The Salem witch trial of Elizabeth Jackson Howe

For Halloween I could perhaps write something about what’s spooking the Fed as they contemplate tomorrow’s fed funds rate decision. But I decided instead to write about the Salem witch trials.

My mother asked me an economics question arising from her research into Elizabeth Jackson Howe (alternate spelling “Elizabeth Jackson How”), who was hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. The verbatim transcript of Elizabeth’s trial can be downloaded from Google books. The key evidence in her trial came from the animated accusations of some of the children of Salem. Here are excerpts from the trial’s transcript (edited for spelling errors):

Mercy Lewis and Mary Walcott fell in a fit quickly after the examinant [Elizabeth Howe] came in. Mary Walcott said that this woman the examinant had pinched her and choked this month. Ann Putnam said she had hurt her three times.

Salem memorial stone

Question. What say you to this charge? Here are them that charge you with witchcraft.

Answer. If it was the last moment I was to live God knows I am innocent of anything of this nature.

Q. Did you take notice that now when you looked upon Mercy Lewis she was struck down?

A. I cannot help it.

Q. You are charged here, what do you say?

A. I am innocent of anything of this nature….

Mercy Lewis at length spoke and charged this woman with hurting and pinching her. And then Abigail Williams cried she has hurt me a great many times, a great while and she has brought me the book. Ann Putnam had a pin stuck in her hand….

She looked upon Mary Warren and said Warren violently fell down.

For those who may be unsure how to interpret such goings on, there was also quantitative evidence adduced at the trial on the charge of sickening cows. Here’s the testimony of Timothy and Deborah Perley:

the night following, our cows lay out and finding of them the next morning we went to milk them and one of them did not give but two or three spoonfuls of milk and one of the other cows did not give about half a pint and the other gave about a quart and these cows used to give three or four quarts at a meal. Two of these cows continued to give little or nothing four or five meals and yet these went to a good English pasture and within four days the cows gave their full proportion that they used to give.

Ann Putnam Jr., one of the key child accusers of Howe and many of the other “witches”, publicly apologized in 1706, acknowledging the innocence of the accused and describing the whole episode as a delusion. In 1711, the Colony of Massachussets passed a legislative bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused of witchcraft and granting 600 pounds in restitution to their heirs.

This is where my mother’s economics question for me began. Deborah Howe, one of Elizabeth’s daughters, married Deborah’s cousin Isaac Howe, and their family received compensation from this fund in 1712, as recorded in Daniel Wait Howe’s book on Howe Genealogies. Deborah’s share came to a grand total of 2 pounds and 7 shillings. My mother’s question for me was, How much is that worth in today’s dollars?

It’s the sort of straightforward question to which you’d think an economist ought to be able to give a straightforward answer. However, the set of things that people were able and wanted to purchase in 1712 was so profoundly different from what we do with our money today that choosing a market “basket” the price of whose goods to compare is certain to be tremendously misleading no matter how you do it. If Barry Ritholtz thinks it’s controversial how you measure inflation from one year to the next (and it is), how much more so to try to come up with a number that meaningfully spans three centuries?

Of course that doesn’t stop people from trying, and there are price indices one can try to string together to answer such a question. For example, we can start with 2.35 pounds in 1712, multiply by 4.44 (the ratio used by John McCusker to convert 18th century pounds to 18th century dollars; see How Much Is That in Real Money?, page 313, or alternatively here), multiply again by McCusker’s measure of dollar price inflation to 2003, and last by the amount that the CPI-U-RS has increased since 2003, to conclude that 2.35 pounds in 1712 might correspond to something like $212 today:


Alternatively, one could ask how long someone at the time would have to work to earn the sum in question. According to a paper by Sharon Salinger in The William and Mary Quarterly in 1983, by the middle of the 1700’s, a freed journeyman could expect to earn 35 pounds each year. So 2 pounds, 7 shillings would be less than a month’s wages.

One last detail that may explain some of my personal interest in this story– it appears that Elizabeth Howe’s daughter Deborah, the recipient of this vast sum, was my great-8-grandmother.

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11 thoughts on “The Salem witch trial of Elizabeth Jackson Howe

  1. Barry Ritholtz

    Is controversial the right word?
    I want to understand the rate prices are actually going up. That leads to more and more questions: what do we measure? What don’t we measure? How do we measure it?
    I get my panties all in a bunch when people tell me either prices aren’t rising, or that we should only measure these items in basket A, but not basket B . . .

