Crucible Comparison Paper During March and April in 1741, ten fires broke out at night throughout the city of New York (Berlin and Harris, 84). It had been a severe winter and as the fires raged, so did rumors of a great plot to destroy the city a plot that residents feared was formulated by the Spanish or their own slaves (Berlin and Harris, 85). Britain was at war with Spain, and the port city was not far from the line of fire. It was widely known that the Spanish offered freedom to any slaves who would join their ranks and turn on their British masters, and memories of previous slave revolts were still vivid in New Yorkers’ minds (Johnson, 57). It was a time of great fear, a fear that was exploited by a young indentured servant named Mary Burton. After being arrested in connection to a robbery, young Burton began spewing out tales of a grand conspiracy by the New York City slaves to burn down the city, a plot supposedly led by a slave named Caesar and Burton’s white master, John Hughson (“Witch-hunt”). As more arrests were made in the case, the numbers of people involved in the conspiracy seemed to grow, as many those who were arrested were ready to supply names of “co-conspirators” in order to avoid jail or execution (Johnson, 176). By the end of the trials, thirteen black men were burned alive, seventy were sold into even more arduous slave labor in the Caribbean; four white “conspirators” were hung and over one hundred black men were jailed after numerous show trials that lasted throughout the summer (Berlin and Harris, 85). The set up and events of the New York Conspiracy of 1741 are eerily similar to those of the Salem witch trials as outlined in The Crucible by Arthur Miller. These panics both began under similar circumstances, when a cornered young girl shifted blame onto others to avoid punishment and thus was thrust into the limelight and given excessive powers. The panics were then driven by underlying fears and prejudices that clouded reason and led to quick convictions by means of coerced and dubious testimonies in show trials that did not end until the upper members of society began being named.
Both in The Crucible and in the New York Conspiracy, the hysteria and witch-hunts began after young women, in order to avoid punishment, emitted wild accusations against others, and continued because these accusations gave them undue power in their communities. In The Crucible, Abigail Williams and Becky Parris were caught dancing in the forest, a “heathen” and “obscene practice” according to Reverend Parris, and an act that would have warranted severe punishment (Miller, 11). In order to avoid punishment, the girls attempted to shift the blame onto someone else. Abigail blames Tituba for making the girls dance and claims she makes her “dream corruptions” (Miller, 44). Similarly, Mary Burton, a sixteen-year-old indentured servant, turned on others when she was being questioned in connection with a robbery of a general store in 1741 (“Witch-hunt”). She had no useful information to give the authorities, who were convinced she knew more than she did, and imprisoning and intimidating her in order to find out (Johnson, 29). Burton swiftly blamed the robbery on “black scoundrels” who had threatened to kill her for speaking (Johnson, 31). As authorities pressed her for more information, enticing her with talk of freedom and money, threatening to lock her up again if she did not cooperate, Burton began a stream of accusations, claiming her master, John Hughson, was the ringleader of a group of black men who planned to burn New York City to the ground (Johnson, 37). By volunteering more names and evidence, she was rewarded for her testimony with attention and protection. It was a similar situation for the girls in The Crucible. The men and women of Salem would watch in awe as these girls went into “trances,” listening to what they said and offering comfort and prayers. In both of the male dominant societies of New York City and Salem, these girls were overlooked and undervalued, especially in Burton’s case, because as an indentured servant she was barely a step above the status of slave. By testifying, they entered into the spotlight, garnering attention and exceptional powers within their communities for their shocking testimonies. Once they entered this spotlight, it was almost impossible to back out. When Mary Warren in the Crucible attempted it, she was accused of being a witch (Miller, 115). Had Burton stopped giving up names, she too would have faced dire consequences.
Rampant paranoia was present in Salem and New York City, as well as deep racial and societal prejudices, which clouded reason and sense and allowed for the witch-hunts to happen. New York City residents feared they were on the brink of an attack by the Spanish, making them suspicious of anything Spanish or Catholic, and because Spain offered freedom to slaves who would join their ranks, New Yorkers were even more suspicious of their slaves (Johnson, 57). These racial tensions served as a catalyst for the hysteria of 1741. There was also a great fear in Salem, but it was a fear of the Devil and his servants. The Puritans thought of themselves living on the edge of the Devil’s “citadel” and were terrified of being corrupted by him (Miller, 5). This fear made the Puritans believe in Abigail and her followers’ antics and drove them into a witch-hunt. They were so intent on trying to rid the Devil from Salem as quickly as possible that many men of influence like Judge Danforth and the Reverends Hale and Parris did not question whether or not the girls were telling the truth, even as they claimed to see a bird in the rafters that wants to eat and tear their faces (Miller, 114-115). Actions were taken on impulse. It was the same in New York City. The fires and a threat of an annihilation of the whole city caused its residents and leaders to act rashly to get to the bottom of a great plot they believed they uncovered, causing them to overlook increasingly bizarre statements by Mary Burton, such as when she claimed to have seen “demon rats” and an “embryonic, black devil thing” in a room with the man she was testifying against (Johnson, 195).
