Our story today is as close to traveling through time and space as we can without a single mention of the Doctor. That’s because today we’re going to travel back in time to discuss the true story of Neil Armstrong as we saw in the movie First Man.

Resources

Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.

Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!

Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee

Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

It’s dark. Winona Ryder’s character, a girl by the name of Abigail Williams, wakes with a start. There’s a girl in the bed with her and with a little shake, Abigail wakes the girl.

Quietly, the two girls get out of bed and place pillows where they were just lying. They cover the pillows with blankets so if anyone were to peek in at them, they’d think the two girls were still in bed. Then, they sneak downstairs and out the side door.

It’s dark outside, but it’s also light. It’s the kind of lighting that makes you think perhaps this is very early in the morning. The camera cuts to another house and we see more girls sneaking out of their homes. Then, an overhead shot shows even more girls as they quietly make their way down the empty, dirt streets of the town. If you pause the movie you can see 12 girls at any one time on the screen.

Speaking of pausing, let’s pause the movie ourselves for a moment here. Surprisingly, the movie doesn’t give any sort of indication of time, date or location. I’m assuming this was meant to be early morning only because of the dark, blue light that we see. Sort of like how I’m assuming this is set in the 1600 or 1700s only because of the way the girls are dressed and the style of homes we see as they sneak out of town. As viewers, we’re left to guess at this, though, because the movie doesn’t give any sort of indication of a time or date.

So, before we continue further, let’s turn to history to date what we’re seeing here and give ourselves a geographical setting.

All this is happening in Salem, Massachusetts. Salem is located on the east coast of the United States. It’s about 15 miles, or 24 kilometers, to the north of Boston and about the same distance to the south of Gloucester, Massachusetts. If that name sounds familiar, that’s because the port of Gloucester is where the Andrea Gail was from—that’s the boat whose story we covered on episode 130 of Based on a True Story about the movie The Perfect Storm.

Our story today takes place a good deal earlier, though. The year is 1692. Salem has been in existence for 66 years and has quickly grown to being one of the most important seaports on the new continent. At this point, of course, the United States wasn’t a thing yet.

As such, Salem was an English colony. More specifically, it was one of the settlements in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Boston was considered another settlement in that same colony.

With that little bit of establishment of time and place, let’s go back to the movie’s storyline. The key plot point here in the beginning shows a young Abigail Williams and a number of other girls from Salem sneaking out in the night to the nearby forest. Once there, a slave named Tituba leads them in some sort of ritual. Tituba is played by Charlayne Woodward, by the way.

In the movie, it’s not clear at first what the purpose is for this gathering of girls. They’re positioned in a circle around a pot that’s sitting on top of a fire. On the ground there’s some sort of symbol.

We start to get a sense of their purpose when Tituba asks them what they brought. The girls each seem to have some flowers in hand. One by one, the girls kiss the flowers in their hand and put them into the pot that’s boiling water over the fire. As they toss the flowers into the pot, the girls start naming names: Joseph Baker, Richard Wilkens, Daniel Hopkins, Daniel Poole, Adam Town, William Bridges, Jacob Poole…there’s a long list of names. Each girl names a different boy.

The ritual has gotten more intense now. Abigail hands Tituba a white sack of some sort. Tituba opens the sack to show a dead chicken inside. She takes the chicken and starts swinging it around, scattering the girls a bit.

As this is going on, the camera cuts to show a man walking through the trees. It’s hard to make out his face because of the low light, but as viewers we can assume he’s not part of the ritual the girls are doing.

Speaking of the ritual, Tituba has stopped spinning the chicken around and now she’s chanting in some foreign language. The closed captions for the movie even just call this, “Chanting in foreign language.”

This chant sounds almost like a song and the girls start swaying back and forth as Tituba chants. At this point is when we get confirmation of what you probably assumed was the purpose of this whole ritual.

One of the girls says, “Make a spell on Joseph Baker, Tituba! Make him love me!” Another calls out, “Make Daniel Poole my husband!”

Then, one of the girls asks Abigail who she wants. Without saying anything herself, another girl answers the question for Abigail. “She wants John Proctor. Get her John Proctor!”

At this point, Abigail takes things to the next level. She whispers something in Tituba’s ear. Tituba immediately begs Abigail not to do whatever she said. That’s a bad thing!

Abigail takes the dead chicken and swings it over her head, then brings it crashing to the ground. We can hear the sound of bones cracking as the chicken hits the rocks surrounding the fire on the ground. Abigail wipes the chicken’s blood on her mouth, presumably drinking some of it in the process. The girls all start screaming and laughing and even tearing off their clothes.

In the forest, we can see the man again. He’s close enough now to see the ritual the girls are performing. He’s also close enough to get a better look at the man’s face. And even though the movie doesn’t mention his name here, we can tell that this is Bruce Davison’s character, Reverend Samuel Parris.

Seeing the Reverend, the girls all scatter. Reverend Parris looks into the pot, but it’s impossible to see what’s inside because of the steam. He pulls out the ladle. A dead frog is on the end of it. Revolted, the Reverend drops the utensil back into the pot.

