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How Do We Know What We Know? Salem Witch-Hunt Primary Sources with Margo Burns, Part 1

How Do We Know What We Know? Salem Witch-Hunt Primary Sources with Margo Burns, Part 1 Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast

Sit back and enjoy the day with Part 1 of our enjoyable Margo Burns Witch Trial talk. In this information-packed episode,  she discusses her research and editing of the book Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt. Discover how we know what we know from the study of historical records. We have some laughs and heartfelt conversation about some of her favorite project discoveries. We connect past witch trials to today’s witchcraft fear with a discussion answering our advocacy questions: Why do we witch hunt? How do we witch hunt? How do we stop hunting witches? LinksSupport our show, buy "Records of the Salem Witch Hunt" through this link.University of VA, Salem Witch Trials Documents and TranscriptionsSupport Us! Sign up as a Super Listener!End Witch Hunts Movement Thou Shalt Not Suffer Podcast Book StoreSupport Us! Buy Witch Trial Merch!Support Us! Buy Podcast Merch!Join us on Discord to share your ideas and feedback.Please sign the petition to exonerate those accused of witchcraft in ConnecticutSocial Media for Dr. Saud Anwar, State SenatorSocial Media for State Representative Jane GaribayFact Sheet for Connecticut Witch Trial HistoryWrite a Connecticut Legislator WebsiteTwitterFacebookInstagramPinterestLinkedInYouTubeTikTokDiscordBuzzsproutMailchimpDonateSupport the show

Show Notes

Sit back and enjoy the day with Part 1 of our enjoyable Margo Burns Witch Trial talk. In this information-packed episode,  she discusses her research and editing of the book Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt. Discover how we know what we know from the study of historical records. We have some laughs and heartfelt conversation about some of her favorite project discoveries. We connect past witch trials to today’s witchcraft fear with a discussion answering our advocacy questions: Why do we witch hunt? How do we witch hunt? How do we stop hunting witches? 


Support our show, buy “Records of the Salem Witch Hunt” through this link.

University of VA, Salem Witch Trials Documents and Transcriptions

Support Us! Sign up as a Super Listener!

End Witch Hunts Movement 

Thou Shalt Not Suffer Podcast Book Store

Support Us! Buy Witch Trial Merch!

Support Us! Buy Podcast Merch!

Join us on Discord to share your ideas and feedback.