This sense of urgency also drove authorities in The Crucible and in New York to make swift arrests and even swifter convictions through show trials that relied on forced and dubious evidence and confessions. The men in authority in The Crucible would stand over those accused of being witches or their supposed victims and demand names of others who had made a compact with Lucifer. Reverends Hale and Parris were the first to do this, ordering the accused Tituba to tell them whom she was with when she saw the Devil (Miller, 45). This led her to supply the name the name of Sarah Good, after Putnam had helpfully suggested it, and spared her being hung (Miller, 46). Naming names meant leniency, as did admitting to witchcraft and alliance with the Devil, a point that Abigail and the other girls in the Crucible quickly latched on to as they cried out on others, thus creating unreliable evidence and showing themselves to be untrustworthy witnesses. This was also the case in the New York Conspiracy, where signs of coerced testimony were even more blatant. Those who offered information were given monetary rewards and some slaves were even offered freedom (Johnson, 75). As more slaves were arrested in connection with the plot, more names were named, and the number of slaves in jail grew until half of the male slaves in the city over sixteen had been implicated in the conspiracy (Johnson, 176-177). By providing monetary gain to the poor whites and slaves who testified, judges and authorities on the case seemed to have a blatant disregard for facts, concerned only with making more arrests, uncovering the “plot” and punishing those involved by any means. Judge Danforth had a similar tenacious desire for “justice” in The Crucible, stating in response to a plea for mercy on those accused of witchcraft, “as God have not empowered me like Joshua to stop this sun from rising, so I cannot withhold from the perfection of their punishment” (Miller, 130). While the authorities in New York did not believe they were “empowered” by God, they too believed it was their duty to quash a rebellion of the underworld as quickly as possible, a result of the fear and mistrust of the lower, “immoral” class.
In both The Crucible and in the New York Conspiracy, the hysteria and trials did not end until the upper classes and the educated elite were targeted. While some in Salem like John Proctor were skeptical all along of the girls’ claims of being afflicted by witches, it was not until “a good soul” like Rebecca Nurse was accused that fervent believers like Reverend Hale began to question what was happening, even more so after John Proctor as arrested (Miller, 37). This was also the case in New York City when a white schoolmaster named John Ury was tried and convicted of having a part in the conspiracy and hung late in the summer of 1741 (Berlin and Harris, 87). Citizens of New York City and throughout New England were shocked and horrified by this, as it was no longer “black property” being disposed of, or even the “lesser” sort of white people (Johnson, 203). The trials were brought to a resounding halt soon afterwards when Mary Burton, who was running out of names and was being pressed by the judges ruling in these trials for more, began to name the family members and associates of the judges themselves (Johnson, 207). Reason and sanity then returned to New York City, and after Procter and Nurse were convicted the hysteria began to abate in Salem. The judges and authorities of Salem and New York City were no longer convicting and hanging the “scourges” of society; they were hanging members of their own social class, which brought a reexamination and halt of the trials.
The New York Conspiracy was more widespread and deadly than the Salem witch trials, and there was more truth behind it, as it is probable that some slaves in New York had, at the very least, spoken of rebellion (Berlin and Harris, 86-87). Yet the wide extent of the plot as outlined by Burton and the evidence given by the girls in The Crucible were both extremely improbable and had devastating results. The panics in Salem and in New York City illustrate how fear, distrust and prejudices can take hold of a community and cause it to loose all control and sense. This lack of sense on part of the Puritans and New Yorkers was a catalyst for two tragic and bloody events, as it led them to believe and act upon the wild accusations given by young girls crushed by societal pressures, seeking to avoid punishment and gain attention. The hysteria, arrests and executions of the Salem witch trials and the New York Conspiracy were the prices paid for fear and prejudice.
Berlin, Ira and Harris, Leslie M., eds. Slavery in New York. New York: New Press, 2005.
Johnson, Mat. The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth Century New York. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Penguin Group, 1976.
“Witch-hunt in New York: The 1741 Rebellion”. PBS. 29 October 2009. .