Historical Fiction, History, Research, Wanderer Among Shadows

Fun and Frustration: Researching the Salem Witch Trials

If you’re a nerd like me (I used to say “I’m a nerd and proud of it” back in high school, that’s how much of a nerd I am), then researching a historical topic you’ve been interested in since you were a little kid can be a fun journey. But if you’re also like me, in that you’re the type of person that wants to find out as much information as they can, this journey can become quickly frustrating. As is the case with any historical event, there is bound to be information that you cannot find no matter how hard you try to dig. Welcome to my life of researching the Salem Witch Trials and the Parker Family of Andover for the past year.

I was introduced to the Salem Witch Trials around the age of eight when I watched the eponymous made for TV film based on the event Starring Kirstie Alley. Then in October 2003 my parents and I made our first visit to Salem, MA. I’ve been hooked ever since. As stated in my previous blog post, I was inspired to write my own story of the events at the age of twelve. I got the idea in my head to write about one of the families who was involved in the trials and have a young woman around the age of eighteen as my protagonist. After a quick review of the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive, I came across Mary Parker of Andover who had a daughter named Sarah who was twenty-two in 1692. For this first version of my novel, I did some research that, although not bad for a twelve-year-old, was very basic and primarily covered the Parker family and the general events of the trials.

Fast forward to 2019. After letting the novel languish in my computer files, I decided to rewrite the entire story. This time I went deep into the research, reading a few more books on the Salem Witch Trials  and reviewing more articles and documents on the Parker family and the colonial period overall. I pieced together a timeline of all the pertinent events for the story. I got a more accurate look at what the Parker household would have looked like in 1692 which involved a lot of study of the vital records of Andover. I even did more thorough research on the history of the Parkers before the trials by going through the Essex County Court Records. I researched the legal procedures used in the trials and worked them into the novel as best I could without detracting from the story. I even looked at how mental illness was dealt with by the puritan colonists. When I found a fact I had previously not known or I researched something that confirmed a theory, it was an “aha!” moment. It was fun getting to re-craft this world from 300 years ago.

But despite the intensive research I did, there was still a lot of information missing. Frustratingly, many of the court records for the characters in my story are missing. Whether these records are still hidden somewhere or were destroyed long ago (as some scholars have postulated) is unknown. What is known is how annoying this is for people like me. We want the complete who, what, when, where, why, and how of an event. And with so much information missing, I resorted to trying to complete the pieces of the puzzle with speculation and surrounding evidence.

Even outside of the trials, information is missing. Sarah Parker, my main character, largely disappears from the records after 1692. I wanted to know what happened to this person whom I had spent months, actually years, writing about. Unfortunately, I will probably never know what her life was like after the trials. I can only make educated guesses. Another thing I wanted to find out more about was the Massachusetts militia’s expedition to Maine in 1692. The militia went there to build Fort William Henry in the summer of 1692 with a side mission to retaliate against the Native Americans and the French. Perhaps I just missed the right source, but the information I was able to find about this military mission and any confrontations that may have occurred was scant.

History often presents itself to us as a mystery. While the people of the past may leave us a general overview of what happened, the details usually become blurred or buried with the passage of time. I’m one of those people who, if they could have any power, would want the ability to see into the past (well next to teleportation that is). I would love to know what happened hundreds of years ago, but alas, some things just need to be left to the imagination.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Salem Witch Trials, here are some sources I recommend. Of course if you don’t want spoilers, wait until the novel comes out:

  • The University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive

This website contains the transcribed court records of the Salem Witch Trials that you can search through chronologically or by person. It also contains other court records of the colonial period, maps, contemporary books, and much more.

Link: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html

  • The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege by Marilynne K. Roach

An enormous, comprehensive recounting of the events before, during, and after the Salem Witch Trials.  Roach writes of the events chronologically so one can easily see how the witch trials unfolded. This is a great starter book to get an overall view of what happened in late 17th century New England.

Buy at Amazon: https://amzn.to/3kzF8NK

  • In the Shadow of Salem: The Andover Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Hite

Anyone looking to dig into how Andover was affected by the witchcraft accusations needs to read this book. Hite describes Andover’s part in the witch hunt; explaining how accusations spread through family lines which lead Andover to have more people accused of witchcraft than any other town.

Buy at Amazon: https://amzn.to/2Hc8LGr

  • In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton

In this book, Norton delves into the English colonists’ many decades of conflict with their French and Native American neighbors. She explores how this constant turmoil in the New England region helped to spark the Salem Witch Trials and several of the accusations.

Buy at Amazon: https://amzn.to/33Sg79K

  • Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum

While I did not read this book, many claim it is a great source for understanding the social and economic origins of the Salem Witch Trials. The authors examine the history of Salem Village, the place where the accusations first started, and how decades of conflict in the town culminated in the tragedy of 1692.

Buy at Amazon: https://amzn.to/2ZWxS6N

Disclaimer: All images of book covers are for review purposes only. All images belong to the original copyright holders.As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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