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A Rare Deposition from the Salem Witch Trials Goes to Auction

Christie’s is auctioning a rare 1692 deposition from the Salem witch trials that helped sentence an elderly widow to death.

The deposition of Mary Daniel against Margaret Scott (August 4, 1692), sworn to on September 15, 1692 then introduced as evidence, with autograph endorsement signed by Stephen Sewall as clerk to the Salem court. Margaret Scott was one of the people executed during the Salem Witch Trials (courtesy the Eric C. Caren Collection/Christie’s)

Margaret Scott was already an outcast in her Rowley, Massachusetts, community when she was convicted of witchcraft in 1692. An elderly widow who had lost several infant children, and was often reduced to begging, she had little defense when her wealthier neighbors accused her of sorcery in the frenzy now known as the Salem witch trials. She was hanged on September 22, 1692, the last day of executions to take place in that fatal year.

The back of the deposition of Mary Daniel against Margaret Scott (August 4, 1692), sworn to on September 15, 1692 then introduced as evidence, with autograph endorsement signed by Stephen Sewall as clerk to the Salem court (courtesy the Eric C. Caren Collection/Christie’s)

A rare deposition against Scott is part of the June 15 “Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts Including Americana and the Eric C. Caren Collection” Christie’s auction being held at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Back in 2012, Swann Galleries auctioned Scott’s indictment, which was the first of the Salem witch trial documents to go to public sale since the 1980s. “It’s a known quantity, the transcript is on record,” Christina Geiger, senior specialist in books and manuscripts at Christie’s, told Hyperallergic. “What I think is so thrilling about it is that it’s the actual piece of paper submitted in evidence. So you can hold it and read it aloud just as it was read aloud on September 15 or 16, 1692.”

The one-page deposition document is among over 100 items from the Eric C. Caren Collection in the Christie’s auction, which range from a handbill shared around Whitechapel at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, and an announcement of Alexander Hamilton’s death in a duel from his New-York Herald newspaper. The deposition was from a teenager named Mary Daniel, who described her supposed torment by Scott in vivid detail:

I was taken very ill again all over & felt a great pricking in ye soles of my feet, and after a while I saw apparently the shape of Margret Scott, who, as I was sitting in a chair by ye fire pulled me with ye chair, down backward to ye ground, and tormented and pinched me very much, and I saw her go away at ye door, in which fit I was dumb and so continued till ye next morning, finding a great load and heaviness upon my tongue …

There appeared to me the shape of some woman, who seemed to look and speak most fiercely and angrily, and beat, pinch’d and afflicted me very sorely telling me I should not have said so, or told such things & to yt purpose … In some of ye fits yt I had afterwards, I was senseless and knew not yt I saw who it was yt afflicted me. In one fitt (upon ye beginning it) I thought I saw Goodw Jackson, and widow Scott come walking into the chamber with yr staves, one of ym came & sat upon me so yt I could not stir … In another fitt I saw ye appearance of sd Scott in ye room who afflicted me, and being speechless, I continued so, untill I went to ye sd Scott, who taking me by ye hand, I had ye liberty of speech again as formerly. The last fitt I had was upon ye last Sabbth day, in which I saw ye shapes of four women or five, of whom widow Scott was one, ye rest I knew not, nor knew yt any did hurt me, unless sd widow Scott.

A fanciful depiction of the Salem witch trials (1892), lithograph, by Joseph Baker (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

The University of Virginia has an online Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive that brings together court records from institutions like the Boston Public Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society. It shows how Daniel’s sworn testimony combined with other accusations to doom Scott to death. Another woman named Sarah Coleman claimed she was tormented three to four times by Scott “by pricking, pinching, and choaking of me, and I do verily believe that she is a witch.” Two men named John Burbank and Daniel Wycomb recounted how Scott magically stopped their oxen from moving; one named Thomas Nelson stated she killed one of his cows, “his neck under a plank at the barn side as if he were chok’d.”

Scott was finally exonerated on October 31, 2001. There’s been much speculation since 1692 on how the Salem witch trials went so far, from land disputes to hallucinogenic fungus on the wheat. While a contemplative tribute is currently underway for Proctor’s Ledge, where it’s believed 19 women and men were hanged, visitors to Salem can find Scott’s name etched in a granite bench at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. At the entrance to the solemn space are recorded protests of innocence by the victims, silently screaming from the stones.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The bench for Mary Parker at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts. Parker was executed on September 22, 1692 with a group that included Margaret Scott (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The “Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts Including Americana and the Eric C. Caren Collection” auction is June 15 at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center (20 Rockefeller Center, Midtown West, Manhattan).

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