Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Witch Thing

Spectral Evidence, my story in the MWA anthology edited by Linda Fairstein, THE PROSECUTION RESTS, is beginning to attract some attention. I find myself thinking about the Salem witch trials again.
The question is, how could a panel of the best educated and most respected men in the Massachusetts Bay Colony have been so gullible as to fall for the lies and histrionics of a crowd of vicious little girls? How could they condemn twenty-five innocent people to a shameful death?
And you say, well, these people weren't like us. It was the olden days, after all. Or it was actually the work of the Devil.
My theory is that the crimes of the judges resulted from a sort of category fault. That is to say, they were viewing what they were seeing from entirely the wrong angle. It happens all the time, usually with consequences far less lethal. For example, at St. Andrews we run a flea market every month to raise money for our struggling church. People come and buy things that other people have donated. Some customers will say, what, only a dollar for that? Here's five, keep the change. They are entering into the spirit of supporting the church, and as a result they walk away feeling good about themselves. Others say, what, a dollar? I'll give you fifty cents. When we let them have the item for seventy-five cents, they feel that they have won the game of bargaining, they are wise and thrifty, and they, too, walk away feeling good about themselves. But they have actually lost, because they are playing by the rules of the wrong game.
Another instance. There comes a time in HUCKLEBERRY FINN when Huck feels that he must turn in his friend Jim for being a runaway slave. After a struggle with his better nature, Huck gives in to his sinful side and protects his friend. He feels bad about himself. By society's rules, which he well understands, he has failed in his duty. But these, too, are the rules of the wrong game.
The judges of the witch trials worked out of rule books prepared by the fathers of the Puritan church, Cotton Mather and his colleagues. The rules were very clear, and based on their actual experiences with people afflicted by witches. Surely a judge who would not follow these rules, through inappropriate tenderness of heart or unseemly regard for the standing in the community of an accused witch, would be derelict in his duty, no?