Please sign the petition to exonerate those accused of witchcraft in Connecticut

Social Media for Dr. Saud Anwar, State Senator

Social Media for State Representative Jane Garibay

Fact Sheet for Connecticut Witch Trial History

Write a Connecticut Legislator 














Sarah Jack: Welcome to this episode of Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast. I'm Sarah Jack. 
Josh Hutchinson: And I'm Josh Hutchinson.
Sarah Jack: Today our guest is Margo Burns, associate editor of Records of the Salem Witch Hunt. She tells us about the project of putting the sources together.
Josh Hutchinson: She does. And you're gonna love this episode so much. She's so entertaining. She's a wonderful storyteller. You're gonna hear stories from her, as well as details about the records, what's in the volume.
Sarah Jack: This was a project that she spent over ten years [00:01:00] in.
Josh Hutchinson: She knows what records still exist and what records we're missing. She knows about the wide variety of records involved and tells us about what can be found in the records.
Sarah Jack: I can't believe we're talking about Margo Burns.
Josh Hutchinson: We're talking about the writer of the Bible for the Salem Witch Trials, the manager who actually physically put it together with her algorithms, and we get to learn about algorithms. We get to learn about her favorite surprise in the records, and that is a really entertaining story. You're gonna really get a kick out of that. 
Sarah Jack: Her experiences of going into the archives and evaluating the manuscripts is so fun to hear her talk about that. 
Josh Hutchinson: And she'll [00:02:00] tell us all about the massive handwriting analysis project that was associated with identifying who created each of the records.
Sarah Jack: Margo does not hold back on details and experiences from her project years. It was like a firsthand account. There's something special about hearing about the accounts out of the records, about hearing about her accounts, examining the records, because it's Margo Burns, and she was the one right there holding the records, and she does not hold back when she tells us what she read and what she examined. 
Josh Hutchinson: She also tells us her Salem Witch trial research origin story and talks about her family connection to the trials.
Sarah Jack: And now enjoy the conversation with Margo Burns, [00:03:00] historian, associate editor, and project manager of Records of the Salem Witch Hunt. 
Margo Burns: I have Records of the Salem Witch Hunt, but that came out in 2009, and when it came out, and it's the size of a ream of paper with a hard cover on it, and I confess, I pulled it out of the box. And went, "is that all there is?" It took 12 of us 10 years to produce it, so I had to remind myself it had just been distilled down from all that work we had done, but it still felt small. 
Josh Hutchinson: It's not small when you're reading it, though.
Margo Burns: Right? It's condensed. It's just really jam-packed, and, as the project manager, I managed all that stuff that was coming in, so I saw everything. I worked directly with Bernie as we tried to come up with the chronology of how the book was gonna get laid out, how it was gonna get organized. It was a lot of work.
Josh Hutchinson: I imagine. And one thing I picked up on your video in one of your videos that we might [00:04:00] get back to later you said you had four versions of it with, that you made with algorithms and how long did that take to produce them to produce the algorithms and the four versions?
Margo Burns: The algorithms were pretty straightforward, and it was mostly, essentially all the information was in a gigantic database, a relational database. So then I'd have to write something that would say what order things would be in, and I'd set certain variables for everything. So I'd say, okay, let's produce this, and it would make this gigantic net with 970 or whatever many holes in it. And then using features of Microsoft Word, I could take all those individual Word files and then just import them into those holes. So that was easy to just produce a whole version of it. And I printed it out all every one of those times and mailed it to Bernie, so he got to read [00:05:00] through it. I'm really granular and Bernie's very linear, and I think, as a duo, we complimented each other. 
Josh Hutchinson: I used do algorithms for work, so that's why I was curious about that. 
Margo Burns: Oh, there were all sorts of things, all sorts of weights for things. If you look at a page in there, and you see something that has multiple dates associated with it, the organization chronologically was just, "how do we wanna put these together? If we're gonna do it chronologically, and there are a bunch of things that happen on the same date, and what happens if the second instance from that particular document happens on another date? And how do we organize them according to the names of the people?" There were all these decisions we made all along.
And then those just got kept in the database, and I could write a little thing to say, "okay, let's sort them." And we couldn't really give each one a numeric unique identifier because we were going to put them all in order and they kept changing. So we had [00:06:00] code names for just about every single document based on what archive had them. So the Essex County Court Archives were E C C A, Ecca.
The last iteration of everything, Bernie and I got on Skype, just like a phone call, and it took us two days to go through absolutely every single item in Records to check for all of our dating all the different things that we wanted to do. So on one day, we went from eight in the morning till noon, took an hour for lunch, went one to five, took an hour for dinner, and work six to ten. And the next day, the exact same. 
And we went through every single decision that we were making. And if he'd say, "Ooh, I wanna put this in this other place," I'd say, "okay, no, we have to figure out if there's anything else that will be in that kind of category that can get changed." We built ourselves up that we could actually work together that long on Skype.
And it was just [00:07:00] audio. We didn't worry about the video, because we just were talking, and we had the same things on our screens. So that was really, those two days were just, they were a lot of work, but it was just the culmination of everything we had. We finally were organizing the book and that was it.
Josh Hutchinson: I'm so glad you all did that and produced the book that you produced. 
Margo Burns: It was really Bernie. Bernie had gotten stung with an incorrect transcription and had written a whole article about it, because apparently there was a date that was wrong, saying that Tituba's grand jury was May whatever in 1692. And he thought, "why would her case be done differently?" And it was a typo, cause hers was done in 1693, the last one in May. And so he'd gotten stung, and he decided that there were enough errors that they should get corrected, and he figured it would be two or three years, and it took us ten.
 I keep everything in my head. There are a few of us who know all of those [00:08:00] documents intimately, and also because we were making decisions about them. "What is this document? Who is it about? What's going on?" And so having looked at every single one of those documents that just, it's all inside of me. There are times I forget some things, but I go, "oh yeah, I remember that decision."
