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The Development of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692: a Summary
Witchcraft Beliefs in 17th Century New England
New England Witch Stereotypes
The Problem Of Proving Witchcraft The Afflicted Girls
Witchcraft and Puritanism
Social, Political and Economic Reasons For Witchcraft
Victims of the Trials
THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS OF 1692
by Anke Schönwälder
I wrote this paper about the witchcraft hysteria in Salem, Massachussetts for a class on American History. Feedback is always welcome (my email address is at the bottom of the page). But please, if you use my results in any way--let me know before and remember that this was a whole lot of work-- please cite correctly. No plagiarism. Thanks.
Since I had access to only a limited number of books I know that my choice of literature might not be perfect. My bibliography on the subject is not at all complete, it shows only which books I was able to find here. (Additional information is always welcome.)
To make reading my paper a bit easier I put in links to the foot notes and back to the text (just click on the numbers in brackets in order to get to the corresponding paragraphs or foot notes). It was quite a lot of work but I think it was worth it.
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 represent a part of New England history that is unique in the entire history of the United States of America and, in some respect, also in the history of witch hunts all over the world.
When they are compared to the mass executions that took place in Europe, the witch hunts of Salem may seem relatively insignificant because they led to only 150 incarcerations and altogether only 19 executions, whereas in Europe more than ten thousand people were executed between the 16th and 18th century. The Salem episode, however, differs from the European witch hunts in several important aspects: first of all, the trials were organized by the community, not by the church. Secondly, they were not based on the „Malleus maleficarum", which demanded more violent methods in the questioning of the suspects. Thirdly, the families of the victims received restitution payments several years after the end of the trials, and most people who had been involved in the trials later even declared their remorses.
Yet there is an interesting similarity between the European and the New England witch crises: they both occurred in a situation of fear and uncertainty. In Europe, there had been a severe drop in the climate, making the winters longer and harder to survive, and leading to smaller harvests in the summer. In New England, there had been a drought in 1691 that was followed by floods in early 1692. Besides, in all of New England, the legal situation was insecure because the Charta of the Massachussetts Bay Company had been abolished, so that there was no government. In addition to that there were internal problems in Salem, a recent small pox epidemic, and frequent conflicts with the neighboring Indian tribes. Together with social changes that endangered the entire Puritan ideology, the problems led to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
Apart from that, the Puritan ideology contained a strong belief in the omnipresence of the devil and his eternal struggle to seduce the Christians to turn away from God. The problems that the first generations of English settlers had to face could always be seen as divine castigations for sinful behavior, or as the threat of Satan trying to establish his rule on earth. So the people had always observed carefully if their neighbors displayed any signs of occult practices, and tried to fight against them when they thought to have discovered a witch.
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2 The Development of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 (1)
Already some time before 1692, it had been popular among young people in Salem to perform so- called "cunning rituals" that were taken from superstitious traditions. They used simple instruments, like egg whites in a glass which served as a primitive crystal ball, and tried to predict their future. In early 1692, these games suddenly seemed to have a strange effect on a few girls, most whom were between 14 and 19 years old. The first ones to behave strangely were the daughter and the niece of the local minister Samuel Parris. They appeared to have fits, used unintellegible language or did not show the appropriate respect for authorities. This behavior lasted for several weeks, and neither prayers nor fasting nor medical examinations served to discover or relieve the cause.
In order to reveal the truth, several methods were used: A witch cake, made of rye meal mixed with the urine of the girls, was produced and fed to a dog in order to see if the dog would show the same symptoms as the girls.(2) This was a common ritual to discover the involvement of witchcraft. The villagers also began to question the girls intensely, and after some time three women were accused of ‘afflicting’ them, i.e. torturing them with apparitions and visions and using their occult powers to force them to act this way. The women were arrested. They were Tituba, a slave woman of South-American Indian origin, Sarah Good, a homeless woman who begged her food in Salem Village, and Sarah Osborne, who was known for her contentious behavior. Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good denied that they were witches, but Tituba confessed, even volunteering to give detailed descriptions of her contact with the devil, and declaring that she had been the victim of a witch conspiracy that had been organized in Salem. She also accused Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne of having been a member of this conspiracy. The three women were sent to Boston to jail.