In the background, we can see there’s only two girls left by the fire. One is Abigail and another is the girl she left the house with earlier. The other girl is screaming something to the effect of, “I can’t move!”

In the next scene, we’re back at Reverend Parris’s home. It’s daytime now. Abigail is in the room with the girl who was screaming she couldn’t move. It’s here that we first hear her name: Betty. It’s also here that we find out something is wrong with Betty—she’s asleep and she won’t wake.

This whole opening sequence of the love spell ritual in the forest outside of Salem is…well, to be honest, we don’t know if it’s true or not. But, it’s probably not.

You see, there’s a lot about the  that we know, but there’s also so much about the events surrounding the story that we just don’t know. With that said, what we do know of the events leading up the Salem witch trials, the evidence suggests that it wasn’t because of a love spell ritual being conducted in secret in the forest like we see in the opening scenes of the movie.

At least, not really.

We haven’t come across him yet in the movie, but one of the real people who was there during the Salem witch trials was a man by the name of John Hale. He’s called Reverend John Hale in the movie and he’s played by Rob Campbell. The reason I mention John Hale now is because he wrote a book called A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft, and How Persons Guilty of that Crime may be Convicted: And the Means Used for their Discovery Discussed, both Negatively and Affirmatively, according to Scripture and Experience.

That’s a pretty descriptive title, hah! He gives himself the title of pastor, by the way. Not much of a difference in the eyes of a lot of people, but there is a slight one since a reverend usually refers to someone in the clergy while a pastor is a more loose term for the minister leading a church.

But, since all the ministers are called Reverends in the movie that’s what I’ll call John Hale throughout this episode, too.

Reverend Hale’s book was published in 1697, about five years after the events in the movie. I’ll include a link to where you can find the full text of the book over on the page for this episode at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.

This is a quote from Reverend Hale’s book where he gives us a clue as to what might’ve been at the start of it all:

I fear some young persons through a vain curiosity to know their future condition, have tampered with the Devils tools, so far that hereby one door was opened to Satan to play those pranks. I knew one of the Afflicted persons, who (as I was credibly informed) did try with an egg and a glass to find her future Husbands Calling; till there came up a Coffin, that is, a Spectre in likeness of a Coffin. And she was afterward followed with diabolical molestation to her death; and so dyed a single person. A just warning to others, to take heed of handling the Devils weapons, lest they get a wound thereby.

Another, I was called to pray with, being under sore fits and vexations of Satan. And upon examination I found she had tryed the same charm: and after her confession of it and manifestation of repentance for it, and our prayers to God for her, she was speedily released from those bonds of Satan. This iniquity though I take it not to be the Capital crime condemned, Exod. 22. Because such persons act ignorantly, not considering they hereby go to the Devil; yet borders very much upon it: and is too like Sauls going to the Witch at Endor, and Ahaziah sending to the God of Ekron to enquire.

Did you catch the mention of the charm?

Reverend Hale mentioned one of the girls tried to use an egg and a glass to try to find her future husband’s calling. Instead, she found a specter in the form of a coffin. Then, he says he discovered another of the girls tried the same charm.

So, what exactly does that mean?

What Reverend Hale is referring to is something known as a oomancy, or sometimes referred to as a Venus glass. It was thought to have been something like a crystal ball; something used to tell one’s future.

Remember that scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry is in Professor Trelawney’s divination class and he sees the tea leaves at the bottom of his cup reveal the Grim?

Well, that’s basically what this charm was. Except instead of tea leaves, they used an egg. The basic concept of this method of divination is to provide some sort of heat and drop an egg on to it. Then you read the shape the egg white takes when it starts to solidify. As Hale mentioned, the girls seemed to have been using this as a way of telling who their future husbands might be.

As the story goes, the two girls who started playing with this form of divination might’ve been Abigail Williams and Betty Parris. They got scared when the egg white revealed the shape of a coffin, presumably predicting some horrible fate.

So, it’s not likely they were performing a love spell ritual like we see in the movie. Instead, they were using eggs as a form of divination. Think about that the next time you crack an egg over your pan—the shape you see when the egg whites hit the heated pan was one of the ingredients that went into the Salem witch trials hysteria.

On the other side of that, Reverend Hale’s words also give us a peek into the mindset of Christianity of the day as he mentions the charm being the bonds of Satan. In fact, Reverend Hale’s book opens with a scripture verse from Isaiah 8:19-20:

When they say unto you, seek unto them that have Familiar Spirits and unto Wizzards, that peep, &c. To the Law and to the Testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.

The witch that Reverend Hale mentions is also from the Bible—the Witch of Endor. That comes from 1 Samuel 28:6-8 when the first king of Israel, Saul, sought out the council of a witch in the city of Endor. He asked the witch to, “divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee.”