For me doing history and doing, especially this subject that has so much popular interest, I always ask, "how do we know what we know?" That's a really important thing for me in this, because there's so many fanciful notions or things that people wanna believe. They wanna believe that the people in Salem were all midwives and there aren't midwives in that group. And they, oh, they had they were nurses and midwives and the men were jealous. It sounds nice, but I always say, "how do we know what we know?" And there's no primary source evidence to that effect.
So that's what history is for me. I was at a, [00:09:00] I'm trying to remember when it was before Records came out, and I was at a a conference, an Omohundro conference, and we were in Quebec City, and it was before the book came out, and Bernie and I were there to talk about how we were working on the book. And Ben Ray and Dick Latner, who's at Tulane, were also on our panel. Bernie and I got up there, and we described what we were doing. I said Thomas Putnam's handwriting was on over 200 of the documents, and the person who was doing comment was John Putnam Demos from Yale, so when he got up, he basically, I felt like I got a little paternalistic pat on the head for telling him something about his ancestor that he didn't know. But then Ben Ray was talking about the geography and the maps, and Dick Latner was talking about the tax rolls, and both of them were challenging what Boyer and Nisenbaum had included in their book and basically saying they got the map wrong. And for the tax rolls, how do you tell [00:10:00] somebody's family's worth is going up or down, if you only use one year? So they basically were taking it apart, and John Demos was very unhappy with them, and he said, "they had a big idea and how dare they criticize Boyer and Nissenbaum."
 I'm just new to history, and I'm finding myself going, "if they got the facts wrong, isn't that a big deal?" So I was kind of really into that how do we know what we know, where he was thinking at they made a big change in how history was done. They were looking at the primary sources ,and they were looking at all this stuff, even though they did get some things wrong. For me, it was like, "I'm siding with them."
Josh Hutchinson: We were wondering about that the other day, because Sarah was pointing out in science it's always, "what do we know right now?" Not, "what's the big ideas, and how do we build on those?" It's, "does this change our understanding?"
Margo Burns: And I think John Demos did major things in his heyday, [00:11:00] but it's hard when somebody else comes along and says, "you know what? It's different." But I'm always willing to take more information in, because, as I said, "how do we know what we know?" And I know I probably said I wouldn't talk about this, when it comes to the moldy bread, ergot stuff, that was my operating principle. So many people think it's plausible, means believable, possible, but it's not really possible. And so that's why I made the video that I did that you, you posted, what do we actually know? And I still have people say, "do you believe it?" I said, "it's not about belief it's this is what happened. This is what happened." And nobody has challenged me on any of that, but I think it's a very fun video. I enjoyed making it.
Josh Hutchinson: We enjoyed watching it. 
Sarah Jack: You really had me thinking about the science versus the history lens and how, science, we're always looking for the latest discovery, and with history, the latest ideas, and [00:12:00] sometimes discoveries are more challenged, but I guess science that happens, too.
Margo Burns: I think one of the problems comes from the fact that it was a scientist who was doing this, and she was just saying, "are all the pieces there for this to possibly happen?" And if one of them was missing, she would've said, "no." And I can challenge some of those things that she's using as evidence, but she was just saying, "can I rule this out?" And she basically said, "no, we can't rule it out." And then you get the historians, you get the people who really get into this and they go, "ah, she made an argument for this being the case," and she really didn't. So what a scientist will do and what a historian or the public will do with something can be very different.
I really enjoyed talking with her. We emailed back and forth a lot. The interviews I did with her were really eye-opening. So a lot of people who don't approve of the ergot stuff will say, "oh, Linda Caporeal." I had a great time talking to her. And that [00:13:00] she actually said, "I think it's Mary Matossian"
But she gets cited all the time, and then people read it and they feel like, "yes, she's on our side." And it's not about a side, it's about how do we figure out? For me, one is how do we figure out what the causes were? And there are so many of them, but the other part is why does this resonate? And it does.
Josh Hutchinson: I looked at that the latest, the IFL Science article, and I only skimmed it. I didn't read verbatim what they wrote, because it was just a rehashing of this 40-some-year-old argument. 
Margo Burns: If you scroll to the bottom of it, I replied. I will sometimes go into the fray, and other times I'll just back right out. But sometimes I poke the bear. I'll poke the bear on the Crucible.
Sarah Jack: It's good to leave those crumbs for the right people who might look at that article.
Margo Burns: It just keeps popping up.
And I'm really glad that the talk has been recorded three times [00:14:00] actually. And if I wanted to do it again in Salem, I know a bunch of people say, "yep, okay, we'll do it." Then when they get into those conversations, they can just go, "okay, I've been here before. Go watch Margo's video."
Josh Hutchinson: Thinking of our questions that we have for you, they're primarily about Records. Could you start with just a bird's eye of what Records is for those people who aren't familiar with it? 
Margo Burns: Certainly. Records of the Salem Witch Hunt is a collection of all the primary source records, legal records, primary source legal records of the Salem witchcraft trials. So we won't have Samuel Sewell's diary entries, but it's all the legal records. Most of them are handwritten and they're in 12 different archives. Mostly they're at the Peabody Essex and at the Massachusetts Archive, State Archives. 
And we saw just about all of them in person and learned how to read their handwriting. There were over 200 [00:15:00] different handwriting examples throughout all of them. And a lot of documents had multiple people adding to them over a period of days. So we had to start recognizing them so that we could do as accurate transcriptions as possible. And when I say accurate, it isn't just was is this an A or an E?
Couple of things that we corrected were oh, names, dates. Those are really critical when you start doing things in history. You need to get those things correct. Also, there were some words, there was one that historically has been translated as basin, B A S I N and the, like some vision they were offering her this girl a basin. If you think about basin and religion, you start thinking things about baptism. And the thing is that this was, somebody's handwriting, was very kind of crab, wasn't a really polished one. And the more we looked at it, they went, "it's not basin, it's coffin," because you got a B and a K. Which one is it? [00:16:00] You've got an A, so it could be an O and then the middle one if you, it's long. So it could be the long S or an F. And then we ended with the E N. So the first three letters were really challenging and then when we really looked at it, we realized, oh my god, she's being offered a coffin, and you get a completely different sense of what was happening.