Until here, the events resembled all the witchcraft cases that had occurred in New England before. The accused women were all in some way social outcasts, and normally the problem should have come to an end after the incarceration of the ‘witches’. But instead, the affliction of the girls continued, affected even more girls and eventually led to further accusations.
It is important to mention that the involvement of witchcraft had never been put forward by the afflicted girls themselves. It was only after a month of their unusual behavior when bewitchment was suggested, and it seems that the intense questionings eventually forced the girls to accuse somebody. It seems quite intelligible that they picked women who fit the traditional stereotypes of witches.(3)
More and more suspected witches were arrested. The Salem people believed Tituba’s theory of a satanic conspiracy, and they hoped that by arresting the leading witch the problem could be solved. The next arrested person was Martha Corey. During her examination in front of several hundred people, she tried to talk to the afflicted girls in order to prove her innocence, but as soon as she came close to them, they screamed in agony. They also claimed that every movement she made was torturing them. This is typical of all the trials: every attempt to doubt the girls’ accusations was answered with a aggravation of the affliction, which led the audience to feel sympathy for the girls.
The incarcerations began to accelerate, so that the accused soon had to be transported to the surrounding villages. Since traditional belief had it that heavy chains would prevent the witches from going on with their afflictions, the conditions in the prisons were terrible. Often the pain because of the chains, the hunger and the fatigue made the accused witches confess, even though no direct physical torture was applied.(4) There were also several men imprisoned. One of them, Giles Corey, died of torture during the trials. He had refused to enter a plea in the trial, seeing that he would always be condemned, thus depriving his family of the right to inherit his land. In order to be able to proceed with his trial, the judges decided to apply an old English ritual, called peine forte et dure: stones were piled up on his chest to make him talk, but instead of giving in he died under the weight.
The development of the witch accusations and trials can be divided into three stages: (5) From February until the beginning of April there were only 6 suspects, three of which were social outcasts. Up to here, the process resembled the previous witchcraft cases in New England. After this, the accusations accelerated: 22 were made in April, 39 in May. There is a short time after the first execution in June during which hardly any accusations were pronounced, but then the numbers increased immensely until finally there were 150 people imprisoned.
Over time, the accused witches and wizards were of higher and higher social status until in the end even Governor Phips’s wife was accused. The hysteria also left the area of Salem Village and soon spread all over Essex County, even though many times the accusers and the accused persons did not know each other.
Apart from the high number of imprisoned persons, another problem had to be solved. The Charta of the Massachusetts Bay Company had been abolished in 1684, which meant that there was no legally established government and that no trials could be held until there was a legal basis for them. It was only in May that a new Charta was brought from England when the new Governor, Sir William Phips, arrived. Phips formed the ‘Court of Oyer and Terminer’, which consisted of judges who were believed by some people to have a "predisposition toward conviction": some had already led questionings or even convicted witches before. (6) On June2nd, the first session of the trials was held, which led to the condemnation of Bridget Bishop. She was executed one week later, followed by nine hangings on June 19th. On August 5th, six more trials were held which led to six convictions, one of which was postponed because of the woman’s pregnancy.
After the eight last hangings on September 22nd, the trials came to an end. The girls still kept up her accusations, but the popular opinion had changed. People began to have doubts about the accusations, especially because there were so many popular suspects. This does not mean that the attitude towards witchcraft had changed. People only doubted the legal approach of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, as well as the veracity of the affliction of the girls. The Court had often been suspected to judge before the actual trials, which meant that rich and influential people were never condemned. Concerning the afflictions, people now argued that the girls had been deluded by the devil so that they had innocent persons.
Apart from this, the trials had led to several economic problems: Many wealthy people who were important for the village economy had either been arrested or had fled from the area. Besides, the children of executed witches were not allowed to inherit their land, so there were many orphans without future perspectives that the community had to take care of. The farms of the arrested people were ruined, the livestock was dying and nobody was there to bring in the harvest, and although there was no income the prison fees had to be paid.