As that story goes, King Saul asked for the spirit of his old mentor and prophet of God, Samuel. But things didn’t turn out so well when the spirit of Samuel prophesied the Israelites would be defeated by the Philistines the next day. And, so, you start to get an idea for why the Christians in Salem could see this as an example of cause and effect. Essentially, there are dire consequences for getting help from a witch.

There’s a long list of other Bible verses that speak to the evils of witchcraft:

  • Leviticus 19:26b, “You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.”
  • 1 Samuel 15:23a, “For rebellion is as the sin of divination…”
  • 1 Chronicles 10:13-14, “So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.”

There’s more, but the last one I’ll reference comes from Leviticus 20:27:

A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.

For the purpose of our story today, that sort of Biblical story is exactly why the Christian leaders in Salem would’ve forbade any sort of contact with witchcraft. Even something like using eggs for divination would’ve been seen as the work of the devil and the penalty…well, it’s not good.

Going back to the movie, after the ritual in the forest we find out that Betty Parris isn’t waking up. Reverend Parris tells Abigail to go get the doctor. So, she goes to get the doctor. Knocking on the door, a Mrs. Griggs answers. Abigail asks for the doctor because Betty won’t wake up.

She’s puzzled. She tells Abigail the doctor isn’t in—he’s at the Putnam house because Ruth Putnam won’t wake up, either. After this, the scene cuts to a girl in bed staring at the camera. Dr. Griggs waves his hand over her eyes, but they don’t move. They don’t blink.

Dr. Griggs goes on to inform the others in the room that he’s never seen anything like this. There’s no fever. No wound. And yet, she sleeps.

The others in the room are the girl’s parents, Thomas and Ann Putnam, as well as Reverend Parris. In the background we can see Abigail Williams is there, too, as is Mercy Lewis.

When Reverend Parris tells the doctor about his Betty being the same, the doctor is surprised. Ann jumps to an answer.

“It’s the devil, isn’t it?”

Dr. Griggs isn’t so quick to jump to that conclusion. He simply says this may be a sickness beyond his skill.

But then, in the next scene, we see Thomas Putnam walking and talking to Reverend Parris. Thomas, too, seems convinced this is witchcraft. Parris begs Thomas not to jump to witchcraft that quickly. Thomas insists that Reverend Parris admit it is witchcraft. Parris replies by saying he needs time to think.

That’s not really what happened. Of course, we’ll never know the exact conversations that took place or the thoughts, beliefs and fears of the people in Salem in 1692, but as best as we can tell what really happened was that Abigail Williams and Betty Parris started having uncontrollable fits.

He’s not in the movie at all, but another spiritual leader in the community, Reverend Deodat Lawson, wrote about what he saw. This is a quote from his book published in 1692 called, A brief and true narrative of some remarkable passages relating to sundry persons afflicted by witchcraft, in Salem Village: which happened from the nineteenth of March, to the fifth of April, 1692.

That was just the title of the book. Hah!

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that despite the title of Lawson’s book, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris started throwing fits in either January or February of 1692. A little later, Lawson recounted seeing one of those fits. Here’s a quote from Reverend Lawson’s experience:

On the Nineteenth day of March last I went to Salem Village, and lodged at Nathaniel Ingersols near to the Minister Mr. P. house, and presently after, I came into my Lodging. Capt. Walents Daughter Mary came to Lieut. Ingersols and spake to me, but, suddenly after as she stood by the door, was bitten, so that she cried out of her Wrist and looking on it with a Candle, we saw apparently the marks of Teeth both upper and lower set, on each side of her wrist.

In the beginning of the Evening, I went to give Mr. P. a visit. When I was there, his Kins-woman, Abigail Williams, (about 12 years of age,) had a grievous fit; she was at first hurryed with Violence to and fro in the room; (though Mrs. Ingersol, endeavoured to Hold her,) sometimes makeing as if she would fly, stretching up her arms as high as she could, and crying Whish, Whish, Whish! several times; Presently after she said there was Goodwife N. and said, Do you not see her? Why there she stands! And she said Goodwife N. offered her THE BOOK, but she was resolved she would not take it, saying Often, I wont, I wont, I wont, take it, I do not know what Book it is: I am sure it is none of Gods Book, it is the Divels Book, for ought I know. After that, she run to the Fire, and begun to throw Fire Briands, about the house; and run against the Back, as if she would run up Chimney, and, as they said, she had attempted to go into the Fire in other Fits.

The “Minister Mr. P.” mentioned is Reverend Parris and I’m assuming the Goodwife N. mentioned is Rebecca Nurse, but I couldn’t find anything to confirm that.

From Reverend Lawson’s account, we not only get a sense for what one of Abigail’s fits was like but we also get an idea for how she named others. That mention of Goodwife N., “Do you not see her? Why there she stands!”

One thing the movie got right, though, was that Abigail was living in the Parris house because her own parents had been killed. Reverend Parris was Abigail’s uncle, making the Reverend’s daughter, Elizabeth—or Betty in the movie—Abigail’s cousin.

When the real Dr. Griggs examined Abigail to try to figure out what was causing these fits, he couldn’t find anything wrong with her. Since these came after it was discovered she was using divination, it didn’t take long for the idea that this was witchcraft to enter the picture.