When we did these transcriptions, there were a half a dozen linguists, historical linguists from Scandinavia, most of them from Finland. And they have been at the top of their game in historical linguistics, especially with English. They've been doing that for decades and decades. And I had been in a a graduate program at the University of Southern California when we had looked at some of these legal records. And so when I met them on this project, it was like, "oh, I've already read your work before." They're like the top linguists, and they were very precise about getting everything exactly right.
And they really are [00:17:00] good at historical handwriting. And that's just, that's a critical thing when you start reading these because you can make mistakes reading something. And for us, part of our accuracy was to keep track of whose handwriting was on them, because if you've got two or three lines of something, and you find something ambiguous, how do you clarify it?
But if you have a whole page of somebody's handwriting, it's easier to resolve ambiguities. So we started keeping track of handwriting across all these documents. I remember the meeting when Matti Peikola and I looked at each other and said, "is this possible?" And we said, "yes," but it was being done, not necessarily to identify the people, but to increase our accuracy in our transcriptions. So that was part of it. We're really looking at all this handwriting to be able to make those decisions. And by the end, it was just like, we have all this wonderful information. So we decided, we picked about two dozen people whose handwriting appeared a lot, [00:18:00] and we identified them, because one of the things about legal papers is that they keep getting pieces added to them.
So if there's, for instance, on a warrant for somebody's arrest, the magistrates would write it out. It'd be two magistrates. One would write it, usually John Hathorne. And they would give this to the sheriff and say, "tell this person they have to come in, go arrest them and bring them into us." So that's got one date and one person's handwriting, but then at the bottom you find another thing, the return from that officer and in another handwriting saying, "yes, I have apprehended Rebecca Nurse, and I have brought her to you on this day," and it's a different date. So trying to take all these pieces apart and have them be a coherent whole was really a challenge, especially with these smaller things like the officer's return. 
Usually there would only be one or two documents with some people's handwriting on it. Another thing that would happen, though, is if we could identify somebody's handwriting, maybe not even them, we could use that as [00:19:00] part of our chronology. When we're trying to figure out when things happened, because that's important, timelines are important. You wanna do history, it's people, it's places, it's dates.
So as we were looking at some of the indictments, we're trying to figure out what day was the grand jury? And if we could find the same handwriting from the foreman of the grand jury on multiple documents that we didn't have any evidence when these other grand jury documents were being done. If we could find the same jury foreman, that gave us a clue as to exactly what the timetable was, because that jury foreman and that jury were hearing specific people's cases.
And that was fantastic when we could figure out that, and we could look at who was in the room. That's really hard to see over history. Some of these documents, you could actually see who was in the room, who was doing the interrogating, who was writing it down. That was really important. And when we look at some of the most important documents, and I'll just say important, because they have so much [00:20:00] content and so much connection for people, the interrogations of the people early on. They're so strong. You hear the voices of people.
One of the other things, too, is when you look at it, you know who wrote it down, because that was Samuel Parris. Now he may not be in the text itself, but he's the guy writing it down. He was in the room. He has an impact on the content of what's in that document, even though you can't see him just reading the text. So these are the kinds of things that we felt were important. 
We worked so hard on these things, but the transcriptions themselves, the transcriptions, the number of pairs of eyes that looked at them was phenomenal. Each document was given to a two-person team to do the first rough transcription of, and sometimes they were based on some of the transcriptions that appeared in Boyer and Nissenbaum Salem Witchcraft Papers sometimes, but a [00:21:00] base to go on.
And they would polish it up, and that would be round one, and then it would be round two when those same documents are rearranged. Sometimes trying to put some together that made sense, because the first round we just went after everything scatter. So the second round we organized them a little bit better, and then another two person team would look at the transcription and do a finer job with it.
We thought we'd have two rounds, because we just kept going through and Merja Kytö who is the wrangler of all the, all the linguists over in Finland. She just said, "we have one chance to get it right, so let's do it." And that, that was important. 
I'm sure that there's some errors in there. I hope there aren't big ones, but the pairs of eyes that looked at every single thing. So if you look at, two people are looking at the first round, two people are looking at the second round, usually not the same two people. The third round, anybody could have been that. And then also just Bernie and I were working on other [00:22:00] things, so we were looking at these documents again, and it really had to be something radical for us to miss it. 
Sarah Jack: I'd love to hear how you jumped on board with this project.
Margo Burns: Oh, good. It's weird. People say, "oh, you have an ancestor." Yes. One of my ancestors is Rebecca nurse, and I think most people when they find I'm interested in this, think that it was because I have an ancestor. I have to say my grandmother who did all the family genealogy, she was interested in the DAR and the Mayflower Society. That's what she was looking for. 
And it must have been the early eighties, I knew somebody who was in a performance of The Crucible. He was playing Francis Nurse, and I'd just gotten all this family stuff, and I looked and went, "wait a minute, Francis Nurse, I think that's a real person." And I opened up my grandmother's research, and I'm poking around. I said, "oh, he is." And then it, for the entry on the display, it said, oh, Rebecca Nurse, asterisk. I look at the bottom of the page, asterisk, executed for witchcraft, July [00:23:00] 19th, 1692 in Salem. That was all it was to my grandmother. It was an asterisk. So it was a new thing for me to discover.
Fast forward to the early nineties, and I'd already gotten my master's in linguistics from the University of New Hampshire, and I was pursuing a doctoral degree in linguistics out there. And I was in a seminar on legal language. The professor was very interested in legal language across time, and he had finished all of his research in England and was starting with doing things about legal language in America.
So it was starting, so it was the second half of the 17th century. And so he was handing out at one point just cases for us to look at. And his name's Ed Finnegan, absolutely amazing guy. Here's a murder, here's an infanticide, here's piracy. And said, then I got witchcraft. I got Salem witchcraft trials. And I'm in California, mind you, not here in New England. He said, "I don't know if there's much stuff on this." And I said, "I'll take it. I'll just take that. My great whatever [00:24:00] was executed then." And that's the only real connect that I had toward this path that I went on to join this project. It was just like in the seminar I said, "sure, I'll take that." 