In November, after having asked for advice among ministers in the surrounding area, Governor Phips formed a new court, the Superior Court of Judicature. It consisted of five judges, four of which had already been members of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The most important difference was that the new court did not accept spectral evidence, and that all those who confessed were to be executed so that nobody could save his or her life with fake testimonies anymore. The only accepted evidence were confessions made without pressure or fear, and sworn testimonies of at least two persons that they had seen the accused perform acts that definitely involved occult powers. The trials were held from January until April of 1693. They led to the acquittal of 50 out of 53 suspects. To the rage of chief judge Stoughton, the three convicted witches were also reprieved by Governor Phips. All those who were still awaiting their trials were exonerated as soon as they paid their prison fees.
In 1711, restitution payments were granted to the families of some of the victims, and the excommunications before the hangings were annulled. This expression of guilt was unique in the history of witch hunts: almost all the people who had been involved in the trials, like some of the "afflicted" girls, the judges, and Reverend Parris, later accepted the blame and declared in public that they regretted their participation. Most of them, however, blamed everything on Satan and claimed that he had been deluding them. In the following years there were new indictments of witchcraft, but spectral evidence was not accepted anymore, so that it became impossible to convict witches, and nobody ever received any legal penalties. (7)
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3 Witchcraft Beliefs in 17th Century New England
It may seem quite surprising that the witch hysteria occurred in a culture as religious as New England’s, but in fact some people reported that in Europe they had never encountered as much superstitious beliefs and practices as they did there.(8) Since witches are mentioned in the Bible (9) , it would have been considered to be heretic if someone had doubted their existence or, consequently, the danger to the Christian world that they were believed to pose: The devil, whose existence was not doubted by anyone, was thought to cooperate with them with the intention of destroying the Christian world and establishing his own rule. Some people saw an additional danger in the fact that the land of the Puritans had previously "belonged" to the devil until the first Christian settlers had arrived, so that the devil was provoked to defend his property.
The ideas about witches had been brought from England. In popular belief, there were various types of magic: the harmless cunning lore, which was used for fortune-telling, white healing practices and sometimes simply for entertainment, and, on the other hand, witchcraft, which differed from the cunning lore in the malicious intentions it implied. Cunning people were seen as the enemies of witches because of their supposed ability to counter evil curses with white magic.
The church tolerated cunning lore although the powers involved in these practices were also believed to derive from the devil, and although according to the bible they were sinful. (10) It was so popular that there was no point in banning it, so the clerics excused these superstitions arguing that those people who used cunning rituals were neither consciously cooperating with satanic powers nor were they aware of their sinfulness. (11)
What people feared most about witchcraft was maleficium, i. e. evil deeds that are carried out by occult powers which are conjured by the witch. Maleficium was a common explanation for mishaps, illness or sudden death of family members or livestock. Since medicine was not very well-developed at that time, arthritis, cancer, strokes or infectious diseases seemed mysterious and were also blamed on witchcraft. It was even common for doctors to suspect witchcraft when they were unable to discover the cause of an illness.(12)
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4 New England Witch Stereotypes
The witchcraft accusations in Salem had not been the first ones in New England. In fact, about 100 accusations had already been made since 1663, but they had only led to 4 convictions, including only one execution. (13)
There are several character traits that many of the accused witches in New England had in common. Not all of the individuals had to match all the stereotypes, but normally several of them applied to a suspect. (14) First of all, it has to be mentioned that more than 80% of the believed witches were women. In addition to that, most of the accused men were in some way related to a female witch or had been trying to defend one. (15)
There are several interpretations why women were more likely to cooperate with the devil. Firstly, the female sex had always been considered to be weaker, beginning with Eve being seduced by the snake. Reis points out, however, that there was no explicit gender distinction in the Puritan theology that could explain why most of the witches were female. Instead she argues that most women tended to interpret their own sinfulness differently than men: whereas men normally thought of single events when they spoke of their sinfulness, women rather saw their entire souls as sinful, without having a particular deed in mind.(16) This difference also affected the accusations: women, who were more likely to believe in the general sinfulness of other women, rather saw specters, whereas men tended to refer to specific incidents where harm was done (i.e., maleficium). (17)
Although many of the accused women at Salem were unusually successful and economically independent, Gragg states that the accusations were not pronounced in order to punish the women for their strength in comparison to men but because they were seen to be a danger to the Puritan society and its value system. (18)
