The Salem Witch Trials were one of the darkest periods of American colonial history. As astute readers may recall, mass hysteria, superstition, class struggle and many other factors (perhaps even poisoning by wheat fungus (!?)) combined to result in accusations of witchcraft and the executions of 20 people. But this week’s episode of “Timeless” may be most notable not for what it included, but what it left out.
The most famous modern depiction of the events that transpired in Salem is Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a stunning work of literature but one that took some significant historical liberties. The American playwright presented the 1953 play as a parable about the dangers of McCarthyism, when the government ostracized suspected Communists who often lost their jobs or were even imprisoned. (Miller himself was hauled in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities a few years later.) The play’s biggest change is imagining that the accusers had motives that we modern Americans would understand: Abigail Williams accuses Elizabeth Proctor because Williams has had an affair with her husband and sees the witchcraft accusation as an easy way to get Elizabeth out of the way. Other girls make accusations to deflect the blame from themselves or to gain power or status.
Even today, 65 years later, it's still what many think of when they first think of the Salem Witch Trials. In the episode, Rufus refers to the play without saying its name, as a way to critique Miller's poetic license. "In the play," he says, " all the Salem accusers were teenage girls." In truth—and in "Timeless"—one of Salem's accusers was Bathsheba Pope, Benjamin Franklin's aunt. And it’s for the sake of her to-be-famous nephew that Rittenhouse, and therefore our heroes, arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.
Lucy, Rufus and Flynn, who’s filling in for Wyatt as he attempts to reconnect with his now-alive wife Jessica, travel to September 22 of that year—the bloodiest day of the trials, on which eight people were hanged at Proctor's Ledge. In the already-altered version of history, though, Rittenhouse has arranged things so that nine people are scheduled to be executed. Who is the ninth? Abiah Franklin—Benjamin Franklin's mother, who came to Salem Village from Boston to protest the hangings.
In a classic iteration of a well-worn time-travel narrative, if Abiah is executed, Ben will never be born. We need not elucidate on all the ways that an America without Ben Franklin would be different—Lucy focuses on the fact that Franklin “made it okay” to challenge authority, but of course he gave us so much more. So the team's mission becomes: Find the Rittenhouse agent, save Abiah and escape.
Following up on a lead from one of the Salem judges, the team visits Bathsheba, Abiah's sister, to see if she was coerced or bribed into adding Abiah’s name to the list of the accused. She wasn’t; the Abiah accuser must be someone else. Soon we learn the culprit is Lucy's mother and Rittenhouse V.I.P., Carol. After getting both Abiah and Lucy thrown in jail and sentenced to death, she visits Lucy in jail in a last-ditch attemptat reconciliation. Come back into the fold, she says, and all will be forgiven. "I'd rather hang," says Lucy. But, because Carol's an old softie, at least by Rittenhouse standards, she slips Lucy a knife, who then cuts herself and the other “witches” free in an action-packed scene at the execution site.
Abiah Franklin was born Abiah Folger in 1667 in Nantucket. In 1689, the freshly widowed Josiah Franklin, who already had at least five living children, married Abiah at the Old South Church in Boston. By the following year, she gave birth to the first of 10 children two would have together. Beyond that, unfortunately, the historical record on Abiah is quite thin. Most of what we do know comes from writings Benjamin Franklin produced late in his life, so they are tinged with nostalgia. We know she was literate, from letters she exchanged with Ben and her other children—unusual for the time but perhaps not the place; 17th and 18th century Massachusetts was a highly literate place due to the Puritans' belief that everyone should be able to read the Bible.
But with a growing family at home, Abiah likely had her hands full and would likely have been too busy to make the roughly 20-mile trek from Boston to Salem Village to protest witch hangings. Bathsheba (also called Bethshua), however, did indeed live in Salem with her husband, Joseph Pope, and she really was one of the Salem accusers, claiming that a witch had struck her blind (she got better) and convulsing in the courtroom when one of the accused looked at her. Her motivations, like those of many of the accusers, are today unclear. Lucy believes that Bathsheba was feuding with the Corey family over a property line dispute, but that seems to be a plotline borrowed from The Crucible; it's unclear how based in history that is.
