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At the scary-fun time of year symbolized by jack-o’-lanterns, black cats, and witches, it’s easy to forget that the latter have a serious backstory. Part of that comes from the infamous Salem Witch Trials that took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692. Two hundred people were wrongly accused of witchcraft — 20 of them were executed — based on flimsy or absolutely no solid evidence. It was such a dark spot in American history that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events in 1957.
More than 300 years after they took place, the Salem Witch Trials still fascinate in pop culture. They’ve inspired shows such as Salem, an episode of The Simpsons, and movies like Winona Ryder’s The Crucible (inspired by the Arthur Miller play). Interestingly, a few of today’s celebrities have real-life family ties to the historical event.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Other than Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, Parker is arguably best known for her role as one of the villainous witches in the Halloween kiddie classic Hocus Pocus. In the flick, her character and her two sisters were hanged in the Salem Witch Trials and then brought back to life in 1993.
Parker discovered on the ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are? that one of her own relatives — her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, on her mother’s side — actually was one of the many accused. When the actress appeared on the show in 2010, historical records and genealogists led her to the Massachusetts Historical Society and a copy of Elwell’s arrest warrant for being one of three women who allegedly caused a 17-year-old girl to fall sick and die.
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“Honestly, I’m so worried. I’m kind of nauseous,” Parker said while waiting to hear Elwell’s fate.
It turned out Elwell was one of the survivors of the ordeal. She was the last person formally accused of witchcraft, and the court that handled witches was dissolved less than three weeks before Elwell’s court date. SJP’s ancestor lived to be 82.
”Who knows what would’ve happened to our family if the witch hunt had continued?” a relieved Parker asked.
The Scandal star’s family roots also reach back to the Salem Witch Trials, but the ending is different. Foley discovered on an April 2016 episode of the same show that Samuel Wardwell, his eighth great-grandfather on his father’s side, was accused of “afflicting” a 16-year-old girl who believed him to be a wizard. Wardwell was also a suspected witch because, according to records, he had accurately predicted that a woman would give birth to five girls before she had a boy.
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Wardwell was accused, convicted, and hanged over nine days in September 1692. His tombstone reads, “God knows I am innocent.”
The grave site was Foley’s final stop on his journey of self-discovery.
“I take his story from this day forward, everywhere I go,” Foley said.
That’s right — one of Harry Potter’s classmates at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — has people accused of the dark arts in his family tree. In 2007, researcher David Nelson told the U.K. newspaper the Sun that Felton was a descendant of the first man accused in the Salem Witch Trials.
“He is a distant relative of John Proctor — who was hanged on August 19, 1692,” Nelson said. “I have informed Tom’s manager about witches in his family tree.”
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Historian Emerson W. Baker, a history professor at Salem State University, also cited Felton’s connection to the ordeal in a 2014 book, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.
Calculations suggest that “there must be well over 100 million living descendants of the accused in Salem, not to mention all the other people known to have been involved in the witch trials,” he wrote. “Descendants range from George W. Bush and the heir to the British throne Prince William to actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Tom Felton, the English actor who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. Most Americans must either be a descendant or know someone who has such a connection. Salem’s trials truly are the trials of a nation, whether we realize it or not.”
And the story reaches all the way to Hollywood.
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