The story comes alive at Sylacauga’s B.B. Comer Memorial Library Tuesday at noon with a special Halloween-themed presentation from Adam Jortner, who teaches American history at Auburn University, and has spoken on American religion and history of the supernatural to groups in the United States, Canada and Europe.
“What Happened at the Salem Witchcraft Trials?” will tell the story of the largest witch hunt in American history, a real life horrific incident that still intrigues the popular imagination after 300 years, said Dr. Shirley Spears, director of the Comer Library.
The Salem witchcraft trials were held in 1692 in Salem, a town in the place then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Nineteen people, both men and women, were convicted and hanged as witches as a result of the trials.
Another man was pressed to death with large stones for refusing to enter a plea of innocent or guilty to the charges made against him.
According to historical records, about 150 other people were imprisoned on witchcraft accusations, Spears said.
“The Salem trials brought about the last witchcraft executions in America,” she said. “The Salem witchcraft trial story has nothing to do with Halloween; the timing for this is a coincidence. Dr. Jortner is a student of the ways in which claims of supernatural power transformed American politics and Christianity, and the Salem incident occurred in a setting that was highly political and religious. The story of the trials has become synonymous with paranoia and injustice, with books and movies keeping the interest in the incident alive.”
According to Marion L. Starkey, author of “The Devil in Massachusetts,” The Salem affair, with only 20 witches executed, is a microscopic number compared to the tens of thousands who had been put to death in Europe and England in the course of similar outbreaks in the late Middle Ages, and compared to the millions who have died in the species of witch hunts peculiar to our own rational, scientific times.”
Starkey goes on to give her theory as to why the Massachusetts event is possibly the most celebrated of all witch hunts, and why people will never be done studying and writing about it.
“(Salem’s) numerical modesty is indeed one of its attractions,” she said. “It is a manageable episode in a way that catastrophes involving astronomical figures are not. The human reality of what happens to millions is only for God to grasp, but what happens to individuals is another matter and within the grasp of mortal understanding.”
Witches in the abstract were not hanged in Salem, she said, but one by one were brought to the gallows, with such diverse personalities as a decent grandmother grown too hard of hearing to understand a crucial question from the jurors; a rakish, pipe-smoking female tramp; a plain farmer who thought only to save his wife from molestation; and a lame old man whose toothless gums did not deny expression to a very salty vocabulary.
These people emerge from the records as real as the people who live next door, Spears said.
“And after you have studied their lives faithfully, a remarkable thing happens; you discover that if you really know the few, you are on your way to understanding the millions,” Starkey said. “By grasping the local, the parochial even, it is possible to make a beginning at understanding the universal.”
Spears said not only is the information Jortner delivers of great interest, his delivery is special, too.
“Dr. Jortner, who has also worked as an actor, brings a great storytelling technique to the podium,” she said. “Many of our brown bag lecture participants will remember his marvelous rendition last year of the story of the Indian Chief Tecumseh (The Prophet), who claimed the miracle of making the sun go dark at midday declaring himself to be in direct contact with the ‘master of life,’ he deemed himself the supreme religious authority for all Native Americans. The Salem witch story is in good hands with Dr. Jortner.”
Jortner holds a bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary, a master’s and doctorate from the University of Virginia, where he won the Zora Neale Hurston Prize for the best paper on gender studies for his work on Ann Lee, founder of American Shakerism.
The “Old Times Are Not Forgotten” brown bag lunch series is sponsored by SouthFirst Bank. The refreshment room opens at 11 a.m. and participants are invited to bring a sandwich and enjoy drinks and desserts provided by the library. Working people are invited to come by on their lunch break to enjoy the programs which will begin promptly at noon in the Harry I. Brown Auditorium.
Seating is limited, so groups must have approved reservations (256-249-0961 or firstname.lastname@example.org) to attend brown bag programs.