Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/01/2011

Salem Witches, Tiger Woods, and Sharia Law

Rebecca Nurse on Trial

Rebecca Nurse on Trial

The Salem, Massachusetts, Common is, like all other such public areas in the centers of New England towns, the land held in “common” for grazing cattle, practicing the local militia’s battle maneuvers, hanging criminals, burying the dead, and other civic activities. An interesting socialist phenomenon. Holding the land in common for utilitarian purposes. When public hangings went out of vogue, and the “well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” became the right of individual citizens to shoot each other, these socialist entities became “parks.” I used to walk twice around the Salem Common nearly every day for exercise.

While some New England town commons were used for public hangings, the Salem Common was not the site of the infamous Salem witch executions.

However, across from the Salem Common to the west is the Salem Witch Museum. It’s wonderfully incongruous that the museum is in the building of the former Salem East (or Second) Church. The witches of Salem have the last laugh on the Puritans who martyred them.  The (privately owned) museum’s chief attraction is a series of tableaus of Disney-like animated mechanical figures acting out the witch trials. Mostly kitsch.

Cotton Mather, a formidable Puritan cleric—minister of Boston’s Old North Church—author of over 400 books and pamphlets, was the spiritual leader of the anti-witchcraft forces in Massachusetts in 1692-93. Witch hangings were a well-established tradition. The first witch hanged in New England was Alice Young, in 1647—sixteen years before Mather was born.

Cotton Mather wrote “The wonders of the invisible world,” an account of the Salem Witch Trials. The trials are part of the American collective memory.

When I was young, I thought of the witchcraft hysteria as something that happened ages ago and would not be possible today. Now in old age (and my father being nearly a century old), I think 1692-93 is not that long ago. I have the same visceral response to the Witch Trials I do to Romans throwing prisoners to the lions, and to the McCarthy hearings. It’s impossible for me to conceive such atrocities, but they fascinate me in some way that proves only that my brain is more reptilian than I’d like to admit.

Cotton Mather reports that

more than One Twenty have Confessed, that they have Signed unto a Book, which the Devil show’d them. . . one would think. . . if after so many most Voluntary Harmonious Confessions, made by Intelligent Persons of all Ages. . . we must not Believe the main strokes wherein those Confessions all agree. . . wherein the Confessors do acknowledge. . . their being so Concerned [with bewitching our land]. If the Devils now can strike the minds of . . . Scores of Innocent People [that they] shall Unite, in Confessions of a Crime. . . it is a thing prodigious, beyond the Wonders of the former Ages, and it threatens . . . Dissolution upon the World. Now, by these Confessions ’tis Agreed, That the Devil has made a dreadful Knot of Witches in the Country. . . (1).

These confessions (against their neighbors) by “Intelligent Persons of all Ages” led to the hanging of nineteen people for witchcraft. Giles Corey was crushed to death with heavy stones, and five accused died in prison. Mather’s explanation sounds plausible enough: if twenty-one diverse people confess they’ve made a pact with the devil, implicating their neighbors in the pact is proof their neighbors are members of the “knot of witches.”

We live in an age of public confession: Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Ted Haggard, and now Arnold Schwarzenegger.

and so do witches

and so do witches

The powerful are not the only Americans who make public confession. Think James Frey and his million little pieces on Oprah. Or think the Jerry Springer Show. Public confession comes in two kinds—the first to curry public favor in spite of despicable behavior, and the second to implicate others.

Like their Puritan ancestors, the American people still seek out sin, seek to atone for the inevitable sin, and seek to make their neighbors confess, atone, and seek forgiveness and redemption. The talk show is one of the places that Americans publicly seek, display, and confront sin (2).

The Jerry Springer Show is perhaps the most witch-trial-like forum for public confession because the participants’ purpose is to bring down their lovers, spouses, and children by their own confessions. Americans obviously take great delight in watching this ritual of shaming (both self and others). The show debuted in 1991, and is under contract with NBC Universal through 2014.

Springer’s purpose is to provide a forum for participants to purge themselves of guilt without real repentance or hope for forgiveness. This is the purpose of both the shaming ritual and the public confession of famous people. Who, for example, is supposed to forgive Tiger Woods?

Lee Taft, who counsels institutions on apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation says apologies

are more than discursive social acts. . . they surpass simple social ritual. In recognizing . . . apology, we see the moral quality of the act. . .  it acknowledges the existence of right and wrong and confirms that a norm of right behavior has been broken. . . the person who apologizes also exposes himself to the consequences of his wrongful act (3).

The culture of public confession à la Tiger Woods, Oprah, and Springer has nothing to do with apology. The person making the so-called confession is absolved simply by the confession, not by any acceptance of “the consequences of his wrongful act.” Springer’s show disgusts us

for exactly the reason that we might delight: it represents ‘‘shaming-rituals lite.’’ People are shamed, but everyone goes home pretty much intact. This was not the case with the original Puritans. Religious deviants. . .and the sexually aberrant might be executed. . .like Thomas Granger, the first person to be executed in the new colonies who. . . was ‘‘detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, with a mare, a cow, two goats. . .’’ (4).

The most likely gallows hill

The most likely gallows hill

In 1999 Muslim cleric Sheik Hisham Kabbani told the State Department that “the ideology of extremism has been spread to 80 percent of the American Muslim population” (5). On May 23, Representative Leo Berman (R-Tyler) introduced for the third time in the Texas legislature his law “protecting” Texas from Sharia law.

When Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) pressed him on the meaning of and current use of Sharia law in the US, he responded that

I can’t tell you that, but the use of, but they’re being used only in the city of Dearborn, Michigan, where a large concentration of Middle Easterners are found and judges are using, or allowing to be used, decisions made under Sharia law (6).

Sheik Hisham Kabbani’s “confession” most likely was not an attempt to save himself from hanging. But his statement apparently sounds as logical to Representative Berman as Cotton Mather’s did to his Puritan followers. If one witch implicates another, the other must be part of the “dreadful knot of witches.”
(1) Mather, Cotton. “The wonders of the invisible world.” Wonders of Invisible World Series: Essential Documents, Compiled by Norman P. Desmarais and James H. McGovern. New York: Great Neck Publishing, 2009 (12).
(2) Jones, Jill. “Hags and Whores: American Sin and Shaming from Salem to Springer.” The Journal of American Culture 32.2 (June 2009), 146-154.
(3) Taft, Lee. “Apology subverted: the commodification of apology.” Yale Law Journal 109.5 (March 2000): 1135.
(4) Jones, ibid.
(5) Slajda, Rachel “The War On Sharia Started Long Before You Ever Heard ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.”  TPMMuckraker.  Talking Points Media. (September 23, 2010). Web. 20 April 2011.
(6) Reilly, Ryan J. “Sharia Hysteria!” TFN Insider. Texas Freedom Network (April 6, 2011). Web. 1 June 2011.


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