Most witches were known for their contentious behavior and their malice, which was believed to be caused by envy and discontent. Many witches had also been accused of committing crimes before, often of theft, or, very frequently, of using abusive language. Some witches were also known to have practiced medical vocations. The witches typically came from relatively low social positions and were of middle age. (19)
Demos points out that in contrast to widely accepted beliefs the witches in New England were neither insane nor eccentric. He gives several examples of documents that prove that there was a very tolerant and understanding attitude towards insanity, and that no connection to evil powers was suspected in mental disorders. In fact, the accused witches in New England were exceptionally strong and independent: in spite of the high pressure put upon them during the trials, many witches kept insisting in their innocence. Many of them had been quarrelsome, but a lot of their arguments and court actions had led to success. (20)
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5 The Problem of Proving Witchcraft
In New England, witchcraft was to be treated like any other crime because the witch consciously used her occult powers in order to hurt her victim. Since this act takes place only within the witch´s mind, it was impossible to prove. There were many discussions about whether the effects of witchcraft were real or only delusions of the devil. The final agreement was that even if the results of witchcraft were unreal, it would still be a sin to turn away from God and to try and hurt somebody. (21)
Still the only solid evidence was to get a confession from the witch, although folk traditions also knew several rituals and signals that were believed to prove the involvement of occult powers.
Unfortunately, confessing was a way for the accused witches and wizards to escape the hangings:
they claimed that they also had been bewitched and, as a proof, named those who had forced them to give in to the devil, as well as persons they had seen at the witch sabbaths that were believed to have taken place. This way, the number of imprisoned suspects increased extremely fast. Besides, the confession was considered to be the act of turning back to God, so that a confessing sinner was to be given the chance of purging his soul instead of being executed.
People also sought other indications of satanic involvement. The most important one were the afflictions. These did not need any evidence because the symptoms, like cramps or screaming, were visible to everyone. Some people also presented wounds that looked like teeth or needle marks and claimed they had been caused by the specters. The judges tried to test the authencity of the afflictions by having the suspected witch approach the ‘victims’: according to traditional beliefs, when she came close to them, the fits would grow worse, but as soon as she touched them, the symptoms would stop.
The problem was that this sort of ‘evidence’ was still very easy to fake. Some people who doubted the veracity of the afflicted girls were either ignored or accused of witchcraft themselves for trying to help Satan by saving a witch. There were several cases in which people tried to give evidence that a suspect was innocent, which was also ignored.
There were other types of evidence that were accepted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The most problematic one, taken over from English tradition, was the so-called ‘spectral evidence’, i.e. testimonies about supernatural visitations from satanic creatures appearing in the specter of suspected witches who, in most cases, attempted to harm the observer, or sometimes appeared as ghosts of deceased persons who revealed the identity of the witch who had killed them. A point of discussion was whether Satan needed the witch’s cooperation in order to use her shape as a "specter". The final agreement was that even if the witch had not given the permission to use her shape as a specter, Satan would still need God’s consent in order to do so. This implied that the witch had sinned before so that God did not protect her from Satan anymore. Therefore even if the accused was not a practicing witch, he or she would still be a sinner and, consequently, to be condemned.
There were several more tangible things that also suggested witchcraft. Body examinations were performed in order to find a ‘witch´s teat’, i.e. an abnormal deformation on the body where the witch could give suck to the devil in the shape of a small animal. People also looked for utensils such as broomsticks, signatures in blood or puppets that might have been used for occult practices. Apart from this tangible evidence, reports of incidents were accepted in which a suspect had appeared to have superhuman powers or in which they had showed anger that had been followed by mischief for their opponents. The habit of muttering was found to be especially suspicious because people feared that a curse might be pronounced.
An important question in the trials was if members of the church could be witches or not. On the one hand, people believed that especially clerics, as well as the "elect", were the most fervent opponents of Satan, so that it was impossible for them to become a witch. But on the other hand, there were several examples from the bible that showed the opposite. (22) This made it possible that eventually even George Burroughs, a former village pastor, was accused of witchcraft and even considered to be the head of the witch conspiracy, which can be seen as a total break from conventional accusations.(23) In his trial, not even a formerly accepted proof of innocence convinced the judges of his innocence: he recited the Lord’s Prayer without mistakes, which was actually believed to be impossible for a wizard, but nevertheless he was executed.
