Madeira Mondays: Writing Poetry about the Salem Witch Trials

In last week’s post, I shared part-one of my poem ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, from my upcoming poetry pamphlet Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. This week, I wanted to look more closely at the story behind the poem. And I don’t just mean the historical story that inspired it, but also how I wrote the poem itself. But first: if you’ve not read last week’s post, you might want to take a look at that one first and have a wee read of the poem (this post will probably make more sense if you do!).

‘The First Afflicted Girl’ is a persona poem. A ‘persona poem’ is a poem that adopts the voice of a specific character (maybe a historical character, a fictional character, etc.). In this case, the poem adopts the voice of Betty Parris who was one of the ‘afflicted children’ during the Salem Witch Trials, who accused others of being witches. Her short entry on Wikipedia says that she, alongside her cousin Abigail, ’caused the direct death of 20 Salem residents: 19 were hanged…(one) pressed to death.’ But Betty was a child – can we really say she caused those deaths? A nine-year-old child didn’t hang those women, a community did. What I’m saying is, that’s pretty harsh, Wikipedia!

But, nevertheless, Betty played a key role in this tragic episode, and several years ago I became curious about her life after reading A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill (a very gripping nonfiction account of the Salem Witch Trials). Hill describes Betty as ‘impressionable’ and ‘steeped in her father’s Puritan theology that made terrifying absolutes of good and evil, sin and saintliness and heaven and hell.’ Hill also writes that: ‘Unsurprisingly, (Betty) was full of anxiety.’ These descriptions drew me to her, perhaps because ‘anxious’ and ‘impressionable’ were probably two words that could have been used to describe me as a kid, alongside imaginative (we’ll get to imagination in a moment).

Frances Hill

Who was Betty?

For starters, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Parris was the daughter was the daughter of Salem Village Reverend Samuel Parris. In 1692, she lived in Puritan Massachusetts in her father’s home with her eleven year old cousin Abigail (who plays a part in my poem). She also lived with an enslaved couple of Caribbean origins, Tituba and John Indian. It was unusual for a New England family at the time to keep slaves, and, at least from Hill’s account, it seems that Tituba was a constant presence in Betty’s life (maybe even more so than her mother, who I chose to make absent entirely from my poem). Betty would have known Tituba since infancy. It’s impossible to know the complex dynamic between little Betty and Tituba, but both Betty and Abby were certainly dependent on her – which is why Tituba’s presence is woven subtly throughout the poem. She’s always there, usually doing household chores to keep the home running (in part-one, for instance, she’s blowing air from the bellows into the fire).

What was Betty’s life like?

The days were quite monotonous for young Puritan children. Endless chores (sewing, helping with the cooking, spinning etc.). Families were mostly self-reliant (making many items there at home, like candles and clothes). Hill writes about how there was ‘little play or amusement’ for kids and, as they grew older, no entertainment or hobbies. The only books they had were religious ones. Most strikingly to me, there were few outlets for the little girls to imagine. Hill writes:

Young women of that time and place had nothing to feed the imagination, to expand understanding or heighten sensitivity. There were no fairytales or stories to help order and make sense of experience. Were was no art or theatre (…) boys enjoyed hunting, trapping, and fishing, carpentry and crafts. For girls there were no such outlets for animal high spirits or mental creativity.

This made me wonder: what would it have been like to be a little girl like Betty? What might the mind conjure up, if you had no outlet for your imagination? What might I have done, if I had been born in this environment?

So how did that research contribute to the poem?

The monotony of Betty’s existence is something I wanted to convey with the language of the poem, which uses frequent repetition (‘days and days and days/of lighting fires’). And if a young girl like Betty were to feel anything but content with these days of boredom and drudgery, then they would probably have interpreted these feelings as sinful and wicked. That’s why I bring in Betty’s repeated thoughts: ‘I am not wicked/I do not want to be wicked.’ These lines come immediately after she talks about ‘wanting/to be in bed instead of/sewing, washing, sweeping.’ ‘I do not want sunshine’, she tries to assure herself, but already, from a few stanzas back, we know that she ‘dream(s) her cheeks are burned by sunlight’.

A few lines later, when Betty says the ‘outside is not different/from the in’, that line refers to the house being dark inside and out because it’s the dead of winter. But, on another level, it’s also her hope that her internal world and what she presents outwardly are the same. Of course, they’re not the same. Inside, it’s tumultuous and full of conflicting desires and self-chastisement, even if on the ‘outside’ she’s playing the part of an obedient child who doesn’t ‘want sunshine’.

