In the famous play by Arthur Miller, The Crucible, John Proctor and Abigail had an affair that drove the major plot points of the play/movie. In The Crucible, John and Abigail are ~30 and 17 years old respectively, but in real life, they were 60 and 11 years old respectively. Miller admitted to taking some creative liberty, but there seems to be no record of whether or not the affair did actually take place, or whether it was simply added to create tension. I assume that with such an age range, it did not take place, but it is also quite a large plot point to simply fabricate.

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    This seems as if it would be better asked on history.stackexchange.com because the question is about the historical figures, not about the fictional characters. – Gareth Rees Oct 31 at 10:33
  • It does help the reader/watcher to appreciate the play more though. – Rand al'Thor Oct 31 at 15:37
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    @GarethRees I disagree - it's about historical context for the play, so it's on-topic on both sites. – EJoshuaS Oct 31 at 19:33
up vote 5 down vote accepted
+50

We cannot possibly know for certain what happened between two people several hundred years ago, especially when surviving testimony has been coloured with such fevered speculation as surrounds the witch trials. However, it seems extremely unlikely that Proctor and Williams had an affair.

The accusation stems from the court records, which show the testimony of Abigail Williams against John Proctor. She accused his then wife, Elizabeth, of being a witch, and Proctor stepped up to defend her, whereupon Williams also accused him of witchcraft. As her story expanded, it became more and more lurid, until it included the suggestion the two were lovers.

However, there is no evidence to support the affair beyond Abigail's testimony, and plenty to suggest that she was lying. Consider the following circumstantial evidence.

  • The age difference: Proctor was 60 and Williams was 11. Although it is commonly presumed that such an age difference was tolerated in this era, that is largely false. Although noblewomen married young, the relationships were not consummated until mid to late teens. And for common folk, parish records suggest that the average marriage age for a woman was 25. This suggests a consensual relationship with such a huge age gap was extremely unlikely.
  • Proctor had been married twice before, having many children, including daughters. At his trial 32 neighbours signed a petition attesting to his good character. There is no evidence he had an interested in underage girls.
  • According to this site on the history of Massachusetts, there is no evidence that they two actually knew one another prior to the trials. The estimated population of the area at the time varies between 500-2000 individuals, so this is entirely plausible.
  • Abigail Williams made a huge variety of accusations against people in Salem - 57 in total according to court records. We cannot, therefore, be sure there was anything special to inspire her accusation against Proctor, such as an affair. In fact, Proctor was a critic of the trials in general and accused several of the witnesses of lying, including Williams, stating they deserved to be whipped. That would seem a more likely motivation for Williams than an affair.
  • Presuming that witches don't, in fact, exist, it seems that almost all of Williams' testimony consisted of lies. There is no reason to suppose the affair was any different.

None of this seems to have stopped Miller from imagining that the affair was real. He seems to have believed this whole-heartedly and not merely used it as an inspiration for the play. He stated:

"Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, and they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth. There was bad blood between the two women now. That Abigail started, in effect, to condemn Elizabeth to death with her touch, then stopped her hand, then went through with it, was quite suddenly the human center of all this turmoil."

It is interesting that he refers to "two women" even though Abigail was, in fact, a young girl. Perhaps when he said this he was unaware, or simply not thinking of, Abigail's age which of course does make the story more plausible.

References:
- Hill, Frances (2009) The Salem Witch Trials Reader. Da Capo Press.

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