Forget seasonal tales of ghosts and goblins. One of the most terrifying stories in American history is on display right now at New-York Historical Society—and it’s completely true.
In just one year from 1692 to 1693, more than 200 residents of Salem, Massachusetts, were accused of witchcraft, leading to the executions of 20 people—most of them women. Now 330 years later, the echoes of those horrific events still resonate. A new exhibition called “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming” gives new meaning to the famous trials through a contemporary lens by examining how mass hysteria can lead to fatal injustice.
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Here are seven things you won’t want to miss at the exhibition.
1. Testimony from people involved in the trials
In 1692, with political, religious and social upheavals as the backdrop, young girls in Salem began to experience mysterious and inexplicable afflictions such as shortness of breath, fainting and convulsions. These unexplainable—and likely psychological—ailments sparked the trials with suspicions turning to witchcraft. Poor and older women were often the target of accusations, and the trials became popular entertainment—along with a way to control women’s behavior, fertility and knowledge.
Words from trial documents are projected onto the wall and documented throughout the space. The exhibit also contextualizes the Salem Witch Trials as part of a larger trend, explained Anna Danziger Halperin, associate director of the museum’s Center for Women’s History. European and North American witch hunts date back to the 1400s, but Salem’s were more lethal and extreme than most other colonial witch hunts.
In addition to the 20 people executed as a result of the trials in Salem, at least five more died in prison.
2. A loom from the era with curious symbols
If you’ve ever read Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” you’ll likely recognize the name “Putnam.” The Putnams, a prominent landowning family, were major accusers during the trials, actively testifying against neighbors. One Putnam served as secretary for the trials and another as constable.
Interestingly, though, an oak loom owned by Rebecca Putnam shows how folkloric views could coexist in tension with the Puritanical views of the day. Carvings on the loom, like an upside-down face and pinwheels, relate to folk magic or warding off evil. Though they were hidden as decoration, these symbols reveal a countercurrent even within the Putnam household.
Other objects from the 17th century include trunks, canes, a window and a sundial belonging to those involved in the trials.
“It’s a real vestige of daily life in 1692,” said Dan Lipcan, of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, which created the original exhibition and collaborated with the New-York Historical Society on this version.
3. Alexander McQueen’s dress in honor of a victim
When renowned fashion designer Alexander McQueen found out he was related to Elizabeth Howe, one of the first women to be condemned and hanged as a witch in July 1692, he deeply researched her story. Then, he turned that research into a fashion collection called “In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, 1692.”
His fashion show incorporated symbols associated with witchcraft, such as birds and moons, and the models walked atop a red pentagram. At New-York Historical Society, McQueen’s dress sits atop a red pentagram, too.
4. Photographs of modern-day witches
Photographs by Frances Denny explore the questions: Who is a witch? And what does it mean to practice witchcraft? Denny became interested in the topic after realizing that her family lineage included one person who was a judge at the Salem witch trials and another who had been accused of witchcraft 20 years before the Salem trials.
“Being descended from both the oppressive patriarch figure and both the oppressed figure,” she said, led her onto a three-year journey photographing people who identify as witches. Her photographs are on display, alongside essays from the witches and even some audio of their voices.
5. A feminist perspective on the word ‘witch’
A photograph from 1968 depicts the radical activist group called “W.I.T.C.H.” a.k.a. Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell as the group hexed Wall Street on Halloween. An excerpt from the group’s manifesto states: “There is no ‘joining’ WITCH. If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a Witch. You make your own rules.”
6. A DIY tarot photo opportunity
Toward the end of the exhibit, you can move magnetic symbols onto a large tarot wall and snap a photo in front of it. The exhibit explains that tarot has historically been an important entry into the occult. Originally used as games, the allegorical images on the cards have also been used to read fortunes for centuries.
7. A resonant message
As far removed as we are from 1692, the message of control over women and other groups certainly resonates today. Exhibit curators hope you’ll leave thinking about what to do in the face of injustice.
As Lipcan puts it: “What can we do together to create a more tolerant and compassionate society to help ensure that something like this never happens again?”
See “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming” through January 22, 2023 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library. Upcoming special events include a discussion on queer witchcraft, an exhibit tour with the curator and a talk on witchcraft in New York.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.