Donald Trump and Witch Hunts


Donald Trump has said multiple times that the Robert Mueller investigation into his presidential campaign’s relationship with Russia is a “witch hunt.”  The use of this phrase invites historical analysis.  I took a crack at such analysis last May.

In the latest issue of Perspectives on History, American Historical Association president and veteran early American historian Mary Beth Norton provides some historical analysis of her own.  Norton is the author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

Here is a taste of her piece, “An Embarrassment of Witches: What’s the History behind Trump’s Tweets?“:


That’s how President Donald Trump’s tweets tend to refer to the investigation led by Robert Mueller into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.

Except for modern adherents of the Wiccan religion, people today do not believe in witchcraft—and Wiccans do not believe in the sort of witchcraft that became the subject of prosecutions in early modern Europe and America. The consensus among historians now is that witches did not exist in the past, and so by employing the term “witch hunt,” the president is implying that he is as innocent today as were the persecuted “witches” of centuries ago.

He is assuming, probably correctly, that Americans today understand his phrase in exactly that way. Anyone raised or resident in the United States has surely heard of the most famous “witch hunt” in American history, that which occurred in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692–93, named for the town in which the trials occurred: Salem. Indeed, many high school students today must read Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play, The Crucible, which effectively used the vehicle of the Salem trials to comment on the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of the 1950s, which had ensnared Miller and many of his acquaintances. Even though Miller changed many historical details to make his points—for example, turning the elderly John Proctor into a younger man and the child Abigail Williams into a femme fatale who seduces him—his image of the trials retains its hold on the American imagination.

Read the rest here.

Trump is the victim of what he claims to be “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

How should a historian respond to this statement?

First, we should probably consider the nature of a witch hunt.  In the 17th century there were literal witch hunts.  New England Calvinists who believed in witchcraft killed the people living in their communities who they believed were witches.  The most famous of these witch trials, of course, occurred at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

Second, at some point in American history the term “witch hunt” was used in the political sphere to describe “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views.”  The phrase “witch hunt” was rarely used in the English-speaking world prior to 1900.  It became popular, as this Google Books Ngram shows, in the 1950s.  The context for this rise in usage was probably a combination of Wisconsin Senator’s Joseph McCarthy attempt to sniff out possible communists in the American government and the opening of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials.

The use of the single word “witchhunt” spiked in the 1950s and skyrocketed in the 1970s.  I am assuming that this had something to do with Nixon and Watergate.

Third, historically the term “witch hunt” is usually used by the one being hunted or someone opposed to the hunting.  It is thus a highly political and subjective term, making it impossible to conclude which so-called “witch hunt” was the “greatest.”  One person’s witch-hunt may be another person’s act of justice.

Fourth, Trump seems to be using the term in a generic way to describe the voice and activity of his critics.  Again, the level of criticism a president receives is hard to measure in historical terms.  But by Trump’s definition, nearly every President has faced some kind of “witch hunt” at one time or another during his administration.  Certainly the Presidents who were impeached- (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) and the President who resigned in shame (Richard Nixon) should be in the “greatest witch hunt” discussion.  Trump, as the leader of the Barack Obama birther controversy, may have contributed to one of the “greatest witch hunts” of a politician in American history.  (If you don’t think the birther controversy merits “witch hunt” status then you are proving my point about the very subjective and political uses of this term in 20th and 21st-century America). Were the GOP politicians who plotted the obstruction of the Obama presidency while enjoying dinner in a Washington D.C. restaurant planning a great witch hunt?

So is Trump the victim of the “greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history?”  I don’t know.  It is not a historical question.  Trump invokes American history for political purposes.  He has no real interest in any kind of thinking that runs deeper than his own self-interest.

Found: The Actual Site of the Salem Witch Hangings


Proctor’s Ledge, Salem, MA

A team of researchers which included Emerson Baker, author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience, have confirmed the site where nineteen people were hung for witchcraft in 1692.

Here is a taste of the story from the CBS affiliate in Boston:

After nearly three centuries of conflicting beliefs, the city of Salem confirms a team of scholars verified the site where 19 innocent people were hanged during the 1692 witch trials as Proctor’s Ledge. The historic site is an area located in between Proctor and Pope Streets in Salem, Massachusetts.

“We are happy to be able to bring years of debate to an end,” Salem State University Professor Emerson Baker told the city of Salem. “Our analysis draws upon multiple lines of research to confirm the location of the executions.”