Abigail wasn’t the only one having these fits, either. Here’s another excerpt from Reverend Lawson’s book that explains how it spread. If you recall, the last excerpt mentions the 19th of March. This is from two days later on Monday the 21st.

The Number of the Afflicted Persons were about that time Ten, viz. Four Married Women, Mrs Pope, Mrs. Putman, Goodw. Bibber, and an Ancient Woman, named Goodall, three Maids, Mary Walcut, Mercy Lewes, at Thomas Putman’s, and a Maid at Dr. Griggs’s, there were three Girls from 9 to 12 Years of Age, each of them, or thereabouts, viz. Elizabeth Parris, Abigail William and Ann Putman; these were most of them at Examination, and did vehemently accuse her in the Assembly of afflicting them, by Biting, Pinching, Strangling, &c.

You’ll notice the mention of Mrs. Putnam being afflicted. That’s not something we see in the movie.

Speaking of which, going back to the movie, we quickly find out one of the key drivers for Winona Ryder’s version of Abigail Williams. That happens when we see Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, John Proctor. He’s called into town to attend a town meeting in which Reverend Parris mentions he’s called for Reverend John Hale from Beverly.

As a quick side note, the town of Beverly is only about 2.5 miles, or about 4 kilometers, to the north of Salem.

According to the movie, Abigail Williams used to work for John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth. The movie goes even further to say that Abigail and John had an affair and it was this affair that was the ultimate reason why Elizabeth Proctor fired Abigail and forced her to leave their house.

In fact, that’s a very major plot point in the movie that runs through the entire movie.

And it’s one that’s entirely made up.

Although John and Elizabeth Proctor were real people, there’s no evidence to suggest John Proctor had an affair with Abigail Williams. And that brings up something else the movie changed to make this affair much more plausible: Their ages.

Even though I don’t know for certain the exact dates for when they shot the movie, we know Winona Ryder was born in 1971 and the movie was released in 1996—25 years later. So, Winona Ryder would’ve been in her 20s when she played the part of Abigail Williams.

On the other side of the affair we see in the movie is John Proctor. He’s played by Daniel Day-Lewis who was in his mid-40s during the shooting of the movie. That makes it an affair between a 20-something Winona Ryder’s Abigail Williams and a 40s-something Daniel Day Lewis’s John Proctor.

In truth, Abigail Williams wasn’t quite 12 years old and John Proctor was almost 60 years old when this all happened.

You might have caught that mention of Abigail’s age in Reverend Lawson’s description of her fit. He said Abigail was about 12 years old. In fact, she was 11. Abigail was born on July 12th, 1680 and since the fit Reverend Lawson mentioned happened on March 19th, 1692, that means Abigail would’ve been 11 years, 8 months and 7 days old.

And since John Proctor was born on March 30th, 1632, that would make him 59 years, 11 months and 20 days old on the account from Reverend Lawson on March 19th, 1692.

While the age difference alone isn’t proof that there wasn’t an affair between John and Abigail, as I mentioned a moment ago, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to suggest the two had an affair. Since the romance between John and Abigail is a major part of the movie’s storyline, that can give you an idea for how accurate the rest of the movie is.

In fact, many historians believe the first time Abigail even met John was at the trials. If that’s true, that would mean Abigail accused him of witchcraft without even knowing who he was.

Speaking of accusations, if we head back to the movie’s timeline, the accusations begin.

We see it happen when Reverend Hale arrives in town. After Reverend Parris tells Hale about the dancing he saw in the forest—Hale is shocked to find they allow dancing. But, don’t worry, Parris tells Hale they don’t allow dancing.

‘Twas secret.

As a little side note, it is true that early American Puritans were against dancing. Although, some historians might be quick to point out that they didn’t believe it to be so evil like the movie seems to imply. They merely believed it was suggestive and they were against anything of a sexual theme. So, if they did dance, it’d be at an arm’s length.

In the movie, though, as Reverend Hale is trying to get to the bottom of what went on in the forest, he quickly starts to suspect something evil as Parris tells him about the boiling pot.

Hale gathers up all the girls and tries to get them to tell him what was going on as they danced around the fire in the forest. Were they casting spells? Did they drink from the pot?

One of the girls points at Winona Ryder’s version of Abigail Williams, who quickly denies anything. Instead, she passes the blame and says it was all Tituba’s idea. The scene cuts to Tituba’s place and the men grab her to interrogate. Abigail is there and continues to point fingers at Tituba.

“She did this! She made me drink blood!”

Reverend Parris whips Tituba as they try to get the truth out of her. When they say they’ll hang her, Tituba confesses to being a witch.

As viewers, it’s clear the choice Tituba had wasn’t much of a choice at all. Confess to being a witch or we’ll hang you. What would you do in that situation?

And while the movie is highly dramatized in how this all went down, there are some kernels of truth in there.

It is true that a slave named Tituba was one of the first accused. The charge against her was afflicting four girls: Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard.

