In A Sharp Look at Rebecca, yesterday, I mentioned Rebecca Nurse, an elderly woman of seventy-one, who was one of those tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft at Salem. She was hung on this day, July 19, 1692. With her, also died Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How and Sarah Wilds.
The Salem witch trials have been a controversial subject ever since they took place. Salem has become a bit of a witch theme park in the last thirty years or so, and all things witchcraft abound. There are three museums dedicated to Salem’s witchy past alone. There’s even a witch-themed tour.
Many modern real Witches live there today, but were any of those who were accused, tried and convicted of witchcraft in 1692 really witches — of any kind? Probably not. Most, if not all, were Christians (and pretty devout ones at that) caught up in a witch hysteria generated by other Christians.
Whatever the truth of what occurred at Salem, the events there have captured public imagination ever since. And one thing is certain — those who died and suffered at Salem, whatever their beliefs, were innocent victims, and the events which took place damning evidence of the dangers of religious fanaticism at its worse.
Those who were ensnared in the madness at Salem were ordinary people, extraordinary hard-working, living in a time when starvation and disease were everyday threats. The hardship of life in the 17th Century is difficult for most people in the West to grasp — you need to visit a village in a developing country to come close to experiencing the reality.
Their names were largely typical of the period: Abigail, Alice, Andrew, Ann, Anne, Bridget, Daniel, Dorcas, Dorothy, Dudley, Edward, Elizabeth, Eunice, Frances, Francis, George, Giles, Hannah, Hezekiah, James, John, Lydia, Margaret, Martha, Mary, Mercy, Nathan, Phillip, Rebecca, Roger, Samuel, Sarah, Stephen, Susannah, Thomas, Tituba, William, Wilmot.
Those that stand out as noteworthy for the late 17th Century are Dudley, Tituba and Wilmot. Dudley is an English surname, and in this period, the use of surnames as first names was still relatively unusual. It derives from Dudley in the West Midlands, from the Old English name Dudda + lēah ‘wood’, ‘woodland clearing’, ‘glade’, ‘pasture’ and ‘meadow’. The Dudley family were prominent in the 16th Century; John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was one of the men behind the throne of King Edward VI, and was instrumental in having Lady Jane Grey (his daughter-in-law) declared queen after Edward’s death. He got the chop a few months before she did.
If Wilmot had been a boy, it would have been an example of another surname in use — but Wilmot Redd was a woman. Wilmot is actually a medieval pet-form of William, used for girls since the Middle Ages, when William too was probably in use for girls (there are examples in Latin records of Williama and Williamina, which are indicative of this). It survived until at least the 19th Century — unlike poor Wilmot Redd, who was executed September 22.
As for Tituba, its origins are lost and unlikely to ever be found. No-one can even say with certainty where Tituba came from. All that is known is she was a slave and not Caucasian. She may have been a Native American — from North or South America — African, or mixed race. And although she was one of the first accused at Salem in 1692 — she actually survived!