City reps confirm to WBZ that a team of researchers used sonar technology combined with eyewitness testimonies from centuries-old documents dating back to the Salem Witch Trials.

The city of Salem acquired the strip of land near the base of Gallows Hill in 1936 “to be held forever as a public park” and called it “Witch Memorial Land.” As it was never marked, most people erroneously assumed the executions took place on the hill’s summit.

A group of researchers on the Salem witch trials called The Gallows Hill Project team, now identifies the site as a rocky ledge much closer to Boston Street, at the base of the hill, basing its conclusions on the early 20th century research of historian Sidney Perley, an eye-witness reference to an execution from the trial papers, maps from different periods, and newer technology not available previously.

Read the rest of the article here.


The Author’s Corner with Emerson Baker

Emerson Baker is Professor of History at Salem State University. This interview is based on his new book, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (Oxford University Press, October 2014).

JF: What led you to write A Storm of Witchcraft?

EB: It has been a long and sometimes indirect path to write this book. For more than 20 years my research has focused primarily on understanding New England in the late seventeenth century, a time that gets little attention aside from the witch trials. For example, I believe that King William’s War was as important to the course of American history as King Philip’s War, yet there is not a single good history of it and its impact. In 1998 I co-authored a biography on Sir William Phips with John Reid. This provided me with a solid grounding in Massachusetts politics, frontier warfare and imperial policy in this era. As Phips was governor during the witch trials, I did my first research on witchcraft and I looked forward to more.

By this time I had been teaching at Salem State for a few years and I realized that there was more that needed to be said about the Salem witchcraft crisis. I became particularly interested in what happened after 1692, and why Salem became the “Witch City” when some European cities had witch hunts that dwarfed it in size. I knew I first needed to study more typical outbreaks, so I could put the larger and unusual Salem crisis in its proper context. So I examined a series of earlier cases of New England witchcraft, focusing upon the lithobolia (or stone-throwing devil) attack on a debauched Quaker tavern in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1682. The result was The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England (2007). Meanwhile I spent summers directing excavations on a series of archaeological sites that were destroyed at the outbreak of King Williams’s War in 1689-1690, where I gained knowledge of the lifeways, material culture and architecture of the era. Thus armed, I was finally ready to take on Salem.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Storm of Witchcraft?

EB: The “perfect storm” of forces that came together in the Salem witchcraft crisis produced a critical moment for the fading Puritan government of Massachusetts Bay whose attempts to suppress the story of the trials and erase them from memory only fueled the popular imagination. The trials marked a turning point in colonial history from Puritan communalism to Yankee independence, from faith in collective conscience to skepticism toward moral governance.

JF: Why do we need to read A Storm of Witchcraft?

EB: We owe it to the many victims who refused to compromise their beliefs to learn their story for it provides valuable lessons and an important legacy for us. The deaths of 25 innocent people led to what may be the first large government cover-up in American history. This effort helped to discredit Cotton Mather, the last great Puritan, and his cause. It also began an American tradition of fear and opposition to the government, and serves as a sobering example used repeatedly ever since of the dangers of extremism and rushing to judgment. Yet at the same time, that effort to suppress the story of the trials would help lead to the establishment of the legal precedent of freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

I think the biggest contribution my book makes to understanding what happened in 1692 is to look at the largely unexplored politics of the trials. Why was it that the Court of Oyer and Terminer turned precedent upside down in 1692, quickly convicting everyone it tried? In answering that I look closely at the actions and motivations of the judges, as well as Governor Phips, who appointed them. Social and cultural historians (myself included) tend to forget that witchcraft was ultimately a religious crime that was judged by a secular and very political court.

Today we find ourselves with similar problems to those in 1692. Malevolent witches were real then, and terrorists are all too real now. The goal for both is the complete destruction our society – of everything we hold dear. How does society protect itself from a near-invisible threat? Especially when the efforts to defeat that threat endanger the very beliefs and freedoms we hope to protect?

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EB: My parents passed on their great love of history to me as I grew up in central Massachusetts in a home surrounded by objects and documents from generations of ancestors. My interest in the past was also fueled by a series of really good History and Latin teachers. I learned to love old records though my summer job at the court house, where I researched property titles for my lawyer father.

