Is The Crucible Based on a True Story?

The Crucible is a play about the Salem Witch Trials written by Arthur Miller. The play debuted on Broadway in January of 1953 and has since become an American classic.

Although the play is based on the Salem Witch Trials, it was intended to be an allegory for the Red Scare during the 1940s and 50s.

Miller later explained that he saw many similarities between the hunt for communists in the 20th century and the hunt for witches in the 17th century.

But mostly, at the heart of it, the play is about what happens to a community when people start to turn on each other. Miller saw examples of this in both the Red Scare, during which officials tried to force Miller himself and many other people into naming suspected communists, and also in the Salem Witch Trials, during which the accused witches were pressured into naming other suspected witches.

What Inspired Arthur Miller to Write The Crucible?

Arthur Miller first got the idea to write about the Salem Witch Trials after reading a book titled Salem Witchcraft by Charles W. Upham, as he explained in an article he wrote for the New Yorker:

“I had read about the witchcraft trials in college, but it was not until I read a book published in 1867—a two-volume, thousand-page study by Charles W. Upham, who was then the mayor of Salem—that I knew I had to write about the period. Upham had not only written a broad and thorough investigation of what was even then an almost lost chapter of Salem’s past but opened up to me the details of personal relationships among many participants in the tragedy.”

Then, in 1949, Miller came across a newly published book about the Salem Witch Trials, titled The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey, in which Starkey not only compared the trials to a Greek tragedy, with a clear, beginning, middle and end, but also pointed out that witch hunts were not a thing of the past and had continued to happen, in one way or another, long after people stopped believing in witches.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

This inspired Miller to take a dramatic approach to retelling the story of the trials and frame it as an allegory for the Red Scare, which he saw as a modern day witch hunt.

To gather material for the play, Miller visited Salem, Massachusetts in the spring of 1952 and spent a week researching the Salem Witch Trials court records at the courthouse.

There, he found the record of Elizabeth Proctor’s trial and was surprised to read about how Abigail Williams attempted to strike Elizabeth Proctor during her examination, but then stopped suddenly, and then lightly touched her hood and exclaimed that her hand burned when she touched her.

Miller said he found this gesture to be curious and imagined a scenario where Williams had been a servant for the Proctor family but was fired by Elizabeth for sleeping with John Proctor thus prompting Abigail to accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft.

Is The Crucible Historically Accurate?

Arthur Miller never claimed that The Crucible was historically accurate and in the print edition of his play he even included a “Note on Historical Accuracy of the Play” during which he points out some of the changes he made to the story and explained why he made them. The note states:

“This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian. Dramatic purposes have sometimes required many characters to be fused into one; the number of girls involved in the ‘crying out’ has been reduced; Abigail’s age has been raised; while there were several judges of almost equal authority, I have symbolized them all in Hathorne and Danforth. However, I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar — and in some cases exactly the same — role in history.

As for the characters of the persons, little is known about most of them except what may be surmised from a few letters, the trial record, certain broadsides written at the time, and references to their conduct in sources of varying reliability. They may therefore be taken as creations of my own, drawn to the best of my ability in conformity with their known behavior, except as indicated in the commentary I have written for this text.”

In addition to the changes Miller described in his note, there are also a number of other historical inaccuracies in the play:

The character Abigail Williams states that Betty Parris’ mother is deceased by the time the Salem Witch Trials take place but in actuality her mother was still alive.

There is no proof that Abigail Williams even knew John or Elizabeth Proctor, let alone worked as their servant.

John Proctor never confessed or even attempted to confess to being a witch and continued to maintain his innocence until his death.

Abigail Williams is described as being a 17-year-old during the Salem Witch Trials when she was actually 12 years old.

Mary Warren is described as being a 17-year-old when she was actually 20 years old.

John Proctor is described as being in his mid-30s when he was actually 60 years old.

Miller changed Ann Putnam Jr’s first name to Ruth to avoid confusion with her mother Ann Putnam Sr.

Miller depicts Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor and Martha Corey as being hanged on the same day when it reality Nurse was hanged in July, Proctor was hanged in August and Corey was hanged in September.

Miller describes a scene where Tituba and the afflicted girls dance in the woods and are discovered by Reverend Samuel Parris. This never happened in real life, yet some of the girls are known to have dabbled in a folk magic technique known as a “venus glass,” where they dropped an egg white in a glass of water and interpreted the shape to predict the future, and Tituba and Mary Sibley confessed to making a witch cake from the urine of one of the afflicted girls which Parris found out about and scolded them before informing his congregation of the deed.

The character Reverend Samuel Parris states that he graduated from Harvard but in real life Parris dropped out before he could graduate.

Betty Parris is described as being comatose and unresponsive when in actually she was instead experiencing violent fits.

George Jacobs Sr was never accused of sending his spirit through the window to lie on Ann Putnam Jr.

John Hale did not become skeptical of the trials after John Proctor’s death, but only later, after his own wife was accused.

Giles Corey was indeed tortured for standing mute, but not for refusing to name other suspected witches. In actuality, he stood mute when he was asked the customary question of whether he would accept a trial by a jury of his peers.

Why Did Miller Make These Changes?

Miller most likely changed these small details for a variety of reasons, such as to better fit his narrative, reduce the number of characters, simplify the timeline, make the relationships between the characters clearer and basically just to make the story flow better.

The actual events of the Salem Witch Trials were very complicated and there were hundreds of people involved so it is a challenge sometimes to retell the story without confusing the audience. It would make sense that Miller might change some things to make the story simpler and easier to understand.

Why Is It Important to Note the Differences?

It’s important to know the differences between the events in the play and the events in real life in order to separate fact from fiction.

Without it, the details of the actual Salem Witch Trials could get lost or confused with the details of the play and then our understanding of this chapter in American history would be flawed and inaccurate.

Sources:
Miller, Arthur and Christopher Bigsby. “Introduction by Christopher Bigsby.” The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. Penguin Books, 2003.
Burns, Margo. “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact and Fiction.” 17th Century Colonial New England, 17thc.us/docs/fact-fiction.shtml
“The Crucible, or How Arthur Miller Got the Salem Witch Trials Wrong.” New England Historical Society, newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/crucible-arthur-miller-got-salem-witch-trials-wrong/
Miller, Author. “Why I wrote the Crucible.” The New Yorker, Oct. 21, 1996, newyorker.com/magazine/1996/10/21/why-i-wrote-the-crucible

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the writer and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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