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Which old witch? Professor’s discovery prompts scholars to reexamine records of Salem witch trials

It began in a shop in Salem, Massaschusetts. Spying a coffee mug emblazoned with a stereotypical witch – an old hag resembling the witch from the Wizard of Oz riding on a broom – a Binghamton University English professor began to wonder how the modern-day images depicting the trials could become so distorted.

In the 15 years since that day, Bernard Rosenthal has become one of the world’s leading authorities on the Salem witch trials, and his work continues to challenge and broaden traditional scholarship, even his own, regarding the hysteria that led to the deaths of 24 people, most of them women.

“I understood, at the time, that the only people executed were those individuals who insisted they were innocent, fearing the damnation of their immortal souls,” Rosenthal said. “Seeing them depicted as hags and not as the martyrs they were, made me think ‘Why is this so?'”

That question fueled his research regarding America’s original witch-hunt, an infamous spree that led to the hanging of 19 people on Gallows Hill in Salem Town and to the imprisonment of more than 200 others, some of whom died miserable deaths in prison.
As he wrote his book, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, Rosenthal discovered he had inadvertently included an erroneously transcribed court date. Upon closer scrutiny, he found more.

“I found that there were things that didn’t make sense,” he said. “There was an arbitrary piece of manuscript put together with another where it didn’t belong. Before seeing that, I couldn’t figure it out why a particular event didn’t make sense to me.”
He discovered that the printed edition he was using was based on an incorrect manuscript. “Then after checking other things, I noticed a number of other errors existed,” he said. “They were minor but the discovery showed that the manuscript was not transcribed as closely as it could have been.”

According to Rosenthal, there were two major attempts to transcribe the original witch trial documents. The first transcription of the documents was done as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression. Then in the 1970s historians attempted to modernize the WPA transcripts, but didn’t check them for accuracy. It was those texts that became the standard for Salem witch trial information.

“I don’t mean to imply that all the history is incorrect,” Rosenthal said. “Mistakes have been made in just about every book written on the subject — mine included. But now that we are aware of it, we know secondary sources need to be checked. We need to be much more careful with work on this particular issue.”

As a result, Rosenthal and his team of historians, linguists and other scholars have started their newest endeavor — the creation of a Manuscript Transcription Database, which includes a scribal database for the Salem witch trial documents, and will be housed on a private intranet site.

“Some of the historians I’m working with are decoding who wrote which manuscript, so that with any document you look up in the database, you’ll also have an identification of the scribe.”
The scribal information will include genealogical or family connections (i.e. kinships, relationships), all of which is important to consider because information could have been manipulated or omitted depending on the origin of the document.

Much of Rosenthal’s work is done by studying the original records found in Salem and Virginia. Although many of the transcripts have been scanned onto CDs, the researchers rely on original records because ink color can indicate changes to the original documents. “The ink colors and crossed-out portions of documents are very revealing,” Rosenthal said. “You can tell if the manuscripts have been doctored or changed. But you can only do this by looking at the original documents.”

Since even the smallest mistakes can change the story, transcripts will be scrutinized by anonymous peer review to ensure that no new mistakes are introduced, Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal’s research hopes to correct errors and find new documents that can add context to the events and life to the memories of the victims of the trials. “When we’re done we hope to have a collection of comprehensive and accurate documents pertaining to the Salem witch trials,” Rosenthal said. The collection will include 30-50 newly discovered documents discovered that do not appear in current standard editions of the trial transcripts. Some have appeared in print in obscure sources but where missed by the WPA, and some have never been in print, Rosenthal said.

According to Rosenthal the events leading up to the witch trials actually occurred in what is now the town of Danvers, then a parish of Salem Town, known as Salem Village, not Salem proper. That’s perhaps appropriate, Rosenthal said because not a lot in Salem is authentic. “But they do have the Phillips Library part of the Peabody Museum. A lot of the transcripts pertaining to the witchcraft trials are there,” he said. Focusing on those transcripts rather than on the sensationalized commercial images related to Salem is the only way to glean the truth about the sad events that took the lives of so many innocents.

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