Museum  November 2, 2022  Rebecca Schiffman

The Salem Witch Trials Revisited at New-York Historical Society

New-York Historical Society

Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) Evening dress (detail), from the In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem, 1692, Ready-to-wear collection, fall/winter 2007 Velvet, glass beads, and satin

Three hundred years after the Salem Witch Trials, we are still reckoning and learning from this period of American intolerance and injustice. The trials of 1692-1693 led to the deaths of twenty-five innocent people, most of whom were women. The New-York Historical Society recently opened, ‘The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,’ an exhibition that pieces together and illuminates the real lives of the accused and the legacies they have left. The show, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, features ephemera, art, and historical manuscripts.

The history of witches and Christianity are intertwined. The earliest recording of the term ‘witch’ is found in the Bible. One such instance is in 1 Samuel from around 931 - 721 BC. This book tells the story of when King Saul sought out the Witch of Endor to summon a dead prophet to help him defeat the Philistine army. While the witch did rouse the prophet, Samuel, he prophesied the death of Saul and his sons – the next day, his sons died in battle, and Saul committed suicide. This first account revealed the dangers and powers that would be associated with witches for thousands of years.

New-York Historical Society, Gift of the children of Thomas S. Noble and Mary C. Noble, in their memory, 1939.251

Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835-1907) Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869 Oil on canvas

In 900 AD, witchcraft was announced to be forbidden by the Church. In medieval canon law, it was stated that witchcraft and magic were delusions and if you believed in witches, you were a victim of seduction by the devil. These early Church pronouncements laid the foundation for witch hysteria that metastasized in the 1400s. Within a century, witch hunts were common. Accused people often confessed to witchcraft under extreme duress or even torture. Those sentenced to death were usually burned or hanged at the stake. The most vulnerable were unmarried women and widows. 

The exhibition at the NYHS opens with historical artifacts and accounts that contextualize the Salem Witch Trials in this period of hysteria. One such document is the historical manuscript of Malleus Maleficarum, a guide that teaches one how to identify, hunt, and interrogate witches. This 1486 book, whose title translates to Hammer of Witches, was written by the German clergyman Heinrich Kramer.

Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society

Heinrich Institoris (1430-1505) Malleus Maleficarum, London: 1669

Kramer himself has an interesting history of accusing witches. In 1484, Kramer unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute alleged witches in Tyrol. He was later expelled from the city of Innsbruck for his crazy beliefs. His purpose for writing Malleus Maleficarum was to explain his own views on witchcraft, but it also seems like he wrote it as an act of self-justification and revenge. In 1519, Jacob Sprenger’s name was added as an author of Malleus Maleficarum, possibly to counter the illegal behavior of Kramer, who was later charged for the obsession of one of his accused witches. The book is now condemned by the Church, as it recommends unethical and illegal procedures and goes against Catholic doctrines.

From novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne to playwright Arthur Miller, to the television show “Bewitched,” the memory and meanings of the Salem witch trials have been kept alive throughout the 20th century. And the exhibition successfully juxtaposes the medieval histories of witches with what witches mean today. Featuring artists and works by descendants of the accused, the exhibition gives the Salem witch trials a new perspective, one that wasn’t given to the accused back in the 1690s.

Peabody Essex Museum, Museum purchase, made possible by an anonymous donor, 2001, 138181 Photo by Kathy Tarantola

Artist in Salem, Massachusetts Tape loom owned by Rebecca Putnam, 1690-1710 Oak

One reclamation project includes a dress and photographs by Alexander McQueen, from his fall/winter 2007 collection, In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692. McQueen is an ancestor of How, one of the first women to be condemned and hanged as a witch. In his design, a sleek black evening gown created with a combination of velvet, satin, and glass beading, McQueen incorporates an ominous and bat-like silhouette. The dress is clearly a reclamation of what it means to be a witch, ominous, powerful, and magical, in the best way.

“The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming” is on view at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street), New York, New York, October 7, 2022–January 22, 2023. 

The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. This exhibition was co-curated by Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library; Paula Richter, Curator; and Lydia Gordon; Associate Curator. At New-York Historical, it was coordinated by Anna Danziger Halperin, associate director of the Center for Women’s History.

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