Sort of like we heard from Reverend Lawson’s account, the girls were throwing fits and claiming they were being pinched, bitten or strangled by invisible spirits. They claimed Tituba was one of those spirits. Tituba, in turn, blamed two other women in town: Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

Like the movie shows, Sarah Good was a homeless woman who had earned a bad reputation in town for begging for food and shelter from people. So, no one thought twice when she was accused of witchcraft. It made sense to them. Sarah Osborne also had a poor reputation in town. It wasn’t for being homeless, but instead Sarah Osborne’s bad reputation came from her marrying one of her servants.

Oh, and she also didn’t go to church as much as people thought she should.

As for Tituba, well, she was a South American Indian and Reverend Parris’s slave. Race and cultural differences certainly played a part in her accusation.

Ultimately, no one was surprised when these three were accused of witchcraft. No one defended them. They were different. As a result, it was Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne that were the first three people arrested in what we now know as the Salem witch trials.

Back in the movie, we see there are more accused. A court is set up to get to the bottom of this. According to the movie, there are three judges, Judge Danforth, Judge Hathorne and Judge Sewall.

There’s a montage of sorts as we see Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne arrested. Soon after is someone named Mary Sibber. She was upset that someone’s goat was in her garden and because she yelled, “Devil take you all!” apparently that was enough reason for her to get locked up.

Then there’s another woman and her daughter. The movie doesn’t give us their name, we just see them as they happen to be nearby when a cart passes and breaks down. They must be witches, so they’re accused.

Mr. Jacobs is next. We see a scene where Thomas Putnam is arguing with Jacob Proctor over the borders of their land, which butts up against each other. As Thomas is leaving, he sees Mr. Jacobs. In the next scene, Mr. Jacobs is accused in front of the court.

Ruth Parris, Thomas’s daughter, claims that Mr. Jacobs snuck through her window. The elderly Mr. Jacobs laughs at this. Raising the two sticks in his hand, he points out to the three judges that he has to walk with two sticks—how am I supposed to get through a window?

Judge Hathorne insists that Mr. Jacobs could’ve sent his spirit through the window!

Mr. Jacobs is befuddled. How do you do that?

As Mr. Jacobs is talking, Ruth Parris gets close to one of the judges and whispers something to him. She claims she sees a black man on Mr. Jacobs’s shoulder, whispering to him. Almost immediately, the other girls—Abigail Williams, and so on—start saying the same thing. They see the same spirit on Mr. Jacobs’s shoulder.

Mr. Jacobs is sentenced to be hanged.

What we see in the movie here with this court and the three judges is quite disturbing. Do the judges already have an idea that these accused are all guilty? We see it almost right away when Judge Hathorne suggests that Mr. Jacobs’s spirit might’ve gone through Ruth Parris’s window.

The only one the movie seems to imply might be concerned over what’s going on is Judge Sewall. At one point he mentions to Judge Danforth that he didn’t expect all their evidence of witchery to come from children. Danforth tells Sewall to remember the Gospel, “From the mouths of babes shall come the truth.”

It’s almost as if the judges are trying to prove the accusations are correct.

They’re hardly impartial.

All of that is…well, it’s a movie, so it’s never going to be entirely true. But, there are some key elements in there that the movie got right.

Although it’s interesting that Danforth in the movie quotes, “From the mouths of babes shall come the truth,” and implies it comes from the Gospels. That would be the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament and while the “mouths of babes” saying is a common one, that direct quote isn’t from the Gospels.

The closest scripture from the four Gospels is Matthew 21:16 which says, “And they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”

That scripture, of course, implies that the saying existed before Jesus said it. And it did. For example, while the Gospels are in the New Testament, in the Old Testament there’s another scripture, Psalms 8:2, which says, “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.”

But, Judge Danforth’s apparent misquoting of scripture aside, the movie is correct in showing him there. Same with Judge Hathorne, whose first name was John. He was also there. So was Samuel Sewall.

The movie implies those were the only three judges the entire time: Danforth, Sewall and Hathorne.

And that is not correct; it’s a simplification.

The truth is a little more complex, and it also gives us another glimpse into the overall historical accuracy of the movie.

The real Thomas Danforth came to the New World in 1634 from England to escape persecution of his Puritan beliefs. He was known as very conservative, and by the time 1692 rolled around, he was the acting governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He was acting because, in 1688, there was what we now know as the Glorious Revolution.

Basically, a bunch of Puritan leaders revolted against King James II and established a governor over a new land they called the Dominion of New England. After the Glorious Revolution, the Dominion of New England collapsed, and the Province of Massachusetts Bay was re-established with Thomas Danforth as the governor.

So, it was Thomas Danforth who was essentially the man in charge when all this started happening in Salem in the early months of 1692. So, the movie got that right. But the movie shows Thomas Danforth there in Salem for the entire duration—and that is not right.

