the Gregorian year. (The Julian year also started on a different date; in most cases, not January 1, but rather March 25th.) English, Wales, Ireland, and the British colonies did not go over to new-style dating until a 1750 Act of Parliament; Scotland had changed the year reckoning in 1600 but didn’t change its day reckoning until 1752. So any date found in an English-language or British Isles or colony-written source before then has to be checked for its correspondence to other sources and calendars. If you find this confusing, you’re not alone — somewhere in my crate of office reference works I have a German book that’s devoted to calculating the exact conversions between numerous different calendar systems so that chronologies determined from pre-modern sources can be reconstructed accurately.

07194The upshot for the cast of The Crucible? Julian dates were ten days off of Gregorian dates in 1692.

The anniversaries of the deaths of the five victims of July 19, 1692 — occurred ten days ago.

If we want to mourn John Proctor’s death on August 19, 1692, then the anniversary date is August 9th by our reckoning (and incidentally this would also be the case with Richard III’s death, reckoned by our calendar as August 12th. Richard Armitage’s birthday occurred on our calendar on August 22nd and in fact not on the anniversary of his demise at Bosworth Field).

Does it matter? I don’t think so. The point of this post isn’t to say, nyah, nyah, boo, boo, silly folks, you got it wrong, but simply to point to the importance of anniversaries — whether actual or imagined — in the stories we tell ourselves. Like places, it’s not so much knowing the “real place” (actual historical locations can be abandoned for all kinds of reasons intentional and accidental and practical and idealist), as it is the meaning to which we assign that place. To some extent the battle over Richard III’s re-interment reflects exactly this problem, not least because the actual location of the burial seems inappropriate and there is no clear intended location. The place becomes the focus of an identity battle that tells us something about ourselves, not about history.

07193And yet at the same time, history is not irrelevant — there’s something about knowing the exactness of the place that assures that our imagination of the past is significantly real. So it goes with dates as well. Whether Armitage’s birthday fell on the anniversary of Richard III’s death, his father allegedly believed that to be the case and the story has been one that appears to have carried an important weight for the actor himself. Whether the actors in The Crucible find the exact dates of their characters’ deaths, the point is that the anniversary and its putative relationship reality provoke the reflection.

But the significant piece of that is less the actual anniversary — we can remember Sarah Good on any day of the year — than the reflection. The important thing is that we remember and not so much when (or where). And what that memory means to us — another topic of infinite possibilities.

~ by Servetus on July 19, 2014.

19 Responses to “The Crucible, Salem history and gruesome anniversaries”

  1. Very interesting observations and a lot of food for thought. Thank you. I was especially caught by your assertion about predetermined roles.

    As for our need to be accurate about historical locations, I can’t speak to anyone else’s internal workings, but for myself, personally:

    I like knowing I’m standing in the exact spot in which a historical thing took place, or a particular person did something that was meaningful to them, because I can imagine that in that place I am connected to the web of energy still spreading outward through time from that moment. Call it mystical bullshit or an improper understanding of science, but it feels real to me. So that’s why I care about knowing the proper sites.


    • I’m not saying it’s wrong to care about that — just that it always runs the risk of being arbitrary. We assign that meaning ourselves and it’s our assignment of meaning that’s the significant thing.

      To give you an example, it is possible hypothetically to sleep in the same cell that Martin Luther occupied during his stint in the Erfurt Augustinian cloister. The cloister has been renovated many times since then but based on a solid historical record of building documents and excavations, the present conference center has the rooms located in the same places with the original walls. Except that we don’t know which cell was Martin Luther’s. So I’ve stayed there a few times and slept over — was I sleeping in Martin Luther’s footsteps, so to speak? Or did I miss it somehow? If I am a few bedrooms over?

      There are a lot of stories like this in Luther studies, because Luther researchers have been preoccupied with just this question. My ongoing question is simply why be preoccupied with that particular question, what does it tell us about our need to assign something to a place? Why does it “feel more real” if that is the case?


      • I suspect the answers to those questions get at the heart of the very deepest issues — our feelings about Why We’re Here, What It All Means, and what if anything we share with each other in the condition of Being Human.

        So, no easy answers. Just a lot of meat to chew over. As I said, very interesting.


