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Kelli McCoy and Rick Kennedy

Cotton Mather and the Uppity Women

Salem as you’ve never seen it.

The end goal of television is to have viewers watch commercials, so we historians don't expect to learn our history there. However, we can learn what viewers want to learn about history. After watching the first episode of the new TV series Salem, it is obvious that viewers today want to turn The Crucible upside down and hear the witches' side of the story.

The four main characters in Salem are Mary Sibley, Tituba, Cotton Mather, and John Alden, Jr. Mary Sibley is the central witch of the story, while Tituba is the mastermind in the Battle for Salem. Cotton Mather continues in his standard role as the minister all viewers love to hate; however, in this show he is right, not wrong, about the witches. Mather is presented as good-looking, smart, and ultimately correct in his understanding that witches are trying to take control of Salem. The show's promotional literature describes Mather as the "leader of the witch hunts, a man who preaches from the bible by day and sleeps with women from a brothel by night." Sleuthing alongside Mather is John Alden, Jr., who has hated Cotton since they were in school together. (The actual John Alden, Jr., was 36 years older than Cotton, but why quibble?) Alden is also smart and good-looking, but he is inhibited by enlightened assumptions, as when he comments to Mather about an afflicted girl: "She needs a doctor, not your prayers." Alden has been away at war but wants to rekindle an old love affair with Mary. Mary, however, is conflicted because in the meantime she has made a contract with Satan.

The most startling aspect of Salem is that it oddly vindicates Cotton Mather. TV viewers are apparently ready to watch him ferret out the truth about demonic plans to up-end the social order. In the first episode, Mather is confident that an afflicted girl, the pastor's daughter, is the key to finding the lead witch. Cotton brings her into the town square on a leash. She is on all fours, tugging Mather toward Mary Sibley. The truth is almost exposed, but Mary works her wiles, and Cotton is misdirected to an old man, Giles, who will be pressed under stones that night. One of the creators of the show, Adam Simon, in a promotional documentary, said that Cotton Mather was "the smartest man on earth at that time." In order for Mary and Tituba to remain in power, they will have to take control of the witch hunt. They will have to keep misdirecting Mather toward innocent people.

The notion that Cotton Mather is somehow central to the Salem story was first promoted by Robert Calef, a man who hated Mather. Calef, in his description of an execution, has Mather—furiously angry that the crowd is showing sympathy—mounting a horse in order to harangue the assembly. Although Mather never led a witch hunt, never was at any of the Salem witch trials, and did not agree that the evidence presented in the trials was sufficient to convict anyone of being a witch, Calef fixated on him as the cause of the witchcraft hysteria. Calef's wild and scurrilous collection of anti-Mather material was published in London, and ever since there has been a weak but written foundation for presenting Mather as somehow central to the Salem story. Search the Marvel Comics Database for Cotton Mather and you will find a cartoon image of a threatening, be-muscled villain whose cape spreads wide behind him as he leaps toward you brandishing a glowing sword. The database offers the following biographical information: Alias: Witchslayer; Citizenship: American; Origin: Human; Alignment: Bad.

In the documentary companion to Salem, one of the creators declares that the witch-hunt story is of deep historical importance because whoever controls Salem controls the fate of America. The creators of the show are presenting a revised version of American history that actually conforms, in the big picture, with Cotton Mather's own assessment of the witch trials in his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). In the Magnalia, Mather writes of Satan's possession of America before the Puritans arrived. Satan and his minions are threatened by Puritan towns. The battle for Salem, Cotton believes, is a battle for the future good of America. Mather admits the trials were botched. There was "a conscientious endeavor to do right," he says, but the trials "proceeded from mistaken principles," and "there was a going too far." We can imagine Mather enjoying this aspect of the show.

