Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Salon - The Salem Witch Trials with Guest Blogger M.E. Kemp

I have a treat for everyone fascinated with the Salem Witch Trials. Guest blogger, M.E. Kemp is the author of a mystery series set in Colonial New England with two nosy Puritans as detectives. Today, she's going to discuss the Salem Witch Trials, the setting for her latest book, Death of a Bawdy Belle. Thank you, M.E.!

The Salem Witch Trials

I write a series set in Colonial New England with two nosy Puritans as detectives. (Puritans were encouraged to keep an eye on their neighbors' doings to keep them on the Godly path; hence I figured they would make good detectives because they were allowed to be nosy. Hetty Henry is a wealthy widow, mid-twenties, with connections to high and low society. Increase "Creasy" Cotton is a young minister trained to seek out the guilty secrets of the soul. Creasy was originally supposed to be the detective but Hetty Henry showed up and Hetty is such a pushy broad she took over the book and the series.

I base all my books on a true bit of history, so the first book took place in 1689 at the time of the hated Royal Governor, Edmund Andros. The next book I set in Dutch Albany (DEATH OF A DUTCH UNCLE) that involved a real case of land fraud. Since I was writing in chronological order, the next year was 1692 and I could not ignore the major happening in that year, the Salem Witch Trials. This is an easy period to research since so much has been written about the trials, so when I have the Salem sheriff find an extra body hanging on the gallows, I knew his reaction would be one of anger. Who would dare hang somebody without his authorization? (By the way, I think the first line of DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE is rather catchy: "Which witch is which?")

Hetty and Creasy are asked to investigate. The victim turns out to be Arabella Edwards, a lady with lots of admirers. When Hetty gets too close to the solution she is accused of being a witch by the killer, which means she has to go into hiding. People who were smart did just that during the hysteria. I include a brief sample of actual trial testimony in the book. With all the research I did, I had enough to give talks on the subject, which I offer to libraries and to historical societies. There is something about this incident in our history that continues to fascinate people today! I like to point out that we may have legally executed twenty people for witchcraft in 1692, but in Europe at the same time and well beyond, thousands were burned as witches. (We never burned people, we hung them and in one case, pressed a man to death with heavy boulders.) I also point out that the trial verdict was later reversed, the dead declared not guilty, and relatives received government payment as a recompense. Did that ever happen in Europe? I doubt it.

There have been many books written about the causes of the Salem trials; from the French and Indian Wars to ergot, a rye disease, to real witchcraft going on, to village quarrels. The fact is that two pre-teen girls were frightened by scary stories told by a West Indies slave and the grown-ups decided they were bewitched. Then a group of unmarried older girls in their late teens and twenties decided to get into the act. They were bored following a long winter and "must have their sport," as one of them said, so they started accusing old women and anyone else who opposed them. They were referred to as "the afflicted children," but they were hardly children, even by colonial terms. Some adults used the opportunity to settle old scores and pretty soon hundreds were in jail -- so many that the Salem and Boston jails were filled to overflowing. Poor Cotton Mather, the stereotype of Puritan clergy, is still accused of causing the crises, but the truth is Cotton Mather was only twenty-six years old and the judges were all colleagues of his father so he could not bring himself to criticise his elders. There is no evidence he attended any of the trials, although he did write to the judges cautioning them about the use of "spectral evidence," i.e. -the testimony of ghosts. If the ghosts couldn't testify, that pretty much would have ended the trials right there. However, it took the return of Cotton's father, Increase Mather, from England and the accusation that the Governor's wife was a witch, to put an end to the trials. Increase Mather gathered the ministers of Boston together to write a protest called: "Cases of Conscience." Of the two Mathers, father and son, the son is remembered in history but the father was the greater man, as Cotton Mather would have been the first to declare.

The real mystery about Salem is why more of the accused did not confess! If you confessed, you weren't hung. You were left to repent your sins. Twenty people died because they would not lie. Talk about Faith! I know I would've confessed to signing the Devil's book, to riding through the air on a stick or to turning myself into a snake to seduce honest Puritan men- whatever it took to keep from the gallows! Still in all, the fact remains that this was a one-time event in our history, that we learned from it and that it produced a major work of art in Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible."

Thank you, M.E. Kemp! The Salem Witch Trials are a fascinating subject for a guest blog. I know my readers will be interested.

M.E. Kemp's website is

Death of a Bawdy Belle by M.E. Kemp. Hilliard & Harris Publishers, ©2008. ISBN 9781591332350 (paperback), 212p.


whiteshark0121 said...

I love writing and reading books. I love the notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else. One of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Lesa said...

Thank you,Whiteshark0121, although that really has nothing to do with today's subject.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Very interesting! Thanks so much for the information on this novel. I visited Salem as a teenager (and after reading "The Crucible") and I've stayed interested in the witch trials. Great period to set a book in!


Mystery Writing is Murder

Mason Canyon said...

This is a awesome subject. Thanks Lesa for introducing me to a great "new to me" author and a wonderful new mystery series.

Thoughts in Progress

le0pard13 said...

That is a fascinating segment in history, and one worth remembering (and its lessons). Thank you to M.E. Kemp and Lesa for this post.

Lesa said...


I bet it was terrific to read The Crucible, and then get to go to Salem. I can see why you're still interested in the subject of the Salem Witch Trials.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Mason! It's always interesting to read the blog of a different author. I'm glad I could introduce you to a new one.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Michael. My pleasure to introduce readers to M.E. Kemp.

William Cooke said...

Sounds interesting.
You might want to take a look at Justice at Salem at - my new book about the witch trials.

Lesa said...

Thank you, William. I'll check it out.