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Embarking on a ‘Witch Hunt’ at the Nest

Embarking on a Witch Hunt at the Nest
Halloween may be months away, but the topic of witchcraft has recently enveloped campus.
By: Sarah Sweeney

Halloween may be months away, but the topic of witchcraft has enveloped the Endicott College campus.

That’s because, for most of July, the College hosted The Salem Witch Trials: Their World & Legacy, a three-week summer institute for 26 middle and high school teachers from around the country that wrapped on July 28. The immersive experience was funded by a $200,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant.

“The historiography of Salem is one of the hottest and most debated, with the least amount of consensus,” said Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Matelski, who, along with Mark Herlihy, Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Communication, and Humanities co-directed the institute. “But it’s such an enriching and really fascinating story that—regardless of if you’re interested in women’s history or colonial history or you have an interest in dark history—there’s something for everybody.”

Brooke Arrington, an educator at Chamblee High School in Atlanta, said she had attended two other NEH institutes but especially sought out Endicott’s because of the proximity to Salem, which has become something of a contemporary mecca for witches and lovers of the occult and spooky.

“That alone drew me, and I was very much interested to see how magick has both been commercialized but can also benefit the local economy,” said Arrington. “I also knew I’d have a perspective that most people wouldn’t.”

Participants attended lectures and discussions, embarked on field trips to Salem, Danvers, and Boston, watched film screenings, and met with both visiting scholars and Endicott faculty, including Herlihy, Matelski, Charlotte Gordon, Luke Reynolds, and Todd Wemmer, who joined the field trips to record audio for a series of short narrative-driven podcast episodes on the witch trials.

Jess Robertson said she learned about the institute from an Instagram influencer.

“She made a post about NEH institutes and I saw Salem and knew I had to do it,” said Robertson, who called herself the “resident spooky teacher” at Morgantown High School in West Virginia.

“I love teaching The Crucible. The kids get so into it, and I knew this would be an interesting way to bring Salem into my classroom. It’s definitely going to benefit my teaching but also, selfishly, I wanted to come to Salem for two weeks.”

Jumping on the ‘Witch City’ broomstick

This is only the second year Endicott has hosted the NEH-funded institute; the first was in 2021 and was held virtually because of the pandemic. Matelski said the idea for the institute came from Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Charlotte Gordon, who also saw an opportunity for NEH funding.

Capitalizing on the power of place was key—and since Beverly is sandwiched between Danvers (which was known as Salem Village in the 17th century) and what we now think of as modern-day Salem, an Endicott-based institute was a no-brainer.

Matelski, who grew up in the Midwest, said the witch trials weren’t a key part of the core curriculum in Michigan, but the topic was unavoidable during her studies as a historian. Even so, Matelski still had a lot to learn.

“It wasn’t until I moved to New England to teach at Endicott and they said, ‘Hey we want you to teach a class on the Salem witch trials,’ and I said, ‘Oh, wow, I need to learn a lot in a short amount of time,’” she said.

Throughout the summer of 2016, she immersed herself in understanding the events that led up to the trials as well as how the city of Salem now commemorates the fateful events of 1692.

History is indeed the greatest teacher, and Matelski said the trials offer profound lessons about our world today.

“The phrase ‘witch hunt’ is obviously one we still hear used today. Moreover, the human impulse to target ‘the other’ or people and concepts we don’t understand isn’t going away,” Matelski explained.

“If we can understand the misguided hysteria of 1692, perhaps we can be more mindful to not make those same mistakes today. I always stress that even though witch hunts were common in New England, the trials remind us that nothing is inevitable. At any point in 1692, those tragedies could have been avoided if more rational voices had spoken louder than the hysteria.”

While much misinformation swirls around the trials (Herlihy said he is often surprised by how many students believe the accused witches were “burned at the stake”), historians also debate the events.

“There wasn’t just one reason or one cause for why this happened,” said Matelski, who is currently working on a project about Robin Mingo, an enslaved man and the namesake of Endicott’s Mingo Beach. “It was this storm.”

Understanding the witch trials

That “storm” began with Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, two pre-teen cousins who in 1692 began acting strangely, their bodies contorting and writhing in ways that unnerved Betty’s father, the Puritan minister Samuel Parris.

“I always find this to be so interesting that when Parris sees his daughter and his niece have these convulsions, he doesn’t immediately assume witchcraft or demonic possession. He says, ‘I think there’s something physically wrong with them,’” said Matelski.

But after the local doctor evaluated the girls, he decreed that they’d been “bewitched under an evil hand,” she said.

Instead of rebuking the doctor’s claims, the girls leaned in, naming their supposed wrongdoers who were all vulnerable in their own ways. Their caretaker, Tituba, was an enslaved woman. Sara Goode was the town beggar. Sara Osborne, meanwhile, was “an old bedridden Salem villager who wasn’t able to go to church, and who scandalized the community when she purchased the contract of her indentured servant and married him and gave her land to him,” explained Matelski.

So, why did the girls do what they did?

Nobody knows—but for centuries, explained Matelski, the study of the trials focused on the issue of blame versus how the events snowballed in the first place.

“The witch trials offer us a window into this colonial period, into the anxieties and social tensions. It was just an unfortunate combination of events,” she said.

That surprised Jenn Flynn, a teacher from Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, who said she was struck by “how even the most brilliant scholars still don’t really agree about what happened.”

Flynn, Arrington, and Robertson, along with Shannon Martin from Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Conn., and Dr. Tia Butler from Headwaters School in Austin, Texas, formed a quick bond during the institute. They resided at Kennedy Hall, ate meals together, and, by evening, pursued nightlife, food, and fun in Beverly and Salem.

“I love it here in New England,” said Roberston. “I just love being so close to these historical events. It’s wild that it’s all just minutes away.”

And while the teachers plan to bring new perspectives from the institute back to their classrooms, they’re also taking a piece of the North Shore home too—in the form of commemorative matching tattoos.