The Real Witch Hunt Behind ‘The Crucible’
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The Real Witch Hunt Behind ‘The Crucible’

The story of The Crucible may be fictional, but some of the characters and events are all too real.

In 1952, Arthur Miller published what is probably one of his most famous works, The Crucible, a play taking place in 1692 throughout 1693 in Salem during the witch trials. In 1996, Hollywood adapted his play on the big screen, some 42 years after the writer was blacklisted by this same industry for refusing to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and to give out names of suspected communists during the era of McCarthyism. Over the years, the movie adaptation of The Crucible, starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day Lewis, has become a must-watch around spooky season. Though heavily romanticized and fictionalized, The Crucible is based on true events, when a small village became the scene of the most famous witch hunt in history.

In January 1692, two young girls named Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, soon followed by many more girls, fell very ill and started having contortions, violent fits and hallucinations. When the local doctor visited them, his diagnosis was unequivocal: the girls were bewitched. Arrests were made, starting with Tituba, Reverend Parris’ slave. Soon, many more women and men were accused by the group of girls then referred to as the ‘’afflicted girls.”

The Witch Hunt Begins
While Arthur Miller specified at the beginning of his play that The Crucible isn’t history and that some characters, events, have been changed for the sake of his play, we also know that the witch hunt is a metaphor for what Miller went through during The Red Scare in the 1950s. We are going to dive in the movie adaptation from 1996, directed by Nicholas Hytner, while comparing some of its key moments and characters to their real lives counterparts.

The Crucible opens with a group of young girls and Tituba (Charlayne Woodard), dancing in the woods around a fire and making some kind of potion. One of the girls, Abigail, here portrayed by Winona Ryder, plays the most important roles in the proceedings of the plot by being the main accuser in the village. When Reverend Parris, her uncle, discovers Abigail and her friends in the woods, Abigail tries to escape with Betty Paris. The next morning, we find out that Betty is sick and won’t wake up. The same evil sickness seems to be impacting another child in the village, which leads to the strong belief that Salem has become the home of the Devil.

Abigail is in love with John Proctor, played by Daniel Day Lewis. He is a married man she used to work for and with whom she had an affair. When Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen), John’s wife, finds out about her husband’s infidelity, she kicks Abigail out of her house. In the beginning of the movie, Abigail tries to win John back, but he rejects her once again. To stop the rumors that she is a witch, and in an attempt to save her name when people start talking about her affair, Abigail accuses Tituba of bewitching her and Betty Parris.

This first accusation leads to a series of many others and will result in the death of a lot of innocent people.

Movie vs. Reality
In The Crucible, Abigail and John Proctor have been intimate in the past. Regretful and ashamed, John is now trying to win back the affection and trust of his wife. Abigail is still in love with him and doesn’t hesitate to say it loud and clear, even if it means she has to accuse Elizabeth of being a witch. Abigail is about 17 years old and John is in his 30s. In a long essay for the New Yorker in 1996, Miller explained that he truly believed that these two characters had a relationship, which became an attempt to explain how the witch trials came to happen. Miller explained that he read in the court reports that Williams had tried to hit Elizabeth Proctor during her examination.

‘’In this remarkably observed gesture of a troubled young girl, I believed, a play became possible,” he wrote. “Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, and they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth. There was bad blood between the two women now. That Abigail started, in effect, to condemn Elizabeth to death with her touch, then stopped her hand, then went through with it, was quite suddenly the human center of all this turmoil.”

In real life, John Proctor was in his 60s and Abigail Williams was only 12 years old. Many historians think that there is no evidence that the two of them even knew each other, let alone that the girl actually served at the Proctor house, especially considering the fact that the Proctors lived too far out of the village for Abigail to have met them. However, just like in The Crucible, John Proctor quickly became a voice for the falsely accused, claiming that the accusers were lying.

