Home Arts and Leisure The Crucible, or How Arthur Miller Got the Salem Witch Trials Wrong

The Crucible, or How Arthur Miller Got the Salem Witch Trials Wrong


Arthur Miller ostensibly wrote his classic drama The Crucible about the Salem witch trials of 1692, but he aimed it at Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for Communists.

Arthur Miller in 1966

Arthur Miller in 1966

The play deals with a teenager who falls in love with a man who rejects her. In revenge, she instigates a frenzy of bloodlust in Salem, Mass.  Miller likened the Salem witch trials to McCarthy’s accusations that Communists infiltrated the government. McCarthy falsely claimed more than 200 government employees belonged to the Communist Party.

McCarthy’s hearings created a sensation. As a result of them, Hollywood blacklisted hundreds of actors and writers with leftist leanings. Many never recovered their careers.

Arthur Miller, in testimony before McCarthy’s committee, refused to name the names of writers he knew who may have had Communist leanings. For that, Congress found him guilty of contempt, and the State Department refused to grant him a passport. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

Miller’s troubles with Joseph McCarthy made international news, partly because of his wife — actress Marilyn Monroe.

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe at their wedding celebration.

The Crucible

The Crucible premiered on Broadway on Jan. 22, 1953 with E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Sherwood and Beatrice Straight. Critics gave hostile reviews and Miller didn’t like the production. The next year The Crucible  won critical acclaim in a new production.

Today it is considered a classic and one of Arthur Miller’s most popular plays.

Miller had traveled to Salem from his home in Roxbury, Conn., to research the witch trials, though he admitted the play wasn’t historically accurate.

Margo Burns, in her blog post  Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact & Fiction (or Picky, Picky, Picky…), catalogs all the historical inaccuracies in the play.

For starters, Arthur Miller even got some of his facts wrong in describing how he wrote the play.

Fact or Fiction?

The playwright  wrote in the New Yorker magazine that the character of Abigail Williams inspired The Crucible. Abigail, a former servant to Elizabeth and John Procter, accused them of witchcraft. Miller wrote that her apparent desire to convict Elizabeth and save John made the play conceivable for him. He speculated that John had bedded Abigail.

Something in particular jumped out at him during his research:

He had read that teenager Abigail Williams had tried to strike Elizabeth Procter, but when her hand came near her, ‘it opened, whereas it was made up into a fist before, and came down exceeding lightly as it drew near to said Procter, and at length, with open and extended fingers, touched Procter’s hood very lightly. Immediately Abigail cried out her fingers, her fingers, her fingers burned….’

Only … Abigail never worked as a maidservant in the Procter household.crucible

Miller also wrote in his autobiography Timebends that he saw in Salem “several framed etchings of the witchcraft trials, apparently made by an artist who must have witnessed them.”

There are no drawings by witnesses to the witch trial.

Miller was also struck by a story about two college boys who went to watch the Salem witch trials. “Both boys burst out laughing at some absurd testimony: they were promptly jailed, and faced possible hanging,” he wrote.

Never happened.

Some More Inaccuracies

Abigail tells Betty, “Your Mama’s dead and buried!” But Betty Parris’ mother was very much alive in 1692.

Tituba also never led any wild dancing in the woods, and Rev. Parris never stumbled upon them.

Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, the first two afflicted girls, did not fall into a sleep from which they could not awaken. They had violent fits.

Rev. Parris claims in the play he graduated from Harvard, but he actually dropped out.

The judges in the play The Crucible are Thomas Danforth and John Hathorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestor). The screenplay added Samuel Sewall, the only judge to apologize for his role in the killings. The real judges, in addition to Danforth and Hathorne, were William Stoughton, John Richards, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Wait Winthrop, Bartholomew Gedney, Samuel Sewall, John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin and Peter Sergeant.

For more historical inaccuracies in The Crucible, click here.

Arthur Miller died on Feb. 10, 2005.

Photos: The Crucible By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13204918; Arthur Miller By Koch, Eric / Anefo – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang Bestanddeelnummer 919-6131, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29287493.

This story about The Crucible was updated in 2022.


Linda February 16, 2017 - 11:06 am

As a direct descendant of a convicted and hung “witch”, I have stayed far away from watching “The Crucible”. I want facts, not fiction and I have no respect for Arthur Miller as a human or playwright. I can’t imagine him getting true facts anything but wrong.

Bill Wahl February 16, 2017 - 11:56 am

Some people call it “poetic License” but whatever you call it, I do not believe that the play was meant to be historically accurate. In order to fit the plot into a two hour time span, characters must be combined or some eliminated. It may also be necessary to add things in order to keep the audience’s attention. It was meant to entertain the audience and it does that very well. If anyone wants accuracy, they should read one of the 100 or so books written on the subject. I know that, personally, I never took the play as being an accurate depiction of the Salem Witch Hysteria. It served its purpose very well. McCarthyism was rejected by the American public and reason returned to our country.

Richard Keirstead February 16, 2017 - 2:22 pm

No mention of mode of travel.

New England in Early Film - New England Historical Society February 26, 2017 - 9:51 am

[…] movies inspired by the Salem witch trials have been produced since then, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Scooby-Doo! and the Witch's […]

Classic Movies Shot in New England, 13 Award-Winners - New England Historical Society March 5, 2018 - 8:23 am

[…] an all-star cast including Dana Andrews, Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt and Karl Malden. Playwright Arthur Miller appeared uncredited as a suspect in the police […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!