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.
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.