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A Salem Witch Trials exhibit is coming to the New-York Historical Society

See handwritten letters, petitions of innocence from the accused and other rare documents.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Handwritten letters, petitions of innocence from the accused and other rare documents will bring to life the 300-year-old story of the Salem Witch Trials at the New-York Historical Society this fall. 

Opening on Friday, October 7, “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming” will shine a light on our country’s past, but it also holds important lessons for today about injustice and what role we play in it.

A book titled "The Tryals of Several Witches."
Photograph: Courtesy of New-York Historical Society. | Salem’s legal proceedings came to an abrupt halt in October 1692 as the mounting death toll alongside widespread chaos provoked a prevailing sense that the trials had gone too far.

The history

More than 200 residents of Salem, Massachusetts, were accused of witchcraft in 1692-93. The trials led to the executions of 20 people, most of them women, and the deaths in prison of at least five more. The last of the accused, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., wasn't officially cleared of charges until July 2022.

The new exhibit reexamines this moment in American history through a contemporary viewpoint, exploring how mass hysteria can lead to fatal injustice.

“Countless scholars and authors from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller have kept alive the memory and meanings of the Salem witch trials—but this critical turning point in American history has never before been seen as it is in The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical Society, said in a press release. 

"Shine" from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America
Photograph: By Frances F. Denny / Courtesy of New-York Historical Society | "Shine" from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America

What to expect

You’ll see historical artifacts, rare documents, and contemporaneous accounts, which include testimony about dreams, ghosts, and visions. One of the first written accounts of the trial from 1693 will also be on display. 

In addition to historic items, two contemporary artists who are descendants of the accused created reclamation projects.

The first, called “In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692,” is a dress and set of photographs from fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s fall/winter 2007 collection. To create this piece, McQueen dug into historical symbols of witchcraft, paganism, religious persecution and magic. He also researched his ancestor, Elizabeth How, one of the first women to be condemned and hanged as a witch in July 1692. 

The second is a photography showcase from Frances F. Denny’s series “Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.” These powerful portraits challenge the traditional ideas of witchery by celebrating the spectrum of identities and spiritual practices found in communities of people who identify as witches today. In addition to the photographs, an audio experience will allow you to hear the voices of present-day witches.

Exhibit curators wanted to focus not just on the history but on the continuing impact of the Salem Witch Trials and what they say about race and gender. They also want visitors to think about how they’d react in moments of widespread injustice. A collection of tarot cards encourages visitors to imagine what reclaiming witchcraft might mean. 

Painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble called Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869
Photograph: Painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble called Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869. / Courtesy of New-York Historical Society

How to see it 

The exhibit is on view until January 22, 2023 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery. 

Mark your calendar for a tour with the curator on October 24, and keep an eye on the museum’s event calendar for more events to come.

For families, there’s a Halloween Family Party on October 30 with scary stories, candy and a chance to reckon with the idea of witches. Stay tuned to the museum’s family calendar for more details.

This traveling exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and is coordinated at New-York Historical by its Center for Women’s History.

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