Danforth’s involvement in the trials ended in May of 1692, so he was only there for a few months. The others presiding over the trials for the beginning months of 1692 alongside Thomas Danforth were John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, who is sometimes listed as a Sheriff, and Bartholomew Gedney.

The last two of those weren’t even in the movie.

But then, all that changed in May. As I just mentioned, Danforth left. The reason for that had to do with the Glorious Rebellion of 1688 that I mentioned earlier. More specifically it had to do with Thomas Danforth not being a fan of King James II. So, it was only a matter of time before he was replaced.

That replacement arrived from England in May of 1692.

The new governor’s name was William Phips and when he arrived he set up a new court with some new people.

For the purposes of our story today, essentially Thomas Danforth was the only one that was replaced from the panel of judges. I’m sure it was no coincidence that Danforth was the one who was outspoken against King James II, either.

Replacing Danforth’s position as heading up the trials at Salem was a new chief magistrate, a man by the name of William Stoughton. He was the Lieutenant Governor beneath William Phips.

As you probably guessed, Stoughton wasn’t in the movie at all.

But then again, neither were most of the other judges that came with the change in leadership in May of 1692.

The three judges who were in the court alongside Thomas Danforth stayed on. That’d be Jonathan Corwin, Bartholomew Gedney and the only other one we see in the movie, John Hathorne.

And right now, you might be wondering…but wait a minute, what about Samuel Sewall? He was in the movie!

Yes, he was. But he wasn’t a part of the trials under Danforth. He joined in May of 1692, as did Nathanial Saltonstall, Peter Sergeant and Wait Still Winthrop.

Whew!

Okay, so basically the movie shows three judges. Danforth, Sewall and Hathorne. In reality, Danforth and Hathorne were there at the beginning of the trials alongside two other judges that weren’t in the movie. In May of 1692, Hathorne and those two other judges stayed on while Danforth left. That’s also when Samuel Sewall and five others joined the court.

And that doesn’t even count some of the other little changes that happened. For example, how Nathaniel Saltonstall joined in May but resigned in June. Or others like Thomas Newton and Anthony Checkley who were the lawyers on the side of the Crown.

I can see why the movie simplified things, haha!

With all that said, in the movie we see Thomas Danforth and John Hathorne seem to be the primary drivers behind believing the girls while Samuel Sewall goes along with it—but isn’t so sure.

Again, this is an oversimplification.

You might think that just because the movie’s incorrect in showing Thomas Danforth being there the whole time that perhaps his replacement, William Stoughton, might be better.

But…that’s not necessarily true.

At least, not as far as the fate of those accused. For example, in June of 1692, Rebecca Nurse was one of the women accused of witchcraft. We see that in the movie. What we don’t see is that her trial ended with the jury declaring her not guilty.

It was Chief Magistrate William Stoughton who bowed to public outcry and requested the jury review the case again. This time, they found her guilty and on July 19th, 1692, Rebecca was sentenced to death.

As for John Hathorne, he’s portrayed in the movie as someone who seems to buy into the belief that they’re witches from the beginning. There’s one scene, in particular, when Robert Breuler’s version of Judge Hathorne is questioning Martha Corey.

He asks Martha if she’s a witch.

She says she’s not a witch.

Then she says she doesn’t even know what a witch is!

“If you don’t know what a witch is, how do you know you are not one?” Judge Hathorne is smug in his response.

While the overall idea that Judge Hathorne seemingly already had the accused’s guilt in mind like we see in the movie isn’t accurate, that particular exchange was one that really happened. It’s probably the most popular exchange for Judge Hathorne, although it’s not with Martha Corey like we see in the movie—it was with another accused, Bridget Bishop.

But, Bridget Bishop isn’t even in the movie, so maybe that’s why they changed it. Oh, and like a lot of the other things we’ve looked at so far, the movie’s version is simplified.

And we know that because we have the original transcripts. This comes from a book called Record of Salem Witchcraft, copied from the Original Documents Volume 1 by W. Elliot Woodward and published in 1864.

Of course, I’ll include a link to where you can read the entire book for free online on the page for this episode over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.

But, for the sake of this back-and-forth, I’ll save you the trouble of reading it. Unfortunately the transcript doesn’t really mention who is saying what, but hopefully you can figure out who is Judge Hathorne and who is Bridget Bishop just from what’s being said. For the most part it’s pretty clear, and it gives you a sense of what it must’ve been like in that courtroom with the afflicted girls seemingly being affected by Bridget.

The examination of Bridget Byshop at Salem Village 19. Apr. 1692

By John Hathorn & Jonath : Corwin esq.

As soon as she came near all fell into fits.

Bridget Byshop you are now brought beore Authority to give acco of what witchcrafts you are conversant in

I take all this people (turning her hea and eyes about) to witness that I am clear.

Hath this woman hurt you speating to ye afflicted.

Eliz Hubbard, Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams and Mercy Lewes affirmed that she had hurt them.

You are here accused by 4 or 5 for hurting them, what do you say to it?

I never saw these persons before, nor I never was in this place before.

Mary Walcot said that her brother Jonathan stroke her appearance and she saw that he had tore her coat in striking, and she heart it tare.

