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Christopher Morley looks at the real world history behind the Doctor's visit to Salem...

With the Twelfth Doctor about to find himself up against a witch and her as yet unknown familiar in the second half of the Series Nine opener, what better time to look a little further back in his personal time-line, when he arrived in Salem for the real-life season of the witch.

In line with the early Who tradition of the "pure historical", Steve Lyons' Past Doctor Adventure novel The Witch Hunters - originally the ninth of what was a new range back in the mid to late Nineties - features the man the Doctor had started life as, accompanied by Susan, Ian & Barbara. They quickly find themselves at a crucial point in history with no power to intervene, the consequences of any change however slight too great for them to contemplate.

After all, as he's already told Ms Wright in The Aztecs, "you can't rewrite history, not one line!!". You can at least attempt to change one person's perspective on things as she had in the case of Autloc, which will later come in handy here. For the preacher Samuel Parris, the real life minister of Salem circa 1692, is on a witch-hunt, several innocents already having been condemned to death for allegedly practising the dark arts, and suspicion surrounding his African slave, Tituba.

If you've heard of Arthur Miller's The Crucible you'll probably guess where this is heading, as well as recognise some of the supporting cast. For they were real people on both sides of the divide created by the campaign of persecution - Cotton Mather was an influential figure among Puritans whose zeal is popularly supposed to have been one of the main factors behind what happened in Salem, while John and Elizabeth Proctor are among those who were accused. John was subsequently hanged, Elizabeth pardoned. Their accuser was their servant Mary Warren, with whom Susan becomes friendly. And among their circle of friends until one fateful night of dabbling in black magic are Abigail Williams, Parris' niece, and the minister's own daughter Betty.

The seemingly ordinary Chesterton "family" of Ian, Barbara & Susan are soon suspected of consorting with the Devil, the TARDIS discovered and mistaken for a temple of Satan. Meanwhile her former teachers soon find themselves further into the coven than they'd like.............

We might also pause to consider why the trials happened in the first place, the Doctor's friendship with another of the accused - the elderly Rebecca Nurse - providing an all too real historical account of the implications of the trials. Before she goes to her death, having accepted it as an inevitability in the belief that her God will redeem her, the man who looks similar to her in age but has seen more than she can possibly imagine takes her into the future to show her that her martyrdom will one day prove that her ordeal, and that of so many others, was a grievous wrong. And so armed with foreknowledge she is prepared for her date with the executioner. But was there more to the accusations against her? Douglas Linder thinks so, in his Commentary On The Salem Witch Trials:
"Nurse was one of three Towne sisters, all identified as witches, who were members of a Topsfield family that had a long-standing quarrel with the Putnam family. Apart from the evidence of Putnam family members, the major piece of evidence against Nurse appeared to be testimony indicating that soon after Nurse lectured Benjamin Houlton for allowing his pig to root in her garden, Houlton died.

The Nurse jury returned a verdict of not guilty, much to the displeasure of Chief Justice Stoughton, who told the jury to go back and consider again a statement of Nurse's that might be considered an admission of guilt (but more likely an indication of confusion about the question, as Nurse was old and nearly deaf).'' Nonetheless, as a letter from some of New England's most influential clergy laid down-

The afflicted state of our poor neighbours, that are now suffering by molestations from the invisible world, we apprehend so deplorable, that we think their condition calls for the utmost help of all persons in their several capacities.

We cannot but, with all thankfulness, acknowledge the success which the merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavours of our honourable rulers, to detect the abominable witchcrafts which have been committed in the country, humbly praying, that the discovery of those mysterious and mischievous wickednesses may be perfected.

We judge that, in the prosecution of these and all such witchcrafts, there is need of a very critical and exquisite caution, lest by too much credulity for things received only upon the Devil's authority, there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences, and Satan get an advantage over us; for we should not be ignorant of his devices.

As in complaints upon witchcrafts, there may be matters of inquiry which do not amount unto matters of presumption, and there may be matters of presumption which yet may not be matters of conviction, so it is necessary, that all proceedings thereabout be managed with an exceeding tenderness towards those that may be complained of, especially if they have been persons formerly of an unblemished reputation.

When the first inquiry is made into the circumstances of such as may lie under the just suspicion of witchcrafts, we could wish that there may be admitted as little as is possible of such noise, company and openness as may too hastily expose them that are examined, and that there may no thing be used as a test for the trial of the suspected, the lawfulness whereof may be doubted among the people of God; but that the directions given by such judicious writers as Perkins and Bernard [be consulted in such a case].

Presumptions whereupon persons may be committed, and, much more, convictions whereupon persons may be condemned as guilty of witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable than barely the accused person's being represented by a specter unto the afflicted; inasmuch as it is an undoubted and notorious thing, that a demon may, by God's permission, appear, even to ill purposes, in the shape of an innocent, yea, and a virtuous man.

Nor can we esteem alterations made in the sufferers, by a look or touch of the accused, to be an infallible evidence of guilt, but frequently liable to be abused by the Devil's legerdemains.

We know not whether some remarkable affronts given to the Devils by our disbelieving those testimonies whose whole force and strength is from them alone, may not put a period unto the progress of the dreadful calamity begun upon us, in the accusations of so many persons, whereof some, we hope, are yet clear from the great transgression laid unto their charge.

Nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government, the speedy and vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the direction given in the laws of God, and the wholesome statutes of the English nation, for the detection of witchcrafts."
The whole affair has gone down in history as one of the earliest outbreaks of mass hysteria, the Doctor reduced to simply a bystander for much of it but able to learn from Barbara's experiences as Yetaxa, and his granddaughter's similar appeals to Mary to remove herself from the madness forthwith as he turns Parris' own fervour against him, the sly devil...............

The Witch Hunters was reprinted earlier this year as part of the Doctor Who History Collection, so it's easily available to find should you want to discover the Doctor's visit to Salem yourself. Whether or not he'll remember the events of this visit when we come to series 9 remain to be seen...

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