Dropped outta my doctoral program and came back to New England. And when I got here I thought, " that was really interesting. Maybe my family would like to have something about that. I should write up." But not one to just go into something lightly, I just read everything I could, everything. And I was reading these things, and I said, " I can't do all of that research. There have to be people out there who have already been interested in their family members." 
So this was late 1990s. RootsWeb had LISTSERVs, that tells you exactly how old it is, a LISTSERV. And I made a new one for Salem Witch List, that's all. And I think it, it, at its high point, it had maybe 300 people, and people would put little things out there. Now we have Facebook groups for that. There was [00:25:00] nothing at that time except these LISTSERVs. So I would keep track of who was signing up, and that's when I noticed one day that Bernie Rosenthal had signed up. And I just read his book, and it was like, "oh, this is cool." But, I wrote to him and I said, 'happy to have you here. This is mostly a genealogy thing. I liked your book." And I asked him, " what are you doing now that you've finished this?" And he said he really wanted to correct the errors that he had encountered in the primary sources. That's great. 
Fast forward a couple years. I'm finally reading Boyer and Nissenbaum Salem Witchcraft Papers, all of the transcriptions that existed in that three-volume set. And I'm reading along, and at one point, I'm keeping track of things in my head, and I found this document that was testimony against George Burroughs, but it was a month after he'd already been executed. And I'm looking at that and [00:26:00] going, "why would somebody be testifying against him a month after he is already been tried and executed?" So I said, "ah, I wonder if that's one of those errors that Bernie had found." I wrote him an email, and I said, "is this the case? Is this one of the errors that you're gonna be fixing?"
And he wrote back and said, "no. I wrote about that in my book," and I'm thinking, "oh God, now I feel stupid." But it had been a couple of years since I'd read it. And then he said, "there's something else I want to talk to you about, but I feel I don't really like email." He really doesn't, knowing him all these years, he really didn't like email, and would I feel comfortable calling him or him calling me, so he could talk to me about this? And I'm thinking, "what the heck?" So I said, "sure". We got on the phone, and he told me that they'd just gotten this great National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
He and Ben Ray had gotten this together, cuz they both had applied for National Humanities grant. And somebody said, "oh, you guys should get together, cuz you're on the same subject." But they'd gotten it, [00:27:00] and he was about to start into it, and he had a project manager. But his project manager was Joe Flibbert from Salem State, and Joe sadly passed away very suddenly, and he was bereft to lose his friend, but also he was gonna be the project manager. And they'd just gotten this grant, and what do you do? And then out of the blue, I was writing to him about what he was doing and asking a question very specific to what he was doing and why he was doing it. And he decided to invite me to be his project manager. So that took a little bit of doing, because there was grant money and how the grant money was gonna come to me. But before I said yes, I met with him. 
And he was at a chess tournament in Vermont, I think it was Stratton Mountain, and he'd driven over from New York. And I drove up there from New Hampshire and met him for the first time. And from the moment he opened a [00:28:00] computer and showed me the digital images of these documents, I was hooked, because I had already had this sense that if you could look at the actual documents, you could identify who was writing them.
And so that sort of carried forward on the whole project, because I thought that was important. Who was writing these things down? Because you put so much more of yourself into these documents than people necessarily know, and just seeing them, it was one of those moments like, I will do anything. I will do anything to be on this project. And so for the first year and a half, I got some of the money, but I didn't do anywhere nearly as much work as I did later on when I was earning nothing.
And Bernie is a fantastic human being. I will have to add that in. He is a professor of English at Binghamton University, head of the English Department. His specialty was Moby Dick and Herman Melville. But he also, more than that, [00:29:00] is really invested in social justice. And that's what caught him to do this, because he was visiting Salem and thinking, "this is really weird. These people were executed wrongly. And yet there's an ice cream stand with a witch on it. There's an image of a witch on the police cars." And so he felt very strongly about that. And so as a literary critic, being somebody interested in texts from English department kind of perspective, he decided to read everything closely.
And that's what his approach to it was. Not a historian, he was a close reader of texts, and my undergraduate degree was in English, so I knew exactly where he was coming from. So even though I didn't major in history or any of that, we had a whole lot in common on how we were approaching the texts.
It was wonderful, because we had Mary Beth Norton being a great supporter. She and Bernie are great friends, and so we had a lot of good historians with us. But I think because our background was in literature and just looking to see [00:30:00] what is in the text without bringing any preconceived notion to it, I think that really benefited everything that we were doing and putting together the book.
 It just goes to show you can have all sorts of different people and perspectives and working on the same project, getting them all to integrate and it was a fantastic project to be on. There'll be nothing like that in my lifetime. And it was 10 years. I remember in my household it was just like, "oh, you're working on the book again." Okay. It was all about the book, and it was just like, yep.
One of the things about it is that there are three at the end that were in the Salem Witchcraft Papers by Boyer and Nissenbaum, and we discovered that they had nothing to do with the Salem witchcraft trials. So, we decided we couldn't leave them out, because they were in this other book, and if we left them out, inevitably there was somebody who was going to look very superficially at and compare the two and say, "oh, they forgot these [00:31:00] documents." So we included them with fine transcriptions just to make sure that people didn't think we had missed them. And then we have reasons why we don't think that they were part of the trials.
It was just, it was constant for me. As a matter of fact, we did have more than those entries in our database. We had a lot more things in the database that we had to decide whether they were gonna keep them or not. And I made the case that we needed to include some of the pieces from Deodat Lawson's accounts of the interrogations.
They weren't legal documents, but they were accounts of a legal proceeding. But there were other things that you'll find from Deodat Lawson's text that aren't in the book. And we were making a decision to just deal with the legal aspects of it. So you won't find Parris's sermon, you won't find Deodat Lawson's sermon. You won't find entries by Samuel Sewall in his diary. These were things that we felt were outside of scope of what we were trying to do. We wanted to show how the legal [00:32:00] process worked. 
