Salem: Which was witch

TheWitches

See stacyschiff.com

As we have seen, especially in recent days, fear makes people do crazy, horrific things.

It’s the same old crap we dealt with three centuries ago. The people of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 were nothing if not scared. They lived in a new, untamed land under constant threat of Native American attack and abduction. Their Puritan beliefs had them either righteously lording it over others or falling miserably short despite their best efforts and greatest sacrifices.

The notion that there were witches among them — women (mostly) who had signed a pact with the devil and were torturing people like 12-year-old Ann Putnam — gave all that free-floating fear a place to land.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff helps us see and feel this brief but devastating chapter of American history in The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown and Company, 2015). In particular, she helps us see the day-to-day realities that allowed it to unfold.

My interest in the Salem Witch Trials increased a few years ago when I discovered a genealogical connection to some key players. Deacon Edward Putnam is my seventh great-grandfather, and he was among the accusers whose testimonies sent several innocent people to their deaths. His older brother, Thomas Putnam, appears to have been a ringleader, and Thomas’s daughter Ann was one of the young girls whose bizarre behavior set the whole mess in motion.

This was a rare moment in history in that females, and young ones at that, were calling the shots. Betty Parris, daughter of the Reverend Parris, and her cousin Abigail Williams began to have convulsive, screaming fits. Soon Ann Putnam and other girls showed similar symptoms. A doctor said the girls were bewitched, and the girls began to name a series of local women as their tormentors, also claiming to see ghosts, spectral versions of the living, and the devil.

It was a reality show-worthy spectacle, by all accounts. Then, as now, nobody does drama like a girl on the threshold of womanhood. Then, as now, people at the bottom of the heap are apt to misuse power when they suddenly find it in their hands. If one of these young ladies accused you of witchcraft, you were as good as convicted. The only defense against an accusation of witchcraft was a good offense — shifting the accusation onto someone else.

Schiff notes that young Ann Putnam predicted future events and recalled others that predated her birth. And without question, Thomas Putnam had suffered many losses at that point in his life — inheritance, land, and children. It’s not hard to believe he was motivated to use the force of the law to settle some scores. However, as Schiff says, “Putnam had a much-loved, perceptive, desperately convulsing twelve-year-old at home. He was soon to have a deranged wife as well. It is difficult to believe he had a long-range strategy at the start.”

Thomas and his wife both died in 1699, leaving Ann to raise her younger siblings. At age 27, Ann, seeking full church membership, apologized to the Salem village congregation for her significant role in the events of 1692. Out of the 19 who had been put to death, she had testified against all but two. It was a “devil made me do it” apology, but it was more than any of the other accusers offered. She died a decade later.

If you’re looking for the Cliff’s Notes version of the Salem witch trials, or easy answers, you won’t find them in this dense, detailed work. You will, however, find the humanity behind this surreal chapter of America’s story.

Mismatched sand dollars

198414763_32ccdcb344_bIt’s the task adult children dread: Sorting through the detritus of a parent’s life, however well-lived, while also sorting through grief.

My mother loved her independent apartment in a Southwest Florida retirement community. She had a blast furnishing it 10 years ago, and she got to stay there until she died a couple of days after Christmas (see obit). She’d moved there on her own initiative and resisted being hustled into assisted living. Mom had already pared down quite a bit before moving into her apartment, but when you’re 90, you’ve still got plenty of stuff.

In one drawer was an abundance of earrings, many of which I could not remember her wearing. They were all organized — worn and put carefully back in place. Except for one pair of gold sand dollar post earrings. One had been bent, possibly stepped on. They were both little gold(ish) sand dollars, but they didn’t match. Their hues and patterns were different enough for me to notice, but similar enough for Mom’s eyesight. How similar are any two sand dollars on the beach, anyway?

I poked around for the other sand dollar earrings, but did not find them. That’s how it is. We accumulate experiences, emotions, relationships, scars and stuff. Not all of it matches and some of it’s a little bent out of shape, but it’s ours. We hope that what we don’t take with us will benefit someone somehow, even just to leave a smile.

