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Lessons from my Family Witchcraft Scandal

I write about witches. In the 1600s I would probably have been hanged.

About twenty-five years ago, I recall visiting my adoptive mother on Cape Cod, 60 miles south of Salem, where she was working on a genealogy. She used to travel around New England, examining grave markers and digging through courthouse records. Much of her work seemed pointless to me: She wanted to prove that she was descended from the colonists who came from England on the Mayflower. Eventually, she published a very poorly circulated book on the topic.

However, what caught my interest on that visit was a note she was writing about a young woman who was hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.

When I asked questions, she was strangely evasive.

My mother is not with us any longer, but I just found a copy of her book and searched it for that note about the family witch. Guess what? It isn’t in the final version. My mother really did edit her out.

Not only that, but she had another ancestor who was centrally involved. He was one of the judges who condemned thirty people, nineteen of whom were executed by hanging. Waitstill Winthrop was the grandson of John Winthrop, founding governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and according to Wikipedia, “one of the magistrates of the Court of Oyer and Terminer that heard the Salem witch trials.” Oh my God. My mother was descended from one of the judges!

She omitted that juicy fact, too.

Wait’s brother-in-law, Thomas Brattle, served as an observer and commentator during the witch trials, so blood was on both their hands, but later on, Brattle penned a widely circulated letter that helped end the madness. He was careful, however, to criticize the types of evidence admitted, not the magistrates themselves, perhaps out of deference to his brother-in-law’s central role.

Two relatives acting as judge and observer and one relative condemned before them? Talk about a family scandal... And yet no mention of it in the book.

Which raises an oddly current question: Why do we keep covering up parts of the past we find uncomfortable? That is what motivates legislators who are working to prevent mention of slavery in school curriculums. There is also a new rash of laws forbidding discussion of LGBTQ+ people. Next fall, a strangely whitewashed version of our nation and its history will be all our students may see.

Isn’t it ironic that those who most loudly declare themselves victims of witch hunts don’t want the stories of any real victims told? Nobody’s hanging rich white men. And I notice that our ex-president, the one who complains so loudly about being the victim of a witch hunt, has to date dodged all consequences for his crimes—while his victims, by and large, go uncompensated.

The Witch Trials were a long time ago. We’re better than that now. Surely no one could die today because of the delusional madness of a crowd...

And yet that’s precisely what happened in our nation’s capital on January 6th, 2021. Delusional thinking is alive and well, 329 years after the Salem Witch Trials. If we actually want to be smarter than that, we need to stop rewriting history. It’s the uncomfortable parts that have any real value in them after all.

I have a modest proposal: Let’s outlaw comfortable history, and have students devote their attention to events like the Salem Witch Trials, the long and sordid history of slavery, the eradication of native populations, and the persecution of LGBTQ+ people so that we can rise up from the ashes of history and become the nation we always want and pretend to be.

I can’t go back and rescue my mother’s edits, but we as a nation can stop the practice of editing out the important stuff just to save some of us from feeling a wee bit uncomfortable. Learning and growing are rarely comfortable things.

Let’s embrace the uncomfortable when schools open up this fall.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure now available at Amazon.

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