And it's very interesting to me when somebody said, "didn't they do blah, blah?" And I say, "let's go to the documents." And I show people what each little piece means. And it's really interesting, because people still don't quite get how legal proceedings go, and they'll make conclusions about things that really aren't there in the documents. 
Here's something. It was not about Salem, but if you watched, Who Do You Think You Are?, there was something this season where one of the celebrities descended from somebody who was accused of witchcraft in Connecticut and in the promos for the show, they zoom in on a document and highlight guilty of the crime of witchcraft, but it turns out that if you thought that she was found guilty and executed and things like that, that's wrong because that's a piece of text from an accusation saying that they thought this woman was guilty of the crime of witchcraft. [00:33:00] She ended up being found not guilty, but you can take text out of context and draw conclusions. So I think that was one of those things for Who Do You Think You Are? where they had a really nice hook, just when you think, ah, she got it and it turns out she was found not guilty. 
And Who Do You Think You Are? does great story arcs. And also I give them so much credit. They have the best researchers. They read all the right stuff. They talk to the right people. They ask the right questions. And I've been on the show twice, and I'm really impressed by what they do. And I'm really not impressed by a whole lot of other documentaries.
Watching them work the day before, even the morning before one of the tapings, they said, "if this celebrity asks you a question and it's an unknown, you have to say, 'we don't know,'" because they didn't want anybody making up something. "It could have been this." no. Everything had to be by the primary sources. And yes, there's a story arc for these [00:34:00] things. You get there, but you've been, I've been working with them to figure out what the documents are. They knew what they want the story arc for Scott Foley's ancestor Samuel Wardwell. They knew what the story arc was for Jean Smart and Dorcus Hoar.
And they had come up with a series of primary sources, and I'd worked on them with that. And I had a pile to my left . And I would tell the story based on those primary sources, which was just, that was right up my alley, absolutely right up my alley. And they like to put somebody who really knows what they're talking about to talk to the celebrity, because you don't know what the celebrity's gonna ask, something about their family, you never know. And they needed to make sure they have people who can field those questions and who can also say we don't know confidently. So that was just fabulous, absolutely fabulous. 
And, one after another, you show a, a document that's in old handwriting, and they can say, "oh, I can't read that." Immediately we have the transcription to hand out. And I remember watching the one with Melissa Etheridge, she was up [00:35:00] in Quebec, and the records were handwritten in French. So not only could she not read the handwriting, she couldn't even read the French. So they had a translation ready for her. The preparation for that show is just fantastic, and I have nothing but good things to say about how they do it.
And again, it's primary sources. We're gonna tell the story based on the facts. How do we know what we know? When the people go away with something real and concrete, not just some kind of weird story we can tell about their ancestor, we tell them something real. 
Sarah Jack: When were the records written?
Margo Burns: The actual handwritten things for the legal process, they were written as the process was going along. So when we get those first accusations in Salem Village, they sat down and started writing these things. The arrest warrants were written as the magistrates were having people arrested. Everything was just written live. So having things [00:36:00] handwritten is just fabulous, because when they did it you know who was there.
And the fact that we have so many, we have so many of the originals is absolutely fantastic. And also it isn't just, "oh, we have the indictments and this record and stuff like that." We actually have records of the bills from the blacksmiths who were making the chains and the handcuffs. That's just an amazing document that we could have that, and I don't know who was responsible for keeping all those together. It may have been that it was organized by Governor Hutchinson. We lost a lot of those documents, probably when his house was ransacked during the Stamp Act Riot, cuz he clearly had access to more documents than have survived.
But the fact that we can have something that small and that, I dunno, I think it's evocative when you can get to that, when it's just, "here's the bill, I made these chains, I fixed this, and here's the bill for it." It takes it to a level that's so much more tangible because [00:37:00] it's easier to think about a chain and an iron handcuff than it is necessarily to understand what an indictment is.
Josh Hutchinson: You mentioned Samuel Parris as one of the writers. Who were some of the others?
Margo Burns: In those first ones, we also have Ezekiel Cheever taking it down. We also have Jonathan Corwin taking things down. But for the interrogations that took place in Salem Village, he was the one who was taking them down. After that, you start getting an assortment of people who would record them.
If you get into the Andover ones, they all sound alike. They all sound alike. They're nothing like the ones that were taken down in Salem Village because Samuel Parris was trying to take things down word for word. The Nurse family kind of challenged him on that later on, but he could do shorthand, and he took these things verbatim as well as he could and then reconstituted it into regular English. So you actually get to hear the [00:38:00] voices of the people professing their innocence. And those are just, those are what get to people and why I think the Salem trials are so evocative and why people get so passionate about them. They see somebody saying, "I am innocent." And we know, we hear that. We read it, and we know that they're gonna die.
When we get to the Andover cases. You, if you read the, what they've done for those, it starts off with, "she was propounded several questions and gave a negative answer." So, sort of like, "are you a Witch?" "No." "And then she confessed to having a thing with the Devil." So it sounds like the whole beginning part when they were saying, making their accusations and they're doing their professions of their innocence, all those things don't matter. So they weren't taken down, and like, "several questions asked, negative answers given, and then she confessed." And that was the important part to the court. So [00:39:00] whoever was doing those, that's the part they were taking down, whereas Samuel Parris was just trying to take down everything.
And if you look at the records of the interrogations in Andover, they all start sounding the same. They're all the same. There may be a little variation in there, but if you look at them compared to the accounts of the interrogations that were done by Samuel Parris in Salem Village, those are all different. Those are really amazing documents, an attempt to capture what people actually said. Whereas in Andover, they were just putting down the stuff that they could use to convict somebody because a confession was basically the gold standard. It is today. A confession is a gold standard, and it's really hard to not convict somebody, if at some point they confess to it.
