When I was researching Nathan Hale for But One Life, I realized that he was related to Reverend John Hale, who had been part of the Salem Witch Trials. I found it interesting but didn't really find a way to work it into Nathan's story. However, it did cause me to jump at the chance to welcome today's guest!
Lucretia Grindle has done some fantastic research into the era leading up to the Salem Witch Trials and written a moving novelization off this time that I can personally attest contains lovely prose and thought provoking themes. But I will let her tell you about it herself.
Before the Salem Witch Trials
Guest Post by Lucretia Grindle
I began to think about the story that became The Devil’s Glove years ago when I first noticed something odd about the published research, and writing, on the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. Let me explain.
There are reams and reams written about the trials themselves, so much so that they have become a sort of American liturgy. We all know about yellow birds, and Giles Corey being pressed to death, and teen-aged girls screaming that they were being bitten and stabbed by pins. We’ve heard how Tituba livened up long winter evenings, probably rather more than she intended, telling fortunes. Thanks to court papers, and depositions, and Massachusetts’ general mania for writing every and anything down, we have more detail, more exhaustively researched and picked over, and over yet again, about the trials and their surrounding hoopla than we can possibly ever digest. But it all has the odd sense of having happened in a vacuum. What is conspicuously absent from both the fiction and non-fiction writing on Salem is the ‘before’ and ‘after’. Who were these people? Where did they come from? What happened to them after the hysteria wound down?
As I thought about Salem these were the questions that nagged at me, and I should say immediately that in looking for answers, I owe a huge debt to Mary Beth Norton. Her book, The Devil’s Snare, is one of very few that addresses the deep rooted problems and tensions that exploded in 1692. Following her lead, I looked farther backward, and found myself returning again and again to the coast of Maine, and specifically to the summer of 1688, when a number of people who would figure in the Salem witchcraft trials all found themselves living in the tiny, isolated settlement of Falmouth.
Judah White, an indentured servant at The Ordinary, would be named as a witch, but never tried. Mercy Lewis and her aunt, Mary Skilling, would both be prominent ‘accusers’. Foxy John Alden, a frequent visitor if not a resident, would find the finger pointed at him and waste no time escaping. George Burroughs, Falmouth’s minister, would be called the devil himself, and hanged. Abigail Hobbs, who was barely ten in 1688, would be the only person to happily confess. Providing a rapt audience in the Salem village meeting house with a litany of details, including demonic snack menus, she would claim that four years earlier she had ‘gone into the woods and signed the black man’s book’. The more I uncovered, the more it didn’t feel like coincidence.
The world I discovered as I tried to piece together what happened in that long ago hot summer was not what I expected. This was no colony of the devout – in fact many were drawn to The Eastward, as Maine was called, precisely because it was about as far as you could get from the Puritan regime in Boston. Instead, Falmouth was a frontier, a fractious world teetering on the brink of implosion, where the stakes were high and violence was never out of the question. Like all frontiers, it was also a borderland. A place ‘between’ where not only territory, but meaning and belief and identity – the very idea of what was ‘real’ - were contested, and therefore fluid. Maine in the summer of 1688 was a place where you could all too easily disappear. It was also a place where you could invent, and reinvent yourself. Or even be more than one person at once.
The ‘settler’ population, which included not only the English, but Portuguese and French, people from the channel islands, especially Jersey, traders and ruffians, conmen, chancers and more than a few slave holders, was as fluid as the place itself. Rumor and gossip traveled up and down the coast. And fear traveled with it. Of New France, which was barely a day’s sail north. Of the meddling government in Boston, or the meddling government in London, depending on your politics. Of storms. Of wolves. Of the sea. And mostly, and always, fear of the terror that could burst at any moment from the endless surrounding forest.
By 1688, two very bloody wars – the Pequod war and King Philip’s war – had already been fought in New England. The events of that summer would ignite a third. A powerful confederacy of native tribes allied with the French had decided that though they could do little about Boston, they would fight for the north. What became King William’s war would effectively halt settlement on the Maine coast for a generation. Several of the key incidents that lit its fuse happened in and around Falmouth, and are at the center of The Devil’s Glove. Key among them are the raids in which hundreds of Anglo-European settlers were killed throughout New England, and hundreds more were taken captive.
The other thing that fascinated me about the raids was how many of the people taken captive, especially the women, chose, when given the choice, not to return to Anglo-European ‘civilization’, even after ransoms had been paid for them. Instead, they stayed with the Native families and communities that had adopted them. We owe James Axtell for his ground breaking work on this, which has, in my opinion received far less attention that it deserves. The precise numbers are difficult to pin down, but Axtell has suggested that as many as 30% of the Anglo-European captives who were taken in Native raids, mostly in New England, decided not to come back. Needless to say, this didn’t always go down very well. Cotton Mather’s niece is a case in point. It must have been especially galling to believe you were anointed by God and hear the women in your own family saying ‘No Thanks’.
The captives who stayed with the tribes led me directly a number of people, especially women, who discovered the space in the northern borderlands of the late 17th century to create their own unique, hybrid identities. Women, both Anglo and Indigenous who found a way to move between European and Native worlds. In The Devil’s Glove, Resolve’s mother, and Resolve herself are obvious examples.
Unlike most of the other characters in The Devil’s Glove, the Hammonds are fictional characters. But they are based on real examples. In writing them, I tried to be as certain as I could that I didn’t stray from what was both historically possible, and likely. Rachel’s parents were real. Her father was Philip English’s god father, and they did have a daughter called Rachel. There was a militia colonel in Rhode Island who sent his family to shelter with the sachem, Ashawonks during King Philip’s war. The French Baron de Castine, who is mentioned in The Devil’s Glove and plays a central role in Salem Book III, was married to the great war leader Madockawondo’s daughter, who carved an unique identity for herself, and her children, that straddled worlds.
To me, this is the glory of historical fiction. It is not about ‘making things up’, but rather peeling back layers papered over the past to reveal something totally unexpected, and finding in that unexpected place unexpected stories. Sometimes, those stories feel complete. But more often than not, they are filled with possibilities and tantalizing glimpses – the mention of a character, like Judah White, or Mercy Lewis, or beautiful crazy? Mad? Demonic? Witchy Abigail. All of them are there and gone. Each as if she ran around a corner leaving only the slimmest of traces, barely a hint of who she might have been and what she might have felt, but enough. Enough to fill in. Enough to color in the context, to open a page of time and place, to give form and substance, and indulge in the alchemy of resurrecting a life that might otherwise be lost.
Thank you for hosting Lucretia Grindle today, with The Devil's Glove. A fascinating post.ReplyDelete
The Coffee Pot Book Club
It is some fascinating historical background to a well-known event, and I enjoyed her book as well!Delete