Upon some search in the Court a rent that seems to answer what was alledged was found.

They say you bewitch your first husband to death

If it please your worship I know nothing of it.

—She shake her head and the afflicted were tortured.

—The like again upon the motion of her head.

Sam: Braybook affirmed that she told him to day that she had been accounted a witch these-10-years, but she was no witch the Devil cannot hurt her

I am no witch

Why if you have not wrote in the book, yet tell me how far you have gone?

I have no familiarity with the devil.

How is it then, that your appearance doth hurt these?

I am innocent.

Why you seem to act witchcraft before us by the motion of your body which seems to have influence upon the afflicted.

I know nothing of it. I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is.

How do you know then that you are not a witch

I do not know what you say.

How can you know, you are no witch, and yet not know what a witch is.

I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it.

You may threaten, but you can do no more than you are permitted.

I am innocent of a witch

What do you say of those murders you are charged with?

I hope, I am not guilty of murder,

Then she turned up her eyes, and the eyes of the afflicted were turned up:

It may be you do not know, that any have confessed to day, who have been examined before you, that they are witches.

No. I know nothing of it.

John Hutchinson and John Lewis in open Court affirmed that they had told her.

Why look you, you are taken now in a flat lyre.

I did not hear them.

Note: Same: Gold faith that after this examination he asked Bridget Byshop if she were not troubled to see the afflicted persons so tormented, said Byshop answered no she was not troubled for them: Then he askt her whether she thought they were bewitch she said she could not tell what to think about them. Will Good and John Buxton junt was by and he supposeth they heard her also.

Mr Sam Parris being desired to take in wrighting the Examination of Bridget Bishop, hath delivered it as aforesaid. And upon hearing ye same and seeing what wee did then see together with the charge of the afflicted persons then present: Wee committed said Bridget Olliver.

— John Hathorne.

That’s just the first examination of Bridget Bishop. It continues with another round by John Hathorne and Jonathan Curren…and beyond. Again, if you haven’t yet then go check out the original transcripts. It’ll give you a good idea of what was being said and the back and forth.

And if you picture the scene sort of like we see in the movie, even though what’s being said is different you can also imagine the group of afflicted girls repeating what the accused does—like the transcript said when Bridget shakes her head, the afflicted “were tortured.”

As the movie comes to a close, we see the affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams come out in the open. Elizabeth Proctor is called to testify, but she doesn’t know John has already confessed to the affair.

So, she lies about it. She thinks she’s saving her husband. Instead, the opposite is true.

Of course, we already know that’s all made up—as I mentioned earlier, there’s no evidence of an affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

But the final sequence we see Winona Ryder’s version of Abigail Williams in is when she flees Salem. She steals money from her uncle and disappears. The movie implies she took a ship somewhere.

Then, back in Salem, John Proctor at first signs a confession, then he takes it back. He can’t bring himself to confess. The last scene we see is Daniel Day-Lewis’s version of John Proctor on the gallows alongside Mary Pat Gleason’s version of Martha Corey and Elizabeth Lawrence’s version of Rebecca Nurse.

It’s Rebecca who starts quoting the Lord’s prayer.

“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.”

Martha and John continue the prayer with Rebecca.

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”

The camera cuts to the crowd watching the hanging. Earlier when we saw people being hanged, the crowd was cheering and joyful at the deaths. This time, they’re not. They’re looking on in shock at the scene unfolding in front of them.

The prayer continues, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…”

The camera zooms in on John Proctor. At this point, we hear a noise. If you have the closed captions turned on then you’d see the movie tell us what that noise was: Neck snaps.

There are only two voices now.

John continues, his voice raising, “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory…”

Another noise.

John’s voice is alone now.

“…forever and ever…”

John’s face drops from the camera’s view. Another noise.

And just like most of this movie, there are parts of that that are true, parts of it that aren’t and some parts that we just don’t know.

Let’s start with Abigail Williams. She’s one of those “we just don’t know.” The reason for that is because everything we do know about all of this comes from the written records that have survived.

And after the trials, there simply are no written records that mention Abigail Williams. She seems to just disappear.

Did she steal money from her uncle and run away like the movie implies? Maybe. There are some stories that suggest she did exactly that. There are other stories that say she died just five years after the trials in 1697 at the age of 17.

In the end, we just don’t know…and we probably never will.

That brings us to the death of John Proctor. That is true, but it didn’t happen the way the movie shows. Probably the closest part the movie got right was that Abigail Williams accused John’s wife, Elizabeth. It was because John defended Elizabeth that led the accusations to turn to him, too.

One tidbit I thought was interesting the movie got wrong had to do with John’s confession. When we see Daniel Day-Lewsis’s version of John Proctor sign the confession, if you pause the movie you can see at the top the paper says: “Confession of John Proctor on this 14 day of November 1692.”

