September 22, 2004

Mary Warren

Here is how I picture her:

A teenaged girl in a simple frock of homespun wool, standing in the yard of the farmhouse and wincing in pain from the welts covering her back whenever she stoops to lift something, a painful reminder of the thrashing her employer gave her to cure what ailed her.

Flashing eyes amid girlish giggles as she looked eagerly to her friends Mercy and Ann and the other Mary just before they dropped the egg white into the glass, to divine what sort of man each might marry.

A moment of all too terrible lucidity, when she has at last understood that her fits and visions were madness, and heard the others afflicted say that Mary Warren's name -- her name -- was written in the Black Book by her master. And in that moment of lucidity, she perhaps understood for an instant that her only refuge is madness, into which she would soon sink.

Mary Warren was one of the afflicted in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692; a servant girl who worked for John Proctor (who, along with his wife Elizabeth, was tried and convicted of witchcraft), she also had the distinction of being the sole sufferer to also be accused of and examined for witchcraft.

Another thing that distinguished Warren from the other accusers of Salem is that, of the afflicted, she was the only one who recovered for a time from the fits. She regained her senses. Perhaps it was because her master believed that the proper cure for torment by witches was to be tied to the whipping post -- as inhumane as it sounds (and bear in mind that at the time, a good daily beating was the prescription for any number of mental illnesses), it might actually have worked. Either the threat of beating or the beating itself might have shocked Mary Warren out of her hysteria; she might also have believed that the devil could indeed be thrashed out of her body.

Whatever the case, in her lucidity, she claimed that the accusations she had made during her fits were not to be believed. In the cool light of sanity, she recognized that the apparitions of the likes of Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Good and Martha Corey that she had believed were tormenting her were in fact just hallucinations. As word of her changed testimony spread through the town, she was soon accused, along with her master John Proctor, of being in the devil's book -- of belonging to the coven.

The magistrates examined her for three weeks, Chadwick Hansen tells us, sometimes in open court, sometimes in jail. "By the time she gave up her denials [of the witchcraft of others] she was having fits so violent that ther legs could not be uncrossed without breaking them," he writes.

Mary Beth Norton, author of the excellent In the Devil's Snare, tried to find out what happened to all the major participants in the aftermath of the trials. Of Mary Warren, not a trace could be found. Perhaps she died a mad woman. Or perhaps, as Hawthorne wrote of Young Goodman Brown, her dying hour was gloom.

Posted by Ideofact at September 22, 2004 09:52 PM

This is a well-told story. It does bring up the question of why anyone would (or would not) have recanted of their accusations in regard to witchcraft. What psychological pressures were suspected witches under? Did those pressures include discouragement of recantation? Was the discouragement active or inadvertent?

How well is the witchcraft-craze itself documented? This may have been made of the same material as the various "urban legends" of modernity.

Posted by: steve h at September 24, 2004 02:28 PM

A fair amount of trial transcripts and other related material has survived -- some three volumes worth of court records alone. Cotton Mather wrote a letter at the outset of the judicial proceedings to Magistrate John Hathorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne's kinsman) warning him and his fellows to be exceedingly careful with "spectral" evidence -- Hathorne didn't take his advice (and Nathaniel was more than justified in judging his relative harshly).

But I tend to think, as Hansen argues, that there were indeed people who practiced witchcraft in Salem, and that it was effective in the sense that people connected ill events -- a cow getting sick, an Indian raid, a girl having a fit -- with the art of witches. I'm just not sure that that explanation holds up for the whole course of the witch hunt -- and again, it seems like Hathorne pushed it further.

As for my little reconstruction of Mary Warren's life -- the only really sketchy thing is whether she would have taken part in the "egg" experiment with Mercy Lewis, Ann Putnam and Mary Walcott. (Probably not, although possibly). I included it because it is more than likely that Mary Warren dabbled in that white magic. Similarly, every girl I knew in grade school had, at one time or another, played with a ouija board.

Posted by: Bill at September 27, 2004 12:48 AM