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6 The Afflicted Girls
The ‘affliction’ of several young girls represented the cause for the outbreak of the witch crisis and determined the entire course of events. The girls showed seizures, screamed, talked nonsense or did not show the appropriate respect to authorities. After all the common methods of curing unusual behavior, e.g. prayers and fasting, had failed, it was suggested that the girls were bewitched.
To many observers, the girls’ behavior seemed "more exhilarated than tormented, more liberating than oppressive". (24) Besides, it was very stereotypical and could be ended by isolating girls from the group. (25) In fact, it had several advantages to be afflicted: the girls, who normally had a very low position in the social order, were able to act in a way that usually would have been unacceptable. Their strange and sometimes even respectless behavior was blamed on the witches who were torturing them and forcing them to do so, so that the girls were excused and even pitied. Apart from that, it was a way to gain attention, in fact it made them the most powerful persons in Salem at that time, whereas in there normal lives they did not have any perspective of improving their social status in the future. Since the exhibition of their affliction represented the main (and in many cases the only) evidence during the trials, they were able to decide who was going to be accused and whether these persons were going to be executed or not. (26) Whenever a person doubted the veracity of their afflictions or tried to argue with them, they fell into fits, thus accusing him or her of also being a witch.
During the first months, everybody seemed to believe them, and their power was unbroken. Later, when the accused persons seemed more and more unlikely to be involved in occult practices, some clergymen suggested that the girls might be deluded by the devil so that they accused innocent persons. But since some people argued that firstly being a member of the church (i.e., an elect) did not necessarily mean that the person was indeed free of sins, and that secondly the devil might be able to take the shape of a saint, as it is described in the Bible. (27)
I doubt, however, that the girls were completely aware of the consequences of their accusations, and after the trials had begun they certainly lost the power to end the crisis. There was a strong pressure on them not to oppose the other afflicted girls’ behavior. Some girls later admitted that they had not felt any ‘affliction’ themselves, but that they had joined the other girls’ hysteria. There were even two afflicted girls who told the court that they had only given in to peer pressure but never seen or felt an affliction themselves, but this information was not taken into account by the judges. One of the girls was even forced to keep the loyalty with the other girls and to show an ‘affliction’ again because otherwise the girls would have accused her of witchcraft.
The seizures and visions were very similar to the symptoms of clinical hysteria, which often appears in situations of social stress. This was the case in Salem, as I will explain below. Similar irregularities in the behavior occured on later occasions, only that then they were not interpreted as possession. Fifty years after the trials, several young people displayed similar behavior, but then people saw it as a sign of religious conversion.(28)
It seems sensible to distinguish between the group of the afflicted girls and the other accusers, because in many cases the motivation for the accusations was very different. Apparently the afflicted girls had at first been frightened by the magic rituals they had experimented with and had begun to act strangely, but they never suggested that witchcraft was involved. It was only after intense questioning by adults that they accused the first three women. They noticed soon that this was a way to gain attention and power, but they probably did not have any conscious ambitions to do damage to a certain family or a specific social group. The only pattern in the girls’ accusations is that they tended to accuse middle-aged women. On the one hand, many of these women were in an economically powerful position that the girls knew was unaccessible to them, and this success was morally problematic at that time (see below), especially for women. Therefore the girls may well have felt that the control and power the older women had over them was satanic. As one girl said in a description of her specters, they had been seducing her with material wealth. She defended herself: (29)
"Must the Younger Women, do yee say, hearken to the Elder?—They must be another Sort of Elder Woman than you then! They must not bee Elder witches, I am sure. Pray, do you for once Hearken to me—What a dreadful Sight are you! An Old Woman, an Old Servant of the Divel! You, that should instruct such poor, young Foolish Creatures as I am, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ come and urge me to serve the Divel!"(30)
On the other hand, women were still more vulnerable than men because of the existing clichés.
When the trials were put to an end, the girls still kept up their accusations, but the opponents of the trials were to strong for them to convince with their "afflictions". Many people did not accept any longer that the girls’ accusations represented the only evidence in the trials, whereas the testimonies in favor of a suspect were not accepted by the judges.