The opening scene during which the girls are dancing in the woods most likely never happened, although in real life, they may have tried some kind of magic called the ‘’ Venus Glass ’’ consisting of dropping an egg in a glass of water, and through its shape, the young girls could see their future. Records also proved that a ‘’Witch Cake’’ was made when Abigail starting making accusations. This cake was meant to reveal the identity of people guilty of witchcraft. It was made with the afflicted girl’s urine, rye meal and ashes. The witch hunters would then feed this cake to animals, especially to dogs, believed to be witches’ companions and called “’familiars.” The dog was then meant to reveal the identity of the witches.

A Sad Outcome
In the movie, John Proctor confesses to being a witch in order to save his life and his wife’s, who was then pregnant. The reality is that John Proctor never confessed any of this and claimed to be innocent until his death. However, just like in The Crucible, in which Proctor is a well-liked, respected man, many of his friends petitioned to attest of his good character during his trial. But the petition didn’t work and the Proctors, accused by Abigail, were to remain imprisoned until their executions. Elizabeth Proctor was to stay in jail until she gave birth and be hanged after; however, for unknown reasons, she was never executed, even after her child was born. John Proctor was executed in August 1692, alongside many villagers.

At the end of the movie, Abigail runs away and never comes back to Salem. The real Abigail Williams completely disappeared after the trial and no historical records of her after her last testimony in June 1692 were found.

Many other historical characters were either changed or written off the script of The Crucible. Tituba, the first presumed witch of Salem, is the Parris’ slave from Barbados. Her historical counterpart was actually American Indian, even if her origins aren’t completely certain. Tituba, accused by Abigail, is beaten up and confesses that the Devil gave her no choice than to work for him. In this Puritan society, where the mob hysteria and the claims that someone was a witch was stronger than any other rational explanation, she knew that confessing would save her life. Tituba also accuses Sarah Goode and Goody Osborne of being witches.

The real life Sarah Osborne was an outcast, a woman in her late 40s possibly suffering from anxiety and depression. She was married to her former servant, whom she is rumored to have been with since before their marriage, which was a scandal at the time. In other words, Sarah Osborne represented everything a witch was supposed to be for the accusers. She died in May 1692 in prison from the terrible life conditions there.

As for Sarah Goode, the other woman accused by Tituba, she is historically, one of the most famous figure of the trials, considering the legend surrounding her death: Goode was meant to be hanged after giving birth to her child. She also had a six-year-old daughter, Dorcas, who was also accused of witchery and imprisoned for months. When Good’s newborn baby died, she was taken to the gallows to hang. When Rev. Nicholas Noyes called her a witch and asked her to confess, Goode is rumored to have screamed: “You’re a liar! I’m no more a witch than you are a wizard! If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink!”

The legend, however, takes shape when Reverend Noyes died of brain hemorrhage in 1718, which led him to coughing up blood and choking in it, just like Goode had told him before she died.

At the end of the movie, we see that Tituba is still imprisoned with the other women accused of witchcraft. In real life, Tituba was in jail for 13 months because Reverend Parris abandoned her there. Some records have been found and proved that Tituba was eventually released and then sold to another man but just like Abigail, Tituba disappeared off the record after that, and we still don’t know what became of her.

The Real Witch Trials
The real trials involved hundreds of people, which is also an explanation for Miller’s shortcuts and character changes. We don’t really know what pushed the real Abigail Williams and the rest of the afflicted girls to start spreading these dramatic lies. Some historians think that these accusations could be explained by mass hysteria, mental illness, or an overflow of economic difficulties. But how can the symptoms of the afflicted girls be explained? In the’ 70s, Linnda Caporael, Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, came up with one the most solid theory for these symptoms: An outbreak of rye ergot, a fungus blight that can be found in the bread the people of Salem ate. Ergotism can cause violent muscle spasms, hallucinations, convulsions. The conditions of a very cold winter followed by a rainy spring were ideal for ergot to spread.

By lack of records, texts or even drawings, we will never be able to get a clear and unambiguous explanation for the Salem witch trials. The history of the Salem witch hunt might never be complete, and will always be open for new theories and explanations. For Arthur Williams the hypothetical pain of a young girl, heartbroken and jealous, was enough to spread fear and create a real hysteria across the puritan mass of the 17th century.

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