The final three lines of part-one, ‘We burn the candles/and keep them/burning’, also works on two levels (I hope!). This is a physical description of the setting meant to convey just how dark it was during those bleak winter months, but also ending that section on the word ‘burning’, and isolating the word like that, on its own line, is suggestive of the witch trials that are to come (keep them burning). Although no women or men were burned alive in Salem, this imagery does evoke witch trials generally, I think. It’s a sinister note to end on, suggesting bad things to come, and the poem definitely takes a turn for the increasingly more sinister and strange in parts two and three, as Betty becomes more physically, emotionally and psychologically distressed. In the poem, as in life, she begins speaking incoherently, having violent convulsions, and eventually causing everyone around her to conclude that she has been ‘bewitched’.

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‘Witchcraft at Salem Village’ engraving from 1876, accessed here

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Of course, each reader will get something different from the poem, and just because I intended for something to be read a certain way, that doesn’t mean that it will be! Overall, in the first section, I really wanted to convey Betty’s fear of being ‘wicked’, the physical discomforts of her life, and the fervent religion beliefs of her time. Section two explores Betty’s dabbling with fortune telling (and her increasingly morbid thoughts) and finally her descent into ‘hysteria’. My poem ends before the Witch Trials actually begin. (I won’t say exactly how it ends! For that, you’ll need to read the full poem in the book!)

In reality, what happened was that Betty and Abby accused three (vulnerable) women of being witches: Sarah Good, a homeless woman; Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman and (perhaps most tragically and most predictably) the woman who had cared for them, Tituba.

Tituba survived, but many people did die as a result of the ensuing witch trials (nineteen hanged and one man pressed to death). I don’t have an answer as to ‘why’ the real historical Betty behaved the way she did. There were probably numerous contributing factors that led to her odd behavior. There are certainly many factors that led to the Salem Witch Trials generally, including long-standing superstitions (witch trials had been going on in Europe for years) and complex relationships and rivalries between members of Salem Village and Salem Town. As for the girls’ affliction: there’s a theory (put forward by psychologist Linnda Caporael in the 1970’s) that blamed their abnormal behavior on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye and might have caused hallucinations. But this theory is not really supported by historians, as explained very well in this blog post from a history student and tour guide in Salem.

In any case, my poem is not trying to explain exactly what happened to the girls, and it’s certainly not delving into the complex origins of the trials themselves. What I am trying to do is explore a certain state of being, a state of boredom, fear and anxiety that might have taken hold of this ‘impressionable’ nine-year-old girl. Hill also notes, and I agree with this argument, that this is a time when women weren’t allowed any sort of public voice, and had little to no power in their homes, so even feigning this kind of ‘affliction’ would have given the girls a kind of power. People would have listened to them, taken them seriously, an intoxicating prospect for a Puritan girl, even if it had deadly consequences.

Matteson-witch

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T.H. Matteson, accessed via Wikipedia

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Within my book, this poem is also positioned right before a poem about my own experience of ‘Abstinence Only’ sexual education in a Texas public high school, very much an anxiety-inducing experience and one more aimed, in my experience, at scaring young people than educating them. Through this ordering of poems, I’m trying to draw (unsettling) parallels between past and present, and to raise questions about how young people are ‘educated’ then and now. 

So that’s a bit of insight into the research and thinking behind this poem! (There are much cheerier poems in the pamphlet too, I should add! The aforementioned ‘Sex Ed’ poem is actually really funny – I hope!). If you’d like to read more, the whole poem is in Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (available for pre-order here).

And if you’d like to learn more about Salem generally, here are a few ideas:

Recommended Further Reading/Listening/Viewing:

Books:

Movies:

  • The Witch directed by Robert Eggers (one of my favorite films! I wrote about it last Halloween here)

Podcasts:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: ‘The First Afflicted Girl’ (A Poem)

The Salem Witch Trials is well-trodden territory for fiction writers. Perhaps the most famous fictional representation of this tragic episode in early American history is Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ (1953). Miller wrote this play as an allegory, drawing parallels between the fanatical 17th century Puritans accusing people of being witches and the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950’s, when the US government accused many people (including himself) of being communist. But beyond ‘The Crucible’, there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851), as well as several modern novels, including the YA novel A Break with Charity (1992) by one of my literary heroes, Ann Rinaldi. This is in addition to TV and movies ranging from the silly (think Hocus Pocus) to the serious, as well as dozens of non-fiction accounts from historians and journalists alike about what exactly happened in Salem Massachusetts that fateful winter.

