How “The Crucible” Contributed to Creating the “Abigail Williams” Complex

In 2022, it will be 330 years since the Salem Witch Trials, a legal and religious event so absurd that it entered the popular imagination, but which actually happened. Twenty people were sentenced to death, and accused of witchcraft without even being investigated, all because it was “supernatural”. All the victims were named by a group of hysterical girls, led by Abigail Williams.

The fact is so shameful and well-known that, in 1953, Arthur Miller used it as a basis to criticize the period of McCarthyism in the United States. The Crucible is one of his best works, certainly my favorite.

The play, which premiered on January 22, 1953, maybe 69 years old, but it is still very current. It brings together fake news, vested interests, hysteria, and injustice, some of the points treated precisely and using real people as a basis (John Proctor and Abigail herself, for example), but changing the ages and theorizing about their motivations. The play is frequently revived on Broadway: Liam Neeson and Laura Linney were in the 2002 production and, in 2016, Saoirse Ronan, Ben Whishaw, and Sophie Okonedo revisited the story (brought to the present day).

The 1996 film has the great performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Joan Allen, all nominated for an Oscar.

History – in both true and fictional versions – villainizes Abigail Williams, as, clearly, all those accused and convicted were innocent people. However, she also served to immortalize the image of a spiteful woman using falsehood to punish her enemies. That’s what I reflect on today.

About the “Real” Abigail Williams

The accusations of witchcraft in Salem, a small town in Massachusetts, started from a girl of just 12 years old (some say 11), Abigail Williams. There are the court records of the trial as evidence and with the accounts of it. Her testimony was officially recorded in 7 of the 20 witchcraft accusation cases, and she was involved in at least 17 of them.

The account accepted as the basis is that, in January 1692, a group of girls was discovered making esoteric consultations with the Indian Tituba, enslaved and who worked for the reverend of the city, Samuel Parris. The girls wanted to know about future husbands. Among those consulted were the pastor’s niece, Abigail, and daughter, Elizabeth (Betty) Parris. Terrified, they entered a state of hysteria that generated seizures and catatonic states.

Not understanding what was happening, the pastor called the town’s doctor, who diagnosed the cases as “demonic afflictions”, triggering the drama that developed next.

The panic that there was witchcraft inside the pastor’s house quickly spread and the girls were questioned. On February 29, 1692, the formal accusation was recorded in the records: the girls accused Tituba, Sarah Osborne, and Sarah Good (the last two, city midwives) of witchcraft. By this time, in addition to Abigail and Betty, Ann Putnam Jr. also participated in the accusations and hysterical attacks. The girls – all with an average age of no more than 13 years – went to the courts and, upon seeing the accused, threw themselves to the ground, screaming and writhing. For the population, proof that they were under the control of the “witches”.

Tituba, the first accused, made a list of names of witches and wizards and, with that, managed to get rid of the gallows. But it was Abigail who was the main accuser and leader of the girls. In total, there were 41 common processes and 17 capital ones. Their roster went on to include Martha Cory, George Burroughs, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth and John Proctor, Mary Easty, John Willard, Mary Witheridge, and Rebecca Nurse. In the case of Elizabeth Proctor, Abigail accused her of “drinking blood” in a macabre ceremony and her husband, John Proctor, of having “appeared in dreams” touching her breasts. Only his word served as evidence and all were found guilty.

The real Abigail’s motivation was never discovered. Historians believe that she enjoyed the attention she received, almost like a “saint”. It was never made clear how related she was to the Parrises or who her parents were, nor what happened to her after the trials. Her last testimony is dated 3 June 1692 and any information about her after that date is not recorded. It has been suggested that Abigail never married, another version reports that she ran away from Salem and started living in prostitution and even that, with remorse, she was tormented by guilt and would have died in 1697, without even having completed 17 years of life.

Nothing is confirmed. Only Ann Putnam Jr. admitted, some 14 years after the trials, that he lied in his testimonies, but was not punished. It stayed that way.

In fiction, meanness, and envy as motivators

Without enough information to properly contextualize Abigail’s motivation, Arthur Miller made an artistic choice to age the young woman from 11 to 17, as well as rejuvenate John Proctor from 60 to 40-something. From then on, the accusation of sexual impropriety began to be motivated by attraction, betrayal, and guilt. The image of a frustrated and envious young woman gained a name and personality, generating a series of “Abigails” over time.

In The Crucible, although many profit and encourage Abigail, she is the one who embodies almost all the evil of the process. We eventually learn that she spent time with the Proctors and that she “seduced” John. When Elizabeth Proctor discovered their affair, Abigail was “returned” to her uncle, without revealing the truth so as not to ruin her reputation. Instead of being grateful for the second chance, the young woman developed a hatred for her lover’s wife, wanting her dead.

Without measuring consequences, Abigail leads the movement that would cost the lives of 20 people, including John Proctor himself. In the play and film, Abigail runs away and ends her days in prostitution…

In current times, men still see “Abigails”, even when crime existed

When Arthur Miller chose the Salem Witch Trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism (a period in American history when people had their lives and reputations destroyed by (often) unfounded accusations of communism), society was a long way from where we are in 2022. Back then, blaming the woman was acceptable. Those were years when the concept of the sorority was not known, we women believed (wrongly) that female friendship was an impossible concept. This is no longer the case, thankfully.

However, even today we hear that men are “confused”, and have difficulty understanding what is consensual or not. As if it were the woman’s responsibility to explain and when in doubt, they are not to blame. There are still so many cases! From Prince Andrew to Woody Allen, alluding that they are innocent victims of a witch hunt as if all the women who accuse them today are versions of Abigail Williams.

The image of the young woman – in fiction or in reality – managing to send her enemies to the gallows just for what she said, is the perfect alibi of past society to maintain the status quo. It’s an idea we need to erase. If the real Abigail lived in repressive times, which contributed to catalyzing the tragedy, today women present their cases with witnesses, photos, and emails, that is, with concrete evidence that supports their causes. They are far from the hysteria of Salem.

The history of the Salem Witch Trials cannot and must not be forgotten. She was retold relatively well in The Crucible, but not every woman is Abigail Williams. In fairness to witches and people innocently accused of witchcraft, today’s accusations are not based on dreams or outbreaks. We have to keep our attention.


1 comentário Adicione o seu

Deixe um comentário

Preencha os seus dados abaixo ou clique em um ícone para log in:

Logo do

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Sair /  Alterar )

Foto do Facebook

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Facebook. Sair /  Alterar )

Conectando a %s