There's a lot of research that's been done about the roles of false confessions, but clearly the court wanted those confessions cuz then they could convict people more easily. Saul Kassin [00:40:00] at Williams has done a lot of work on false confessions. He just produced a book called Duped, and I was reading some of it, and he said that even in the Salem witchcraft trials, nobody that confessed falsely was executed. So I wrote to him. I said, "oh, I heard you on Hidden Brain the other day, and your book is great, but I gotta tell you, "yes, one of the people who confessed was executed. It was Samuel Wardwell." And he wrote back, said, "that's great to know. I wish I'd known this before." And so he was very gracious about it.
But that's one of the myths that the people who confessed weren't executed, weren't tried. And anytime I bring up Samuel Wardwell, they go, "he recanted his." It doesn't matter if he recanted, because once somebody confesses, that just sticks to you. And he was indicted on that charge, and he was convicted and executed. Those are the kind of details I like.
Sarah Jack: You mentioned the bill of sale from the blacksmith. What other type of records still [00:41:00] exist?
Margo Burns: There are accounts by the jailers saying what the charges were. There's one from John Arnold, one of the jailers. He was in Boston, and it's really interesting because, in addition to the names of the people, he says when they came into his jail and when they left, and then he's charging for their diet, what it costs to feed them. And as a result, we can actually find the individual stories of people. If you're tracing an ancestor or you really wanna know about a particular person, with those documents you can find when they went into jail and when they came out. And you also get who is in the same jail at the same time. Having those different timelines going together. Those documents are really helpful. Who is in the jail at the same time? So those are fabulous.
Josh Hutchinson: Going into this you said earlier that you had already read the Salem Witchcraft Papers. Were you at all surprised by any of the records that you found? 
Margo Burns: [00:42:00] Actually, this one that I laughed so hard, I fell off the couch. 
Okay. It comes from one of the words in it that I didn't know, and I looked it up, and I fell apart. It's in the case of Elizabeth Howe, and the Cummings family, especially Mary, the wife, really didn't like her. Elizabeth Howe wanted to join the church to become a covenanted member in it, and Mary was just dead set against it. She would invoke something that had happened years before to one of her Perley relatives. There's a family named Perley where somebody accused Elizabeth Howe, and she just never forgot it, even though the accusation went nowhere. 
Fast forward. I don't know exactly when it was, but Elizabeth Howe's husband went blind. Before he went blind, so let's say six or seven years before Salem, he went to the neighbors', the Cummings', house and said he wanted to borrow a horse. And neither Mary or her husband, Isaac, he was the deacon, and neither of them were [00:43:00] home, but Isaac Junior was there. And here's this neighbor coming and asking, "can I borrow a horse?"
And as teenagers can be, he said, "we don't have a horse." And you've got Howe saying, "I'm hearing some whinnying in your barn. What do you mean you don't have a horse?" And wise guy that the guy was, he said, "we have a mare. You asked if we had a horse. We have a mare." So he says, "can I borrow your mare?" And the teenager goes, "it's Thursday. Mom and Dad usually take the mare to go visit a relative on Fridays. I'm gonna say, 'no.'" Okay. He goes away. 
So on Saturday morning, Mom and Dad have taken the mare on this trip, and Saturday morning they wake up, and the animal is in their yard, not in the pasture, not in the barn, and apparently had very sore gums. It was described as if ridden with a hot bridle. Okay. And they really were trying to figure out what was going on. And it was [00:44:00] Saturday morning, and the deacon had to do something elsewhere. And Mary asked her brother to come over and take a look at the animal, cause apparently he was pretty good with animals.
So he came over, and he's looking and Isaac Sr. said, "I got stuff to do. I leave this with you." And Isaac came back later that night, and his brother-in-law was still there and said, "I've tried everything. I looked to see if maybe it was from bot flies." You know what a bot is? It basically is this, is a little worm, will burrow into the gums and flesh of animals, especially horses and maybe sheep. And it's really gross. And so he said, "I looked to see if the inflamed gums had any evidence of bot flies. And he didn't."
And but then he tells Isaac that, "there's only one thing I can think of. You might not like it." And Isaac said, "what?" He said, "okay, go get a pipe with some tobacco." At this point, Isaac is going, [00:45:00] "I don't know." 
Now I have to tell you that this story comes from four accounts. Everything in here is from these sources, one from Isaac Sr., one from Isaac Jr., one from Mary, and one from her brother. He asks him to go and get some tobacco and a pipe. And this point the deacon is going, "I don't like where this is going." And his brother-in-law said, "oh no. This is legal for man or beast." And Isaac is going, "I don't know."
So they bring out the pipe, light the pipe. And then in the records it says, "and they put it under the fundament of the horse." And I'm going, "what the heck's a fundament?" It's the area underneath the tail, for lack of a better word. And they put this lit pipe underneath the tail, in front of the fundament of the horse.
And blue flames shot out of the back of this poor animal and singed the fur. I was just like, "okay." And apparently they did it two or three times. I can't quite tell from the descriptions, but they did it at least twice. [00:46:00] And then Isaac said, "you know what?" It was catching the hay on fire. They were doing it inside. They were doing it inside, and it was catching the hay on fire. Finally, Isaac said, cut" it out. No, no more. I need the barn more than I need this animal. That's enough." 
Okay, next morning is Sunday morning, and people are all on their way to the meeting house. And one of the neighbors is passing by and hears this story about this poor animal that was still sick, and he goes in to look at the mare, and they're talking about it, and the neighbor said, " maybe it's bewitched." Therein always lies the tale. He said, "but we can figure it out, if we cut off a piece of the ear and burn it." 
Now, this was sympathetic magic that if a witch had somehow bewitched somebody, there would be this invisible effluvia. If you listen to Thomas Brattle's account of it, this invisible effluvia would emanate from their eyes and go into the person or the animal. And if you could [00:47:00] somehow get some of that effluvia, and you could hurt it, you could hurt the witch.
So when we think about the witch cake in Salem, it had the girls' urine. Clearly some of this effluvia could have been in the urine. You also sometimes hear about witch bottles that have hair. It's easier on people to take urine and hair or fingernails, but with animals, they would say, oh, let's cut off the ear. And the idea is if you could hurt it. In this case for the witch cake, the dog biting it, or in this case with an ear, you could set fire to it. It would hurt the witch, and the witch was supposed to come and try and stop this, because they were in pain. That's how it was supposed to work. 