Cruciblecover

I never intended to write a poem about the Salem Witch Trials, for the very reason that it’s pretty well-covered ground. But several years ago I was reading a non-fiction book, A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill, and I became fascinated with her depiction of a somewhat ‘minor’ character in this story: Betty Parris. Betty was a little girl who, in the winter of 1692, started showing strange and abnormal behaviors (barking, hiding under tables, having fits). The adults around her decided that she was bewitched, so naturally the question arose: Who had bewitched her? Betty and her cousin Abigail started naming names, and this is what started The Salem Witch Trials.

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‘Captain Alden Denounced’, a sketch from 1878, author unknown, accessed via Wikimedia

Betty’s story really interested me. What was going on with her psychologically and physically? What was her life like? What events might have led up to these strange behaviors and her peculiar ‘illness’? I don’t have answers for most of these questions, but they inspired a three-part poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, that is in my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror.

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I’m going to share the first part of the poem here and then next week I’ll talk a bit more about Betty’s life and my historical research, what I hoped to achieve with the language, as well as what themes I wanted to explore overall in the poem.

The First Afflicted Girl

I.

I whisper Wake up, Abby,
as floorboards creak above and sawdust
falls on us like snowflakes.

Up there, Tituba blows air into the fire,
wakes it up. I want to burrow
like a field mouse back to sleep.
I dream my cheeks are burned by sunlight
but I wake and cannot feel the ends of me.

I pull on cloth, teeth knocking,
Wake up, Abby, shaking her shoulders
and we go up the stairs, clat clat clat,
and huddle by the heat, hold our palms
out to catch it. I think it is morning
but now the days fog into nights
and days and days and days
of lighting fires.

The Lord is in the candles
for He is in everything that is good,
like the pale sunlight when we walk
to see Mary Walcott,
for He created Light
and the Devil is in the cobwebs
and the nights when cold is biting
me. And in the wanting

to be in bed instead of
sewing, washing, sweeping.
I am not wicked.
I do not want to be wicked.
I do not want sunshine.
I light the candles,
see my face in dark glass.

Now the outside is not different
from the in.

Both are gray in winter.
We burn the candles
and keep them
burning.

If you’d like to read the whole poem and hear more of Betty’s story you can check out: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror which is out on July 2, 2020 and is now available for pre-order here from Stewed Rhubarb Press! Betty is only one of the many characters you’ll meet in the book which explores female desire and sexuality from a range of historical and modern perspectives. (Most of the poems are funnier and more light-hearted than this one as well, by the way!) There’s lots more information about it on my book announcement blog post here.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

(PS Today’s Featured Image is “The Witch No. 1 Lithograph” by Joseph E. Baker c. 1892, from The Library of Congress, and accessed via Wikimedia)

 

Madeira Mondays: The Witch

One of the trickiest things to capture, when writing fiction set in early America, is the fervent religiosity of that time. God was so much a part of people’s lives and everyday thoughts in ways that many of us (certainly me!) have difficulty even conceptualizing, let alone capturing in fiction. I’m not religious at all. Christianity has never been a part of my life in any overt way. Yet, back in the 17th century, Christianity created a system of beliefs that touched every aspect of life – your conduct, your marriage, your sense of right and wrong. It was something that people just believed in, the way that we now believe in scientific laws like gravity. (Of course, not everyone in early America was Christian, or the same type of Christian. Religions varied regionally and culturally etc. I’m thinking here mostly about the Puritan settlers in early New England).

So how do you capture, in modern books and film, the importance of Christianity and Christian belief back then? I think a lot of historical fiction writers just DON’T address it that much in their fiction, which is fine, but it is a major omission. And I like how sometimes novels and films, instead of avoiding or skirting around the religiousness of these historical people, dive headfirst into it, making faith, doubt and religious belief a major topic of the work itself. And no film does that better, in my opinion, than Robert Eggers’ The Witch: A New England Folktale!

