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Alberta Clipper: 3/01/16: "The Girls They Burned" by Adrienne Celt

Salem Witch Trials

March 1, 1692, was the start of one of the darkest and gloomiest times for the early United States. It was the date that the infamous Salem Witch Trials began. In a historical event made famous by Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, three women (Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba) were brought before the local magistrates in Salem Village after three young girls accused them of witchcraft. Those girls claimed that Good, Osborne, and Tituba afflicted them, afflictions that resulted in bodily injury. Interestingly, the three women singled out were social outcasts. Good was a beggar whose impoverished state was caused by the loss of her inherence and her first husband’s debt, for which she and her second husband were held responsible. Osborne was likely accused because she had not attended church for almost three years (although she had the excuse of a long-standing sickness). She also had a legal issue with the Putnam family, one of most prominent Puritan families during that time. Osborne’s sister-in-law married into the Putnam family, one of the most prominent Puritan families during that time. Perhaps they were the ones who suggested that she be accused. Tituba, the first among the three women to be accused, was a West Indies slave woman likely accused because of her race. Even though she denied being a witch at first, she confessed after she was beaten over and over by her owner, Samuel Parris, who was the uncle of one of her accusers. Tituba finally admitted to practicing witchcraft and she implicated Good and Osborne, who were all convicted and sentenced to burn. The trials continued until May 1693, many people beside Good, Osborne, and Tituba, were sentence to death.

These witch trials are reimagined in Adrienne Celt’s Short story “The Girls They Burned” which was published in Prairie Schooner’s 2015 summer issue. On March 1, 2015, (323 years after the start of the Salem Witch Trials), as Prairie Schooner finished arranging and readied the summer issue for publication, the weather in Lincoln, NE, was sunny and pleasant with a high temperature in the 40s and a low temperature of 18. Celt’s story isn't quite as bright in its sly depiction of fifteen girls sentenced to burn at the stake after being accused of being witches. They girls seek escape through various means of transformation, with varying degrees of success.—Esther Sloh

 

Adrienne Celt

from “The Girls They Burned”

 

The first girl they tried to burn turned into a doe and leapt away from her pile of sticks, feet wobbling beneath her as she landed. After catching her balance, the doe slipped through the crowd and disappeared around a corner, her tail a white flick. The crowd could hear her hoofs clicking down the street long after she was out of sight.

...

The seventh girl they tried to burn caught fire and burned, and this heartened everyone. Her hair gave up with a gasp, and her clothes flamed and turned to cinder. Her skin bubbled—first on the smooth expanse of her calves, her thin arms. But then, too, in the places that held more moisture, little blisters in the corners of her lips, circling her eyes like dots of henna. The layers of her peeled with exquisite slowness, revealing the red rope of her muscles, then the arch of her cheekbones, the cup of her pelvis. The heat was so high that even her bones steamed and then succumbed, crumbling into a black ash that caught the wind and hung in the air

...

The fourteenth girl turned into bricks and crumbled.

The fifteenth girl baked like bread on a hearth.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Summer, 2015)


The Alberta Clipper is a biweekly gust of history—brushing the dust off of a poem from our archives and situating it in the current events and local Nebraskan weather reports of days gone by. Explore the Alberta Clipper archives here.