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Lessons from my Family Witchcraft Scandal

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

I write about witches. In the 1600s I would probably have been hanged.

About twenty-five years ago, I recall visiting my adoptive mother on Cape Cod, 60 miles south of Salem, where she was working on a genealogy. She used to travel around New England, examining grave markers and digging through courthouse records. Much of her work seemed pointless to me: She wanted to prove that she was descended from the colonists who came from England on the Mayflower. Eventually, she published a book on the topic.

However, what caught my interest on that visit was a note she was writing about a young woman who was hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.

When I asked questions, she was strangely evasive.

My mother is not with us any longer, but I just found a copy of her book and searched it for that note about the family witch. Guess what? It isn’t in the final version. My mother edited her out.

Not only that, but she had another ancestor who was centrally involved. He was one of the judges who condemned thirty people, nineteen of whom were executed by hanging. Waitstill Winthrop was the grandson of John Winthrop, founding governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and according to Wikipedia, “one of the magistrates of the Court of Oyer and Terminer that heard the Salem witch trials.” Oh my God. My mother was descended from one of the judges!

She omitted that juicy fact, too.

Wait’s brother-in-law, Thomas Brattle, served as an observer and commentator during the witch trials, so blood was on both their hands, but later on, Brattle penned a widely circulated letter that helped end the madness. He was careful, however, to criticize the types of evidence admitted, not the magistrates themselves, perhaps out of deference to his brother-in-law’s central role.

Two relatives acting as judge and observer and one relative condemned before them? Talk about a family scandal... And yet no mention of it in the book.

Which raises an oddly current question: Why do we keep covering up parts of the past we find uncomfortable? That is what motivates legislators who are working to prevent mention of slavery in school curriculums. There is also a new rash of laws forbidding discussion of LGBTQ+ people. This year, a strangely whitewashed version of our nation and its history will be all our students may see.

Isn’t it ironic that those who most loudly declare themselves victims of witch hunts don’t want the stories of any real victims told? Nobody’s hanging rich white men. A witch hunt is an unfair, basely, superstitious, ignorant attack on an innocent and relatively powerless person. Turning the term around to describe delayed and partial justice for rich, powerful men is perverse and dismissive of the horrible experiences of the poor people who really were victims of witch hunts.

I have a modest proposal: Let’s outlaw comfortable history and have students devote their attention to so-called uncomfortable stories, like the Salem Witch Trials, the long and sordid history of slavery, the eradication of native populations, and the persecution of LGBTQ+ people so that we can rise up from the ashes of history and become the nation we always want and pretend to be.

I can’t go back and rescue my mother’s edits, and I'm still trying to find out which of the young women hanged as witches in old Salem was my relative. But we as a nation can stop the practice of editing out the important stuff just to save some of us from feeling a wee bit uncomfortable. Learning and growing are not always comfortable things, but they are vital to human development and the health of nations nonetheless.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure now available at Amazon. He teaches middle and high school students and has been on the faculty of UMass Amherst as well.

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