Set in Puritan New England, this is a ‘horror’ film (more on that below) about a family that is banished from the village and has to make their way on their own in the wilderness. Now there are lots of things to appreciate about The Witch – from the 17th century language the characters speak (top tip: if you’re struggling at all to understand the dialogue, throw on the subtitles and that might help), to the creepy use of sound (notice how it cuts out at key moments and creates moments of eerie absence), to the cold color scheme of greys, blues and milky whites. All of these things are great.

But what struck me as I was re-watching this ‘New England Folktale’ recently – on a train travelling up the New England countryside from Philadelphia to Boston, no less – was that while ostensibly it is an evil witch in the woods who threatens this family throughout the film (a monster who, you could argue, does or does not exist literally), it’s really more about the very real physical and spiritual threats that faced settlers in early New England.

The_Witch_still

The family sits down for a prayer before dinner

Isolation is a threat for the family – the first scene shows the village community literally shutting the village gates on them. Then, as the family leaves the village, their cart is slowly swallowed up by the dark trees. Communities provided joint resources, protection and safety, and also opportunities for companionship. Community kept you alive and to be cut off from it would have been horrifying.

But the woods themselves are also the threat in this film, they are the monster, which is made clear from the cinematography. It’s shot in a way which makes the woods look slightly taller and narrower. Looming. (Mark Kermode explains more about the filming here). But the threat of the woods is also clear from the dialogue. ‘We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us,’ the father, William (Ralph Ineson), tells the son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), when their crop of corn fails and they have to go out in search of animals in the woods, to eat or to trade the fur. Which brings me to yet another threat that the family is facing and that is the threat of starvation. Their crops have all died – the husks of the blackened corn are strung around the house to remind the viewer of this and to add a sense of withered, eeriness to the house – and the increasing tensions in the family are certainly due in part to their lack of food.

But there are other threats too that are less material. The son is hitting puberty and having sexual urges – finding himself gazing at his sister’s chest (the only young woman around for miles) – and the daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is fearful that she is wicked and sinful, that she has been ‘idle of (her) work’ and ‘disobedient of (her) parents’. She has played on the Sabbath and ‘broken every one of thy commandments in thought.’ ‘I know I deserve all misery and shame in this life and everlasting Hellfire,’ she confesses to God at the beginning of the film.

Thomasin’s confession felt so reflective to me of the real young girls who lived at this time and place, and who had a constant fear of being wicked, sinful and idle pumped into them. They had few outlets for their imagination other than to conjure up devils and spirits in their heads. There weren’t any entertaining fun or silly books to read, few avenues for personal expression. Thomasin is a threat to herself – her desire to play, her disobedience, and her friction with her parents condemns her to ‘Hellfire.’

thomasin

Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) in prayer

All of these threats come together in a sort of witches brew of complexity which feels both very reminiscent of the time, but also familiar to a modern viewer in terms of the tensions and rivalries within the family: the father’s feeling of guilt at not being able to provide for his family, Caleb’s excitement and fear over his own budding sexuality, the strained relationship between husband and wife after the loss of a child. And throughout all of this they are trying to make sense of their sorrows and feelings through their relationship with God (Why is God punishing them? Has he deserted them? Is he testing them?).

The Witch is a ‘horror’ film in the sense that it is frightening and concerned with fears, but, as someone who doesn’t usually enjoy horror films, I would say to check it out even if you don’t like horror films generally. There are few jump scares, little to no body horror, and I did not find it particularly disturbing. It’s not about a big scary monster. It’s about all of those internal and external threats I described. So I’d recommend it even if you don’t love horror films but want to see something eerie and atmospheric about the pain and difficulty of early New England life. And also if you want to see the single creepiest goat that you will ever see. Black Phillip still haunts my dreams. If you’ve seen this film, you will know what I’m talking about!

black phillip

Black Phillip, the goat, smiling his creepy smile.

 

And if you liked The Witch, or just want more seasonal/witchy Halloween reading, here are some recommendations.

Fiction:

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (novel set in late 17th century New England)

A Break with Charity by Ann Rinaldi (novel of the Salem Witch Trials)

– ‘Young Goodman Brown’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne (short story set in Salem about faith and sin)

The Crucible by Arthur Miller (the classic play about the Salem Witch Trials, kind of an obvious recommendation, but I had to include it!)

Non-Fiction:

A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill (non-fiction,  a very engrossing historical account)

– The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to Present by Ronald Hutton

Happy Halloween!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.