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7 Witchcraft and Puritanism
It seems that the Puritan ideology was closely connected to the outbreak of the Salem Witch Crisis. This would also explain why the attitude towards witchcraft beliefs differed so much from the one displayed by the inhabitants of the other, non-Puritan regions in America: in Virginia, there had never been any witchcraft executions, and in the other regions, only two cases had occurred, but they never led to a hysteria like in New England. (31)
As the Puritan leader John Winthrop had said:
"We must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. [...] For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." (32)
In the late 17th century, this sense of community was beginning to disappear. The people in Salem were not the newly arrived settlers anymore, who had been willing to live according to these ideals. In 1692, the people faced the problem that individual economic success was valued higher and higher, so that there was nothing like making "others’ conditions our own" anymore. People were not equal anymore in their struggle to settle down and to survive in an uncivilized environment, instead social distinctions had been established so that there were beggars as well as rich merchants. Still the value of community was held up by the church. Therefore the accusation of rich, successful persons might have shown that the individual wealth that did not contribute to the community was seen to be sinful and evil.
The Puritan attitude towards individuality might also have led people to suspect independent, self- confident persons of witchcraft. Demos argues that because of the educational methods which condemned the free expression of individual wishes and thoughts, many people considered those that openly showed their anger or a sense of competition as not morally acceptable and therefore suspected a connection to Satan. (33) He also remarks that the accusation of assertive persons might have served as a way of externalizing the internal conflict between individual wishes and the expected Puritan "peacefulness". (34) Apart from that, refusing a poorer neighbor’s appeal for help was morally problematic, but if it was followed by misfortune it was often interpreted as the poor person using occult powers in revenge. (35)
The Puritans’ idea of the devil was that he was a fervent opponent of God and, consequently, of the Puritan society. In order to undermine God’s rule, he seduced persons to turn away from Christianity (36), which was symbolized by their signature in his book. He intended to use the witches to establish his own rule on earth, and in exchange he gave them supernatural powers, promised them material wealth and participation in his future kingdom, in which sins were not to be punished anymore.
The Puritans believed in predestination, but that did not mean that they simply waited for Judgment Day to learn about their destiny. Since they thought that an elected person would necessarily lead a saintly life (which did not mean that everybody who did was an elect), they constantly looked for clues that revealed their fate. It was problematic that they could never be sure if their life was pure enough to please God, but that at the same time could be certain that every sin would lead to eternal damnation. It was this humbleness in considering one’s soul that was believed to be a sign of sainthood, whereas the firm belief in one’s righteousness was considered as sinful.(37) Every person had to decide whether to follow God or Satan, but whereas picking Satan invariably led to hell, following God did not necessarily mean that the person would go to heaven because grace depended exclusively on whether he or she was an elect or not, which had already been decided before their birth. This also implied that hypocrites might enter the worldly churches because their fate could not be revealed by men The Puritan’s virtues often seem to root more in their fear of damnation than in their love for God. This fear was evoked in the people beginning in the days of their childhood. (38)
There was no open gender distinction in the Puritan religion, instead it seems that the interpretation of the sermons and religious ideology depended on gender. Women tended to see their entire soul as sinful and worthless, whereas men believed rather in their virtuousness that was spoiled by specific sins. (39) This explains why there were several women who firmly believed in the accusations voiced against them.
A clear advantage of the accusations in Salem was that the accuser normally encountered sympathy instead of doubts about his or her veracity.(40) Thomas (41) points out that very often when someone came to think that he had become a victim of witchcraft, he or she already had a suspect in mind. Sometimes people even suspected others before they were actually harmed and waited for damage that might be caused by that person. Every accuser, however, also implied a blame against himself by accusing a witch of afflicting him: According to popular beliefs, nobody could be tormented by witchcraft without God’s permission, so that being victim of a witch made the individual as well as the public wonder why God did not protect him or her from these satanic attacks.(42)
8 Social, Political and Economic Reasons For Witchcraft Accusations
The town of Salem had been founded in 1626 northeast of Boston. Since it had its own harbor, it attracted many merchants, so that after a few years an internal division began to develop: on the one hand, there was the wealthy merchant town and, on the other hand, there were the poorer farming lands surrounding it. Soon several villages in the area struggled for independence from Salem Town. Most of them liberated themselves, but since the town needed agricultural supplies, Salem Village was forced to remain dependent.