  2. Avo

    A frightening story. How old was Deborah when her mother was hanged?
    Today, of course, we have instead extraordinary rendition by the unitary executive.

  3. Stuart Staniford

    I’m curious to know if economists have made attempts to quantitatively estimate the uncertainty in inflation estimates. The major series I’ve looked at (the GDP deflators and the CPI) have no quoted uncertainties. But it seems like it would be an improvement to have an official error bar, so we could at least know, for example, the range of uncertainty in comparing inflation adjusted 1981 oil prices to today’s prices.

  4. JDH

    Avo, I’m not sure how old Deborah was, except that she was old enough to be married and have her own son, Jacob Howe (my great-7-grandfather) who was born in 1689.

  5. JDH

    Stuart, that’s an interesting idea. The problem of course is that we’re really talking about a specification error rather than a sampling error here, which by its nature is hard to quantify. Whatever its magnitude, it compounds as you try to do calculations like this one.

  6. jim kelley

    Took a short cooking class in northern Italy last week. Chef attributed the Salem girl’s delusions to poorly prepared Buckwheat flour.(no reference)

  7. Asebius

    Professor, count us among those who hope it doesn’t run in the family and that you don’t get lynched for your wizardry.

  8. Fred

    CPI is extremely misleading for comparisons between widely separated points in time, due to changes in the shopping basket over the ages. The correct means of deflating values from widely separated eras (which was done in this article) is to use wages rather than consumer prices. Actually, using wages inflation is probably better than CPI even for comparision between closely spaced points in time. The reason governments and corporations uses CPI rather than wage inflation for things like Social Security adjustments and union salaray agreements is that CPI is normally less by 2% or so than wage inflation. The reason is that societies are using getting richer as times goes on, due to productivity improvements. The last few years have been something of an anomaly in this respect, in that prices (if measured correctly) have recently been rising faster than median wages, so the average American, for perhaps the first times in American history, may be facing a declining standard of living.

  9. B.H.

    Two observations.
    First, in reference to previous note, many medical historians have speculated that improperly stored wheat can grow a mold that essentially mimics LSD. There may have been a drug explanation of delusions and hysteria in Olde Massachusetts and Europe.
    Second, I wish we could say that we have evolved in the past 300 years, but we haven’t much. Howe’s heirs got an apology and restitution. Did the McMartin family in Los Angeles, which was accused of running Satanic orgies at its pre-school, ever get an apology or restitution from the State of California for having their lives ruined by delusional accusations and quackery? That family suffered the longest trial in US history. Not one conviction.

  10. pat

    Indeed a frightening story.
    Focusing on the economic side, I am not sure inflation adjustment is the relevant concept here. For me, knowing how much share 2 pounds and 7 shillings is relative to the per capita income at the time gives me a better sense about the magnitude of the “compensation”. Say your last calculation is in the ball park, then she received about one-month wage. That seemed more like an insult …

  11. David Harley

    >>>>> “Took a short cooking class in northern Italy last week. Chef attributed the Salem girl’s delusions to poorly prepared Buckwheat flour.(no reference)”
    Ergotism (a.k.a. St Anthony’s Fire), caused by diseased rye eaten in damp weather, is one of the materialist explanations offered for witchcraft accusations.
    It fails because the afflictions concerned do not strike all members of a household or a community, there is no evidence of the continuing neurological damage caused by ergotism, and there is no strong correlation between either damp weather or areas of rye consumption.
    In order to “prove” the point, pieces of evidence are cherrypicked from the court records in much the same way as formerly evidence was selectively gathered to “prove” that accused witches were all followers of a pre-Christian religion.
    No matter how often this pseudo-explanation is knocked down, it keeps coming back, in books, novels, textbooks, and PBS documentaries. The few people who are heavily invested in the ergotism narrative — mainly Linda Caporael, but also Mary Matossian and some cultural materialist anthropologists — keep telling it, as if had never been criticized.
    The story appeals, in large part, because people do not wish to accept that our own society, in relatively recent history, has accused, tried and executed people on the basis of ideas that we ourselves find irrational. Accepting such a thing opens us up to the possibility that our own beliefs are, or potentially are, shaped by current culture in just such a way.
    Hence the preference for blaming Nazism, or Stalinism, or the Cultural Revolution, or Islamic extremism either on a handful of evil and vastly powerful geniuses or on a culture totally unlike our own.

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