        • oh, absolutely, and its location at the very center of us gets to why people get so exercised over this stuff. Re-inter Richard III in Leicester, York, London, or some place else?


          • Yes. As I’ve followed that story, I have been struck by the intensity of the emotions involved. Removed as I am, I mistakenly perceive the issue as one of justice. To the people in the center of it, it seems to be about the very soul.


        • I probably also think that date is more central to living memory — that is, if you or your ancestors were impacted by a date, that is going to be more visceral and central to your identity than an abstract date. There are all kinds of gradations of caring, after all.


          • Agreed. If you feel the event in question has played any part in shaping the person you are, it matters more. And it’s like failing to respect it properly is a betrayal of the self.


            • so, something I didn’t say in this post but which I thought about a lot — here we have actors who are peopling the roles of fictional versions of historical actors. It’s undeniable that playing a role like this would shape the person they are (and especially for the younger actors, I assume, for many of whom this is a first significant role). So what is proper memory in this case? I don’t have an answer to that question, but I’m throwing it out there.


    • I hear what you are saying about it feeling real because it is the real historical location. but, I think it is just as real for those, like RA and his birthday being the same as RIII, it is just as real a feeling for him (I hope he doesn’t find out the truth of it now). You may have that feeling but then find out the site is not right, like being paved over by a Walgreen’s … bad enough going through the horror of a witchcraft trial and being hung…but then being paved over? Anyways, does that make your original feeling any less real? Of course disappointment when you find out it wasn’t real, but still, that initial feeling felt real at the time even though the site was incorrect. Sorry, I’m babbling…. mostly because I hope RA doesn’t know about the two calenders. I learn something new everyday here….I actually thought we were on the Julian calendar!


      • if Armitage has done anything like the research into Richard III that he implies he has, he must know this already, because it’s explained briefly in every serious book on the topic. He also said he did O-Level history in school and this might have been covered.


        • He is a smart guy and does do his homework. I guess his naturally positive attitude let him cope with the knowledge. Lol


  2. Credit to the “Richard Armitage in The Crucible Appreciation Page” at Facebook.
    Connecting to the events and people of the past by visiting specific locations can be a moving personal experience.
    The same emotions can be conjured whether the spot is accurate or not, but if research can pinpoint the real location – all the better.
    Now the next time I go through Salem, this new knowledge will be in my mind. I’ll be looking for that Walgreens.
    (Never go near Salem at Halloween. Lol!)


    • yeah, I’m not opposed to finding the “right place.” That said, I can totally see people finding the “right place” anticlimactic or disappointing when it doesn’t live up to their imaginations.


  3. This just occurred on my Facebook wall.

    I was having a conversation with a friend in a different state, whom I have never met in person, about our similar experiences living in different deserts. Somehow it came out that she’d once visited a particular tourist attraction in the desert outside my city that I had also visited as a child and in which I’d had a memorably amusing experience.

    And she said this:

    “I’m still infuriated that I stood in a spot that you had stood in and didn’t possess the ability to understand that I was standing in the presence of previous greatness.”

    It made me think of this discussion.


  4. This is a great post. I lived in Mass for a long time and I’ve always been amused by the brisk tourist trade in Salem, considering that Salem isn’t even Salem in the respect most people think it is. I bet Danvers is kicking itself now over that name change. Who knew a stigma could be so profitable?

    I like to stand on the exact spot, if possible, because I want to see what whoever’s spot I’m standing on saw, to better imagine what it was really actually like for them, or what the circumstances were really actually like. But I don’t think that needs to come at the expense of the people who actually live and work there. History happened everywhere. Remembering is important, but who’s to say which memories are the most important, and we need grocery stores, too. I’m not one of them, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who would rather have a convenient parking lot than access to the exact spot where Richard III was buried.


    • I think it’s hard to see what that person saw when we know what happened — like not being able to listen to Beethoven in the same way if I’ve heard Brahms first. Which doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with trying to reproduce that.


  5. […] and July 18 (today’s date) fell on a different day in 1692. I wrote about this extensively here, after the first anniversaries of executions of Salem “witches.” It’s fine by the […]


  6. […] gone on a lot this year about how anniversaries aren’t real dates — they are solely what we make of them. All of the anniversaries the Old Vic Theatre celebrated for the victims at Salem were ten days […]


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