Personal ties connect locals to Salem Witch Trials; ‘Crucible’ puts our history in the spotlight

MIDDLEBURY — Three-hundred-twenty-five years ago, in a farm village now just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, 14 women and five men were hanged and one man pressed to death with stones over accusations of witchcraft.
The incident has long captured the imagination of writers, artists and observers of human nature, so much so that in many ways it is still with us today.
This weekend’s Middlebury Community Players production of the 1953 Arthur Miller classic “The Crucible” brings the Salem Witch Trials once again into focus. The play at Town Hall Theater features a modern setting but still promises to provide the flavor of the infamous McCarthy Hearings on Un-American Activities, where subjects were pressed to name names in exchange for their own exoneration and lives were ruined.
The Salem Witch Trials have a strong resonance with a surprising number of Addison County residents; in a quick survey the Independent identified at least a dozen locals with ties to this notorious chapter in American history. Remarkably, one member of the cast of this week’s production of “The Crucible” is descended from the Puritans involved in the Salem Witch Trials.
Anna Osborne Harrington is not in the play, but the Middlebury resident is a direct descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of the women wrongly executed for witchcraft in 1692.
Raised in a large, close-knit family in the Marblehead, Mass., a neighbor to Salem, Harrington grew up hearing stories about her famous ancestor.
“I feel a lot of pride in my family history,” said Harrington. “Rebecca Nurse stood up for what she believed in.”
While many of the accused had lower status in the community, Nurse was well respected. Harrington said the stories passed down in her family were that Nurse was targeted after a long illness kept her from church and also because others wanted the family land.
“One of the anecdotes that I was told about her was that during the trial they said that if you could recite the Lord’s Prayer without making a mistake then it proved your innocence. And she did it. She recited the Lord’s Prayer,” Harrington said.
But that didn’t gain her freedom. Instead, Harrington said, “they said the devil was whispering it to her.”
“To me that shows her spirit,” she added. “She tried to prove her innocence. And even though she couldn’t, she didn’t want to cave in and let people believe she was a witch just to make her life easier.”
The Middlebury couple Susan and Jim Bruce learned about their connections to Salem a few years ago, when Jim began to take a closer interest in genealogy and when Susan’s older brother began researching her family history.
Jim’s ancestor Bridget Bishop was the first to be executed that summer in Salem.
“It seems like a lot of people were persecuted in large part because they were very independent minded,” he said. “They sort of went against the Puritan grain. Bridget and her husband ran a tavern. And they kept hours that were later than the norm. And they served hard cider. And they played games. They were considered to be bad influences.”
Susan is related to convicted and executed “witches” Susannah Martin and Martha Carrier. She wonders about “how different of a world that was than we know now, and what that must have been like.”
Middlebury College American Studies Professor Michael Newbury, whose areas of expertise include the early Colonial period, said that when he teaches students now about Salem, the hardest aspect of the events for students to grasp is that “they really did believe in supernatural evil.”
Elizabeth Buttolph Spannbauer of Middlebury is also a Susannah Martin descendant. Like the Bruces, Spannbauer learned of the family connection through genealogy research. In 2005, Spannbauer visited the site where Susannah Martin is believed to be buried, now marked with a boulder and bronze marker.
“It was a humbling experience to stand there and realize that I was directly descended from her,” Spannbauer said. “This woman wrongly accused died a horrible death and was later exonerated.”
Spannbauer’s favorite story about Martin is one “telling she could walk through a muddy field and not have a drop of mud on her skirt.” This particular detail threaded through more than one descendant’s story. For Spannbauer it’s a detail that reveals something about Martin’s individuality; others see it as a line of accusation.
Overall for Spannbauer the Salem events reveal “the strength that women have and what they have endured and are still enduring.”
While most of the individuals interviewed turned out to be descended from witch trial’s victims, others’ ancestors held a more complicated place in the story.
Sophie Pope McCright and her mother, Sarah Pope, are descendants of Samuel Abbey, who acted as accuser, as witness and as defender in different cases. The woman Abbey accused was Sarah Good, often described as a homeless woman at the bottom of the social order. Abbey and his wife had taken Good in for a time, but sent her packing when she made the household too rancorous. Sometime soon thereafter his cattle, sheep and hogs started dying. The only explanation was that Good must be a witch.
Abbey is also, however, among those who signed a document attesting to Rebecca Nurse’s innocence, thereby risking his own safety.
Fourteen-year-old Sophie plays a character in the Middlebury Community Players’ production of “The Crucible”: Betty Parris, a young girl whose mysterious illness leads to the witch hysteria.
She said being in the play is “giving me a way to understand why people pick on other people because that’s what my character is doing. I’m accusing other people of being witches when I know it’s not true.”
She said her character acts the way she does because she likes one of the accusers and wants to be like her.
“And also,” Pope McCright added, “my character is scared of what might happen if people find out she lied.”
Being in the play has made her reflect on everything from bullying and peer pressure at school to the fear and nervousness being expressed by many in the United States toward Muslim immigrants.
Looking at her ancestor’s world and worldview, Sarah Pope said there’s no easy answer, if she’s honest, for how she herself might have acted.
“I think about how we’re all faulted,” she said. “We’re all complicated characters. And it’s never black and white. And when you’re thrown into this mass hysteria situation and there’s an explanation that at the time seems to make sense, you go with that.”
Pope said she asks herself:
“What kind of experiences in my life would mimic that? What kind of decision have I made like that based on something that wasn’t really viable? It makes you think about your own personal nature and how people are swayed by arguments and how people make mistakes.”
There is a lesson, she said.
“Being human is being able to rise above the mob mentality, but it’s also how we all get sucked back into it so easily without even realizing it.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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