The sand dollar earrings went into the “keep” box. Life doesn’t match up. Wear it and rock it anyway.

Photo credit: tashland via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

What was, and what’s left

Indianapolis Star photo by Greg Griffo

Indianapolis Star photo by Greg Griffo

This is the Indianapolis Star building, which until a few weeks ago stood at 307 N. Pennsylvania St. The newspaper called it home for some 100 years before moving to what used to be a department store at Circle Centre mall downtown. For a relative snippet of time, I called it home, too.

My dad, Tom Crowe, worked there from 1960 to 1990, as an ad salesman, advertising director, and finally as vice president and general manager. Long before Take Our Daughters to Work Day was a thing, Dad was taking me with him to “the plant” with the rich, sharp smell of newsprint and ink and the inky footprints in the first-floor hallway. I peered over the desks of God knows how many poor souls trying to get their work done as I followed Dad around the building. He almost always whistled. The place reminded me of a Chutes and Ladders game, with ramps, steps, and corridors going off every which way. That’s what happens when you morph two or three old buildings into one.

The mailroom was the best, because you could watch and hear the presses running. The stories the people on the second floor had written — wrapped around the ads the people on the third floor had sold — were all coming out on those big sheets of paper rattling through the machinery. The finished, folded papers that came out on the conveyor belt would then go into homes all over the city. People read the paper. They talked about what was in it. Printed words mattered.

Many drawings and homework assignments were completed at the small conference table in the office Dad moved into after being promoted to general manager. It was off the New York Street entrance — just out of the frame in this photo. There were no windows, and while the daylight addict in me hated that, I never felt anxious or claustrophobic in there. Decades later, during an energy healing session, I was asked to picture myself in a place where I felt absolutely safe and at home. I went not to a beach, shady grove, or cozy fireside, but to Dad’s office, puzzling through social studies or perhaps just reading the comics in that day’s paper while he worked.

We were a large, often dysfunctional extended family. Charlie Simmons, one of Dad’s coworkers in the advertising department, sat with Mom and me through several of Dad’s heart surgeries. Other employees confided in Dad about their battles with depression or alcoholism, or their confusion over decisions their own children had made. We went to one another’s weddings and funerals, watched the fireworks together at the Fourth Estate employee park every Fourth of July, and knew at least something about what was going on in one another’s lives.

When I went to work in the business office during the summer as a college student, Don Bates in personnel — a sideline photographer who had taken my baby pictures — took the photo for my ID badge. “No bearskin rug this time,” he said, grinning as he clicked the shutter.

I could not have asked for a more educational, and fun, introduction to the working world. Wednesdays in the cashiers’ office were hectic, as all the circulation district managers brought in their checks, cash, and money orders. Frazzled after totaling everything up and balancing on one such day, we got into a rubber band fight. Without even trying, I managed to loop one over a sprinkler head. About 15 years later, when I stopped by for a visit, I happened to look up and that same rubber band still hung there.

At the News during another break, I got to practice the copyediting and headline writing skills that would become a large part of my career. Bo Connor at the Star helped me get my first full-time journalism job at The Republic in Columbus, Ind.

Dad passed away in 1994, just four years after retiring. The first phone calls I received that day — after Mom, telling me the news — came from 307 N. Penn.

A few years later, the News closed down. Then the Star was sold to Gannett. Then came the move to Circle Centre and the sale of the building. Then came the demolition.

Nothing stays the same, and really, nothing should. Not all change is for the better, and often more change is needed because of it. If we are smart, we learn. Dad, who kept a brick from the old Detroit Times building in his office, would be the first to tell me it’s OK to let go of what was and make room for what will be.

What can we pull from the past and retrofit to work for us now? That’s a question we in print media are going to have to figure out. Most days, I think it comes down to caring about what we do and why, and caring for one another in the process. That’s probably a gross oversimplification, but it’s a place to start.

In the meantime, after we make our next deadline, I just may fire off another rubber band.