Be Careful What You Witch For: Revenge and the Salem Witch Trials

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Revenge gets a bad rap.

This uncharitable thought popped into my mind as I was reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, a nonfiction masterpiece that explores the ins, outs, and maddening cruelties of the Salem witch trials. Schiff provides a handy-dandy “cast of characters” at the start of the book, and I found myself referring to it regularly to keep all the names straight. During one perusal, I came across this listing for a local villager: 

“Herrick, George. Well-born, handsome Salem deputy sheriff in his thirties, an upholsterer by trade. Spends 1692 rounding up and transporting witches.”


The short entry fascinated and confused me. How do we know he was “handsome?” If he was so “well-born,” how did he end up working as a cop in Salem Village? And how exactly does one go from upholstering furniture to “rounding up and transporting witches” for an entire year?

I couldn’t stop myself from digging around to learn more. As it turns out, we know George Herrick was handsome because his contemporaries said he was. More than once. In writing. (That’s pretty handsome.) Unfortunately, that’s also the only positive thing his fellow villagers had to say about him. Other surviving writings tell us that Herrick took part in the “examinations” of accused witches, and that he enjoyed the job a little too much. We’re told he had an “eager zeal in urging on the prosecutions” and that he “justly incurred the resentment of the sufferers and their friends.”

Then, when the trials were finally over and all the bodies were buried in the cold ground of Salem, what did ol’ George do? You might imagine that he expressed remorse for his part in the massacre. Changed jobs, maybe. Went back to fixing chairs.

Nope. Instead, Deputy-Sheriff Herrick approached the village council with a petition complaining about the “hard times” he had suffered during the trials. ‘”For I have been bred a gentleman,” he told them, “and not much used to work.” The village, he insisted, now owed him additional “supply” and “plenty” for his troubles; today, we’d call his petition a demand for overtime pay.

Twenty-five of his former neighbors were dead — some, hung by the neck at Proctor’s Ledge. Others, rotted away in lice-infested jail cells. One was pressed to death by stones. Hundreds more had been imprisoned and lost everything they owned. And yet, after all this, George Herrick believed that he was the one who had been wronged most grievously during the events of 1692.

How many times have we heard this “just doing my job” argument? Historically, and even today? “It wasn’t my fault! I wasn’t in charge. I was just doing my job!” Doing it as sadistically as possible, as it too often turns out.

Herrick’s bonkers request for overtime stuck with me as the days went by. Soon, the “what-ifs” began to multiply in my mind. (You call it obsessing; I call it plotting.) What if things had turned out differently back in Salem? What if everyday folks, not just the rich and powerful, had a true say in how the world was run? What if victims could avenge their suffering? What if, for once, awful people had to pay a fair price for their awful deeds?

Most outrageous of all: What if there really were witches in Salem? Magical, wise beings could make all that vengeance possible, which would be wonderful and horrible at the same time. Wouldn’t it?

This was the seed of Herrick’s End, a story that eventually became Book 1 of The Neath Trilogy. On the surface, it’s the adventurous tale of a shy young man from Boston who finds himself sucked into a dangerous, fantastical world beneath the city when he goes in search of a missing friend. But the real questions and possibilities linger just below that glossy veneer — in the book, and in life.

We’ve all been wronged, hurt, and abused. Some of us more than others. What if revenge was not only possible, but easy? Would you take it? Should you take it? And if you did, what would that do to you? These are the puzzles I wanted to explore in Herrick’s End, Herrick’s Lie, and Herrick’s Key. 

Yes, George Herrick himself does play a role in the story. But don’t worry: He’s not the one who matters in the end. Guys like him never are.

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