In Salem, the two characters who outsmart "the smartest man on earth" are the two women, Tituba and Mary Sibley. In the interviews that promote the show, Mary is described as a modern woman, in control of the situation, and as a symbol of women's power. Sadly, the characters of Mary and Tituba do not show women’s empowerment, neither then nor now. The pilot episode suggests that these women are seeking revenge on Salem for the ways in which the Puritans have hurt them—in Mary’s case, by taking John Alden and their baby from her. These female characters may be intended as a critique of the Puritan social order, in which women typically had less power than men and, as in Mary Sibley’s case, must use marriage to a wealthy and powerful man as a way of climbing the social ladder. However, disappointingly, Mary Sibley seems exactly like the 17th-century stereotypes of women that fueled witch panics to begin with. Such stereotypes said that women were weak-willed, dominated by their passions, and more likely than men to be in league with the devil. Unlike Tituba, who may have made a more calculating move to wage war against the Puritans (that remains to be seen as the series unfolds), Mary naively falls under the control of the devil when she seeks an abortion in the forest and consents to something that she does not seem to fully understand until it’s too late. Now, she is governed by her contract with the devil and she must battle within herself over whether to continue her witchcraft or follow her heart and go with Alden. Mary’s contract with the devil leaves her no more free than the other women in Salem who are bound to their husbands through marriage contracts. Rather than a heroic struggle against the social institutions that denied women access to the heights of power, Mary Sibley’s story unfortunately seems to reinforce the 17th-century belief that women were less capable of rational behavior than men.

In contrast to the almost entirely fabricated character of Mary Sibley, Tituba is at least loosely based on the actual person who was the first confessed “witch” of the real Salem witch trials. All we really know about her is that she was a slave in the household of Reverend Parris, where the witch panic began. She was using “witchcraft” to foretell the marriage fortunes of the teenage girls in the Parris household, when those girls began to claim that they were afflicted by the devil. After Tituba confessed, she was imprisoned and ultimately released, left Salem, and disappeared from the historical record. The Puritans described her as an "Indian," and she was long believed to be from the West Indies, perhaps with some African ancestry, and to have brought knowledge of voodoo with her to Salem. More recent scholarship, by Bernard Rosenthal, has suggested she may actually have been Native American. That makes Tituba one of the more potentially interesting characters in the show, since it means that she may well be waging war on the Puritans with witchcraft at the same time that they fight conventional wars against Native Americans—like the war that John Alden has just returned from. The idea that Tituba uses witchcraft to fight back against the Puritans who have oppressed and enslaved her people is an idea going back at least to the 19th century, and is a more compelling story than the one that centers around Mary Sibley's internal conflict.

The real Salem witch trials did revolve around women, who made up the majority of both the accused and the accusers. The first executed women were marginal to the community in Salem and were perceived as outcasts. However, the accusations quickly turned toward respected and well-established citizens of the town. When wealthy women were accused, they were typically able to escape trials, because their husbands intervened on their behalf and judges did not take the accusations against them seriously. As Carol F. Karlsen demonstrated in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, women in Salem who had received inheritances and were independent, with no husbands or fathers to protect them, were much more likely to suffer serious consequences from witchcraft accusations than wealthy women who did have husbands. This is probably because of the threat that independent women of means posed to the greater social order; they would have seemed "strange" to the other residents of Salem, and were more vulnerable as a result. In the show, Mary Sibley rises to a position of wealth and power in the community through her marriage, but it is only her husband's continued presence that covers her with respectability and makes her an upstanding citizen; without him, at least in the real Salem, she would have been much more suspicious to her contemporaries.

Some scholars have argued that witchcraft was a way for women to gain power in societies in which they had very few other avenues to power. That may have been true in some situations, but in the real Salem witch trials, much of the power seemed to be wielded by adolescent girls who targeted anyone who disagreed with them, questioned them, or had prior disputes with their families over town and church politics. The witch panic was hardly one in which women were empowered or improved their positions in Salem. The truly courageous women in the real Salem witch trials were those who spoke out against the madness and demanded a more reasonable response. Some of them, like Martha Corey, the wife of the real Giles who was pressed to death, were executed as a result. Nevertheless, such truly strong female characters were completely absent from the Giles story in the first episode of Salem. We can only hope that some of them will appear in future episodes.

Kelli McCoy's research is on women's and gender history in the U.S., especially the movement against "white slavery" early in the 20th century. She is assistant professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.

Rick Kennedy's The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather is being published this winter by Eerdmans. He is professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.

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