So this neighbor is talking to Deacon Cummings about doing this with the ear of the mare, and the deacon, being a deacon, and saying, " it's Sunday, and I don't know about this. This is a little iffy, but if you wanna come back tomorrow, you know you can try it." Right then, the poor animal has been very sick and falls over, [00:48:00] almost on top of them. If they hadn't gotten out the door, this animal would've crushed them. Big horse. Oh, excuse me, mare. And the animal was dead.
Okay, so I'm going okay, "this is interesting." I am still laughing about the fundament stuff, but then I started wondering why was this tale so important that four people, four people would tell the story? And why was this being used as evidence against Elizabeth Howe? Her husband is the only one who appears in it. Why was this being used about against her? And I kept reading 'em and reading 'em, and suddenly I found something in Mary's account. Apparently, when they got to church that day, when they got to the meeting house, word had gotten around and Elizabeth Howe had said something, a really smart remark. She said, "well, of course this happened when you feed an animal brimstone and other combustible things." And I'm thinking, "why would she even say that? Why?" It turns out that to make laxatives, they [00:49:00] were using things like that, oil and brimstone, sulfur, things like that to try and get the stuff going through the animal. It turns out horses can't vomit. That's what colic is. Everything has to go in one direction. So they would try and give the animal a laxative, and it comes out the other end. It's flammable. So she was making this smart remark that of course this happened. What happens when you feed your animal combustibles?
And I think that smart remark and Mary Cummings' existing animosity against Elizabeth Howe combined, so that story of the men in her family being idiots turned into this woman is responsible for what happened. But that particular one about Elizabeth Howe, that sticks with me, Three Stooges meet Joan of Arc, so that's the story that just always gets me.
Josh Hutchinson: That caught my eye, because the Cummings are ancestors of mine and Elizabeth Jackson Howe is [00:50:00] an aunt by marriage. I always thought it was just a really gassy horse and or mare.
Margo Burns: The other part is that in this, the accusations that she had afflicted one of the Perley daughters earlier, it's interesting, because they'd brought in two ministers, Phillips and Payson. And they came over from Rowley to investigate, and they concluded that it was the younger brother egging her on to say, "ooh, Goody Howe is afflicting me."
So they actually got Phillips and Payson to testify on Elizabeth Howe's behalf to say, "no, this really didn't happen. We were there, we made this decision." So to get two really good ministers to show up and testify on her behalf and then that was ignored, that was pretty amazing. And to make it worse, this is something people don't know, Reverend Phillips was at Harvard the same time as William Stoughton, and Reverend Payson was also from Dorchester, where Stoughton [00:51:00] grew up and lived. So they were known people to him. And then they still just ignored it, so that there's a little complication in there.
Josh Hutchinson: For more tales from Margo Burns, tune in to the exciting conclusion next week. Now we go to our own Sarah Jack for another edition of End Witch Hunts News.
Sarah Jack: Here is Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Legislation News. The Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project is an organized effort of diverse collaborators working for a state exoneration of the 17th century accused and hanged witches of the Connecticut Colony. Many advocates have come together, along with State Representative Jane Garibay and Senator Saud Anwar to support proposed exoneration legislation. The 2023 winter session of the Connecticut General Assembly includes the bill [00:52:00] proposals of two exoneration resolutions for innocents accused and tried for witchcraft crimes during the years of 1647 to 1697. Senate Joint Resolution proposed by Senator Saud Anwar, SJ Number 5, "Exonerating the Women and Men Convicted for Witchcraft in Colonial Connecticut" and House Joint Resolution in the General Assembly, proposed by representative Jane Gariaby, HJ Number 21, "Resolution Recognizing the Unfair Treatment of Individuals Accused of Witchcraft During the 17th Century." These proposals could bring a public hearing shortly. 
This resolution will be an example to others working to recognize and address historic wrongs. Connecticut is taking a stand against injustice. Connecticut is taking a stand against misogyny. Connecticut is also taking a stand against witch-hunting, which will resonate in parts of the world where witchcraft accusations continue to lead to violence today. By acknowledging the mistakes of the past, we educate the public that similar [00:53:00] actions are not acceptable today. The Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project strongly urges the General assembly to pass this legislation without delay. 
Our project is offering several ways for you to plug in and participate or learn about the exoneration and history. Please download our robust lineup of episodes featuring Witch Trial Descendants, education about hanged witch Alice Young and other victims, and Connecticut Colony's Governor John Winthrop, Jr.'s positive influence against convicting witches. You can go to our project website for an informative and easy to understand fact sheet of the Connecticut Colony witch trial victims, places, and dates.
You can follow along by joining our Discord community or Facebook groups. Please keep your eye on the social media accounts of state Representative Garibay and Senator Anwar for live events and local opportunities to learn more about what's happening and show support for the bills. Links to all these informative opportunities are listed in the episode description. 
Use your social power to help Alice Young, America's first executed witch, finally be [00:54:00] acknowledged. Support the descendants by acknowledging and sharing their ancestor's stories. Remember the victims in modern day facing the same unfair and dangerous situations. Please use all your communication channels to be an intervener and stand with them. The world must stop hunting witches. Please follow our project on social media @CTwitchhunt and visit our website at
The Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project is a project of End Witch Hunts Movement. End Witch Hunts is a nonprofit organization founded to educate about witch trial history and advocate for alleged witches. Please support us with your donations or purchases of educational witch trial books and merchandise. Shop our merch at or, and shop our books at 
We want you as a super listener. You can support Thou Shalt Not Suffer podcast production by super [00:55:00] listening with your monthly monetary support. See episode description for links to these support opportunities. We thank you for standing with us and helping us create a world that is safe from witchcraft accusations.
Josh Hutchinson: Thank you Sarah for enlightening us.
Sarah Jack: You're welcome.
Josh Hutchinson: And thank you for listening to Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast.
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Josh Hutchinson: Have a great today and a beautiful tomorrow.
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