I headed off to Bates College to major in History and then go on to law school, so I could be the fourth generation in the family firm. Once I started taking courses in colonial history with Jim Leamon, my thoughts began to change. The tipping point was when I worked on his archaeology dig on the Clarke & Lake Company headquarters on Arrowsic Island, Maine, a site that was destroyed during King Philip’s War. To discover that you could learn new things about early New England through non-tradition sources like material culture and archaeology blew me away and opened my mind to the amazing and limitless possibilities. That course changed my life. Jim has remained a mentor and good friend ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

EB: The past two books have gotten in the way of my longstanding efforts to write a history of New England in the seventeenth century based on its material culture (including the built environment and landscape). This project draws heavily on my archaeological work. Moving into the realm of experimental archaeology, I am also thinking of writing a book on colonial beer and ale recipes, and my ongoing efforts to recreate them with my microbrewer friends. And if no one writes a history of King William’s War, I may have to do that, because it is a story that really needs telling by someone other than Cotton Mather.

JF: Sounds very exciting Emerson, thanks!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Cotton Mather, "Uppity Women," and WGN America’s "Salem"

I have not seen Salem, a television series loosely based on the Salem Witch Trials that appeared last month on WGN America.  In fact, I had not heard about the series until I read Kelli McCoy‘s and Rick Kennedy‘s essay at Books & Culture.  It is titled “Cotton Mather and the Uppity Women.”  Here is a taste:

In Salem, the two characters who outsmart “the smartest man on earth” are the two women, Tituba and Mary Sibley. In the interviews that promote the show, Mary is described as a modern woman, in control of the situation, and as a symbol of women’s power. Sadly, the characters of Mary and Tituba do not show women’s empowerment, neither then nor now. The pilot episode suggests that these women are seeking revenge on Salem for the ways in which the Puritans have hurt them—in Mary’s case, by taking John Alden and their baby from her. These female characters may be intended as a critique of the Puritan social order, in which women typically had less power than men and, as in Mary Sibley’s case, must use marriage to a wealthy and powerful man as a way of climbing the social ladder. However, disappointingly, Mary Sibley seems exactly like the 17th-century stereotypes of women that fueled witch panics to begin with. Such stereotypes said that women were weak-willed, dominated by their passions, and more likely than men to be in league with the devil. Unlike Tituba, who may have made a more calculating move to wage war against the Puritans (that remains to be seen as the series unfolds), Mary naively falls under the control of the devil when she seeks an abortion in the forest and consents to something that she does not seem to fully understand until it’s too late. Now, she is governed by her contract with the devil and she must battle within herself over whether to continue her witchcraft or follow her heart and go with Alden. Mary’s contract with the devil leaves her no more free than the other women in Salem who are bound to their husbands through marriage contracts. Rather than a heroic struggle against the social institutions that denied women access to the heights of power, Mary Sibley’s story unfortunately seems to reinforce the 17th-century belief that women were less capable of rational behavior than men.

The Salem Witch Trials and the First Great Awakening

Today I was teaching about religion and the founding as a guest lecturer in a colleague’s ‘Religion in the United States” course at Messiah College. After class a student asked me if I knew of any historians who have connected the “enthusiasm” or “fits” of the girls supposedly afflicted by witches in Salem (Betty Paris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, and Elizabeth Hubbard) with the “enthusiasm” or “fits” displayed nearly 50 years later by those who experienced the First Great Awakening.

As I chatted with this student I began to wonder whether critics of the Great Awakening–Old Lighters like Charles Chauncy, for example–ever made direct links to the enthusiasm and emotional outbursts of the Salem Witch Trials as a means of discrediting the Awakening.  In other words, did anyone believe that the emotional fits exhibited by those under the spell of an evangelical revivalist were similar to the emotional fits exhibited by those under the spell of a witch or the devil?

Any thoughts?

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

Here a few things on the web and elsewhere that have caught my attention over the past week.

The July 2008 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly has a nine article forum on the legacy of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s 1974 classic Salem Possessed. Authors include John Demos, Mary Beth Norton and Carol Karlsen, with a retrospective piece by Boyer and Nissenbaum and an excellent introduction to Salem and witchcraft studies by Jane Kamensky.

In CT Direct, Collin Hansen reviews John Turner‘s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (North Carolina, 2008).

Wifred McClay takes on Stanley Fish on the usefulness of the humanities.

Ernie Freeberg‘s new book on Eugene Debs is out. See his recent article at History News Network and a review in today’s Chicago Tribune.

What it’s like to teach at Harvard.

Garden State Legacy looks like a promising new on-line magazine of New Jersey history.

A new short story by Wendell Berry in this month’s Atlantic.