An Internet Witch-Hunt: Digitizing Salem Village: A Conversation with Benjamin Ray
Ferris, William R., Humanities
WHEN NEH CHAIRMAN William R. Ferris talked recently with Benjamin Ray, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, the conversation turned to technological advances in teaching and Ray's work on the Salem Witchcraft Project. Ray's books include African Religions (1976) and Myth, Ritual, and Kingship in Buganda (1991). He is the Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professor of Arts and Sciences.
WILLIAM R. FERRIS: I understand that you had ancestors in Salem Village and that they were involved in the witch trials. What was your family connection and did it inspire you to study these trials?
BENJAMIN RAY: It was just a few years ago that I actually paid any attention to that family connection. I'm an Africanist and work generally on a different continent, so it wasn't something I was looking into either in a scholarly way or as family history until I went to pick up my daughter from college in Boston. My wife and I decided we would make a side trip to Danvers, which is the old Salem Village, and look up where my ancestors lived. I found some still-standing houses, which was amazing. One is a seventeenth-century house. I thought, "My goodness, there are actual buildings standing there that my ancestors lived in." So I began to look at the published documents a little bit more. There is an index and you can look up everyone's name, or almost everyone's name. I noted that my family's names were always listed mainly as defenders, which is something I hadn't heard about. You hear about accusers and the accused and the ministers and judges, but there were a number of villagers who were trying to save those who were accused by signing petitions, testimonials, on their behalf. Unfortunately, that had absolutely no effect, and some risk for the people doing it.
FERRIS: That is amazing. You have obviously done a lot of detective work for the Salem project. What have you found?
RAY: I'm working with a colleague. My job is the more technological side, giving access to this material. Bernie Rosenthal, who is in the English Department at SUNY-Binghamton, is the editor-in-chief of a new transcription of the court documents. There are about 850 court documents. The Puritans documented everything they did, both good and bad. This really tells the story of the people. You hear the voices of the accusers and the voices of the accused, the judges, the ministers, even occasionally some of the attendants. The most valuable kind of document is, in fact, not the arrest warrants and the depositions so much as the actual courtroom interaction where you hear those confrontations.
As I was looking in the archives in Boston, particularly at the Boston Public Library, I ran across some of these transcripts, which apparently had been overlooked by earlier scholars and transcribers. Just encountering those and transcribing them for the first time was pretty exciting. I think every historian is eager to find something new in a territory that has already been well worked over.
FERRIS: By putting the Salem Village court documents online, you are making them accessible to people all over the world. Who is using your site?
RAY: Looking at the web statistics at the moment, it is educational institutions and individual members of the general public. It is about half educational and half the general public that has an interest and is looking for resource material.
FERRIS: What makes a web archive useful for students?
RAY: We have a few search mechanisms. For example, a previous transcription of the court documents has been available since 1977, and although they're flawed and based on work during the WPA period of the Great Depression, they are nevertheless pretty good, and we have those online. For example, if you type in the word "witch," you will get every occurrence in what are approximately three volumes of documents. And for the first time, a high school student can write a paper on the subject of the concept of the witch in the trials, or the concept of the devil, or the concept of evil as it was used by judges and accusers and the accused. …