Jiya’s disjointed vision from last week of Rufus firing a gun and of a Puritan, identifiable by the scar on his cheek, bleeding out on the ground comes into play this week. Rufus, with Jiya’s warning to beware on the top of his mind, finds the scarred man and interrogates him along with Flynn. The Puritan in question is actually Samuel Sewall, a judge who had overseen some of the trials. Later, Rufus and Sewall meet at gunpoint, but instead of shooting Sewall, Rufus lowers his weapon to spare Sewall's life. Sewall backs slowly away—and is promptly run over by a (convenient) speeding carriage. This of course brings up a number of questions about free will and destiny that the writers will surely expand on in the coming episodes.
In real history, Sewall suffers no such calamity and in 1697, at the same Old South Church where Ben Franklin's parents had married, Sewall apologizes for his involvement in the witch trials. Years later, he would go on to be involved in a controversy involving the Franklins, specifically Ben's older brother James, publisher of the New England Courant. Sewall and the other local magistrates had banned James from publishing the paper after he had mocked religion and offended the local government (he simply handed the paper's management over to his brother, at the time his apprentice, and they continued to publish as usual). Ben Franklin, using a pseudonym, responded with an open letter in the paper arguing that James's punishment was unjust and reminding Sewall of his role in the Witch Trials:
"I would also humbly remind your Honour, that you were formerly led into an Error, which you afterwards Publickly and Solemnly (and I doubt not, Sincerely) Confess'd and repented of," Ben Franklin wrote.
It's unclear how much influence this letter had on Sewall and the other magistrates, but the paper eventually recovered and James continued to publish the paper, without younger brother Ben's help as he had blown off the rest of his apprenticeship and fled to New York, until 1726..
Apart from the Bathsheba and Sewall, few other boldface names from the trials cameo in the episode. No Proctors, Mathers, Williams, etc…Tituba, the enslaved woman who has been called the trials’ “star witness” is never even mentioned. We do meet a few of the other “witches” in jail, including Alice Parker, who in the episode is accused of sticking pins in a doll to torture others. Modern viewers (and readers of The Crucible) may wonder about the inclusion of a “voodoo doll” in colonial Massachusetts, but in truth, this type of “magic” does come originally from Europe. “Poppets” have been used since the 5th century B.C. and Parker’s testimony shows she was accused of the same poppet magic. (In the show, she tells Lucy: “I just like dolls.”)
Back in the present, the Salem Witch Trials are now referred to as the "Salem Witch Riot”—which has its own Wikipedia entry explaining how all the accused women escaped. Meanwhile, Rittenhouse Leader Nicholas Keynes tells Carol she's fired from the "convert Lucy" beat, presumably so he can put someone more ruthless on the "kill Lucy" beat.
Other non-history related notes:
- As we learned last week, Jessica, Wyatt’s formerly deceased wife, is back. But how? It wasn't the team's actions in Hollywood that brought her back to life—seems Rittenhouse took a trip to the 1980s and took some action to alter the timeline. Wyatt recuses himself from time travel while while he tries to rebuild his life with Jessica. In 2018, by Wyatt's reckoning, Jessica had been dead six years. By Jessica's reckoning, though, Wyatt had been a terrible husband, possibly an alcoholic, possibly cheating (or at least acting in a way to make Jessica paranoid about cheating). Needless to say, the two of them have a little work to do.
- An ill-advised attempt at reconciling, however, leads Wyatt to show Jessica the bunker and the time machine, basically making her complicit in the entire escapade. Hope she isn’t a Rittenhouse agent!
- Sorry I said earlier that Flynn isn't a psycho As this episode reveals with Flynn’s obsession with guns and torture, he’s clearly an unhinged and unreliable time team member.
- Lastly, a programming note. The publishing schedule for our recaps may be a little bit slower in the coming weeks as we strive to track down screener copies of future episodes. You know what could really help with this challenge? A time machine.
Thank you to the Massachusetts Historical Society for providing some of the background on the historical Samuel Sewall.