"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Burning At The Stake - Time To Rethink The Witch Hunts Of Salem

Mary Tides was a difficult, disobedient, nasty little girl that nobody liked, least of all her parents who blamed her very being on a distant relative.  They could not be responsible for such a child, so she must be the legacy of someone else in the family, Uncle Harry, for example, twice arrested, locked up in Danbury, and as malevolently twisted as the judge had ever seen, but not insane enough to get him acquitted, excused or pardoned.  

He and his brother Arthur were born miscreants, forever arrested for shoplifting, vandalism, and battery, but they were apples that didn't fall very far from the tree, for the patriarch of the family who set the ball rolling through his own deviance and anti-sociability was no different.   

Be that as it may, Mary Tides was a bitter, hateful girl whom no one could handle. The nuns of St. Joseph, bulls of the old school with a reputation for discipline, order, and obedience admitted that the girl was beyond their reach, a demonic little bitch who deserved something more than just the severe punishment meted out by them - the vestry closet, the icy basement, and the church tower. 

Father Brophy asked the nuns to have patience.  "'Suffer the children to come unto me', Jesus said, and you, Sister Mary Joseph, must also have love in your heart and patience in your breast" 

'But she's a devil, Father', the nun replied, 'good for nothing but hellfire and brimstone and the company of fools'. 

'Now, now, Sister', the old priest said, placing his hand on her shoulder and smiling. 'She is one of God's own, and He knows best'.

That little episode was but the first of many to follow. On the playground she was an intimidating kindergarten enforcer, dragged out of recess and sent home. As she grew older, she cut her own path, a swath through high school and in college a laid-waste bloody battlefield.  Never had teachers, administrators, and counselors seen such a young woman of such horrific meanness. 

She was smart, they granted her that, and professors were warned not to deny her the grades she deserved on the grounds of personality. 'Venomous, hateful personality', they all said. 

Her valedictory speech at Sedgwick Friends school oozed with sarcasm, irony, and ill-concealed disgust.  The Principal knew what was coming but couldn't very well prevent her from speaking.  The school, after all, prided itself on inclusivity, tolerance, and humanity; yet even he clenched his fists and wanted to throw the girl from the second floor balcony onto the cement below.  


Law school was next, and there Mary found at least some outlet for the nearly irrepressible aggressive spirit that had been blunted so far by every adult she had met.  Courtroom law - there was no doubt in her mind that that was where her future lay - would be the perfect venue for her brilliance and her absolute disdain and disregard for the defense who were amateurs, sticklers for fine points of the law, masters of procedure, and losers.  Her bilious scorn for her opponents, and her disgust with the trash they defended was evident from the first words of her opening statements. 

The story of Mary Tides, however, is but a preamble to the larger one - how Mendel in his precise and detailed laws of genetics somehow missed something - things that go totally awry and follow no XY, DNA double helix patterns.  

'I cannot account for it', said Paddington Harper, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at Duke when he heard of Mary Tides and a hundred women like her, stories from psychiatric journals that chronicled the lives of what in social terms had been called harridans, vixens, and shrews; and who had in 1692 been burned at the stake for witchcraft.


For all their cant and wild accusations of demonic possession, the Calvinist pastors of Massachusetts had been on to something.  Mary Tides was the virtual clone of Hepzibah Parsons, a woman whose venomous hatred for men and howling attacks on 'the bloody souls' of women sent her crackling and burning at the stake faster than any other accused.  

'Bloody Hell', she shouted as the flames licked up her legs, 'A curse on everyone of you putrefying maggots'. 

Of course Mary Tides who up to a point kept her own counsel would never have been so outspoken about her misanthropy.  Every other one of the women researched by the Duke professor had the same profile - as organically hateful as Hepzibah Parsons, but smart enough to word their vindictiveness and dismissiveness more carefully, masters they all were of dripping sarcasm and irony.

'Bitches', said Paddington Harper's colleague to him over coffee one day. 'Cunts, always have been, always will be'.  The colleague however had just been burned by his former wife in a contentious divorce where she ended up with everything, so his resentment was natural; but, thought Harper, he too had a point.  Where on earth did these women come from?  

These hectoring, bloodsucking....Here, he held his tongue.  Even in rare moments of pique he never resorted to the language of his colleagues; but his inner voice shouted them.  'Othello was right', he said to the face in the mirror. 

Othello accused Desdemona of infidelity, and he murdered her by his own admission, to save men from her duplicity.  'You're next', he shouted as he was taken away from the tribunal, guilty as charged.  

The likes of Mary Tides, mused the professor, was in another league altogether, beyond the pale, a Kate the Shrew, Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, Tamora, Dionyza, and Volumnia all wrapped up in one.  Shakespeare never offered any reasons why these women were so evil-minded.  Genetic twisting and Freudian analysis were far in the future; but he knew that such women existed and men were most often powerless before them. 

The Professor went over all the extant cases of such unexplained malevolence and sorted them through every psycho-physiological, social, and genetic filter at his disposal; and he still came up dry.  He thought the unthinkable for a fleeting nano-second; but no, that was impossible.  Cunts and bitches they might be to his colleague, but....witches?  Impossible.  There simply had to be another explanation. 

The Catholic Church, of course, had no trouble in concluding that demonic possession was possible, and a senior member of the Vatican Council on Doctrinal Affairs admitted that the Devil was real and among us. 'Yes, we tend to see more possessions in women', the priest said, 'in fact a lot more, but that should in no way suggest that women are any more the vessels of satanic residence than men'. 

'I had to say that', whispered the Vatican priest to Paddington Harper and winked. 

Where does that leave us? There are many men who would certainly like to see their wives go up in smoke a la Salem but in the main they are simply henpecked, put upon husbands who have not learned the ins and outs of today's gender politics; yet once in a while a Mary Tides does show up and God forbid that any man should be taken in by her tasty bait. 

Burning at the stake? In today's climate of MeToo, gender inclusivity, and sexual vigilance?  Hardly, but still Harper could not shake the thought of Cotton Mather, the parsons and clerics of Salem, the witch trials, and burning at the stake. 

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