The real John Proctor was executed on August 19th, 1692. Unlike what we see in the movie, Martha Corey didn’t die alongside John that day. She was executed on September 22nd, 1692. Rebecca Nurse also wasn’t there that same day. She was executed before John and Martha on July 19th, 1692.

At the very end of the movie, we get some text on screen that tells us the Salem witch hunt ended after 19 executions. The reason it ended was because more and more accused people refused to save themselves by giving false confessions. Just like we see John Proctor refuse to do in the movie.

That number is true. There were over 200 people who were accused of witchcraft, but not everyone who was accused was arrested. About 150 of them were, though.

In the end a total 14 women and five men were found guilty and executed between February of 1692 and May of 1693.

Lest we forget, here are the names of the 19 people in the order of their execution:

  • Bridget Bishop, June 10th, 1692
  • Sarah Good, July 19th, 1692
  • Elizabeth Howe, July 19th, 1692
  • Susannah Martin, July 19th, 1692
  • Rebecca Nurse, July 19th, 1692
  • Sarah Wildes, July 19th, 1692
  • Reverend George Burroughs, August 19th, 1692
  • Martha Carrier, August 19th, 1692
  • John Willard, August 19th, 1692
  • George Jacobs, Sr., August 19th, 1692
  • John Proctor, August 19th, 1692
  • Alice Parker, September 22nd, 1692
  • Mary Parker, September 22nd, 1692
  • Ann Pudeator, September 22nd, 1692
  • Wilmot Redd, September 22nd, 1692
  • Margaret Scott, September 22nd, 1692
  • Samuel Wardwell, September 22nd, 1692
  • Martha Corey, September 22nd, 1692
  • Mary Easty, September 22nd, 1692

That number doesn’t include a 20th victim. That would be Giles Corey, who is often listed separately because the movie correctly showed was executed by pressing—or, being crushed to death by stones. Although his execution didn’t have to do with refusing to say someone’s name like the movie implies.

Instead, he was accused of witchcraft like his wife, Martha, was and Giles was the only one of the accused who refused to enter any sort of plea at all. He wouldn’t say he was guilty, and he wouldn’t say he was innocent. So, they tortured him by pressing because he refused to give a plea. That torture went on for three days before Giles died…just three days before his wife, Martha, would be executed by hanging.

That number also doesn’t include another four or five people who died while they were imprisoned during the trials, most likely due to illness or some other reason that happens when you’re imprisoned in 17th century Massachusetts.

The text at the end of the movie implies that trials ended because so many people refused to confess. While it is true that a lot of people refused to confess—after all, lying was a sin, too—the real driver behind the end of the witch trials was in September of 1692 when spectral evidence was declared inadmissible in court.

Since most of the evidence up until that point had been based on the dreams and visions of those who had made accusations, the remaining people in custody ended up being found not guilty. The hangings on September 22nd, 1692 were the final executions of the Salem witch trials.

In the last few months of the trials, there were a few more warrants for execution, but Governor William Phips stepped in and pardoned them. Others were found not guilty and eventually released. The trials officially ended in May of 1693 when the final prisoners were released, a little over a year since the first of the trials began in February of 1692.

In the centuries since, countless people have tried to figure out the cause for the trials. Some have suggested it was a fabrication by greedy landowners. Those who suggest this theory point to a feud between the Putnam family and the Proctor family that had been going on for a while before the witch trials. There were others in the community who had similar disagreements going on that caused accusations, but we saw a hint at this when Thomas Putnam tried to take over Mr. Jacobs’s land in the movie.

Others say it was a case of mass hysteria that started when Puritan beliefs collided with those in the community deemed to be outside the church and looked down upon.

Some of those at the heart of the trials apologized. Judge Samuel Sewall, for example, issued an apology on January 15th, 1697—the same day that Governor Stoughton declared a Day of Official Humiliation as the entire community prayed and fasted and asked God for forgiveness for what they’d done.

Five years later, the General Court in Massachusetts officially declared the trials were unlawful.

In an ironic twist, one of the girls who had thrown accusations around later claimed she had been taken over by the devil to do what she had done. 13 years after the trials ended, in 1706, Ann Putnam, Jr., apologized for her actions by saying:

I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ninety-two; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several people for grievous crimes, whereby their lives was taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time.

Five years later, in 1711, a bill was passed that officially restored the good names and rights of those who had been accused. Their heirs were also given £600 pounds for restitution. It’s really tough to convert currency like that, especially since the United States wasn’t even a thing then. But, as best as I can tell, that £600 pounds in 1711 would be roughly the same as $92,000.00 in today’s U.S. dollars.

Then, for hundreds of years, much of the world forgot about the Salem witch trials.

It wasn’t until Arthur Miller’s play that the movie was based on, also called The Crucible, was released in 1953 that the trials were once again given the spotlight of the world. Four years after The Crucible hit the stage, in 1957, the state of Massachusetts officially and formally apologized for the events that took place in 1692.

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on reddit
Reddit
Share on email
Email
Go behind the podcast

Stay updated

with the weekly newsletter

Get notified about what’s new and what’s upcoming for the podcast.

Latest episode