It was only in 1752 that the Village became an autonomous city. Until then, there were several areas of conflict between the village and the town. Firstly, the town with its flourishing, expanding market was rich, whereas most of the farmers in the Village were not able to "cross the subsistence threshold".(43) The tools of the farmers were primitive, and with every generation the farms became smaller: since Salem Village was surrounded by other villages, it was not able to expand its territory, so that the farms had to be divided among the sons of each family.(44) Consequently, over time the contrast between town and village became even sharper. Another problem was that Salem Village demanded its own meeting house and pastor because of the large distance to the church in Salem Town, but it was only in 1672 that the town gave permission to ordain the first minister in Salem Village, and although this way the Village gained a little bit of autonomy, it still remained politically dependent until in 1752 it finally became the independent town of Danvers.
In addition to these conflicts, there was a division within Salem Village itself: the eastern part of the Village consisted of flat meadows, it was located near Salem Town, and it had access to both roads and waterways. Therefore the eastern villagers were able to supply the town with food and gained economic as well as political influence. The western villagers’ farming lands were of lower quality because of hills and marshes, and its remote location prevented the people from participating in the town market.(45)
This internal conflict seems to have been an important factor in witchcraft accusations. Boyer and Nissenbaum show that almost all of the accusations were made by westerners against inhabitants of the eastern half of Salem Village. Another interesting aspect is that the accusers often did not know the accused very well, so that in Salem neighborhood quarrels were not normal reasons for accusations, like they had been during previous witchcraft cases. Instead, it was the neighbors who often defended the suspected witches: most defenses came from the eastern half of Salem Village. This means that the accusations were not exclusively based on the "evil" reputation of a witch, instead the pattern suggests that social status was far more important during the witchcraft hysteria.(46)
A very graphic example of the internal conflict is the „war" between the Porter and the Putnam family. The Porter family, from Salem Village’s eastern half, had connections to the merchant elite of Salem Town and had gained much political influence, whereas the Putnams, who had been powerful in the past, were not able to take part in the economic expansion of the town because of the remote location of Salem Village’s western half.
More than a third of the formal accusations (46 of 141) were made by members of the Putnam family, and the "afflicted girl" Ann Putnam was in fact the person to accuse most witches during the course of the trials (21 altogether). Yet no member of the Porter family was accused directly, instead the accusations were directed against other persons of high social status. (47)
The conflict between the richer and the poorer parts of Salem Village also concerned the minister Samuel Parris, who had been ordained in 1692. All the ministers before had been a point of discussion in Salem, all have them had been found to be "flawed" in some way. (48) Parris’s ordination also led to a conflict between two factions. Finally villagers decided that Parris would be ordained and that he would receive two acres of land, which formerly had belonged to the ministry and actually were not to be given to an individual. Like all of the former village pastors, Parris did not receive full pay, and in early 1692 it seemed that he would also lose his land. Still villagers criticized that Parris, who had been a merchant before becoming minister, still received an income from his properties in Barbados and from the land in Salem (apart from the ministry) that he owned. (49)
His supporters came mostly from the poor half of Salem Village. They had the political power in Salem and were in charge of the witchcraft trials. Many of them were from the Putnam family. This led to a polarization between the factions because many people joined the Anti-Parris faction because of the activity of the Putnams against Parris.
These internal conflicts that had been prevalent already some time before 1692 also contributed to the witchcraft crisis. The internal conflict was transformed into a witch hunt.
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The outbreak of the witch hysteria of 1692 was caused by several factors that were only powerful enough because they occured all at the same time. None of them alone would have led to a similar course of events, and that is why the witch trials cannot be explained in a few words.
It seems to me, however, that the Puritan view of the world was central to the outbreak of the crisis because it was necessary to make the afflictions seem credible and threatening enough for the people to take action. The problematic social and economic situation of that time also played an important role because it seemed to prove that the devil was indeed on the loose in New England and that God had turned away from Salem. The trials occured in an atmosphere of social transformation, when the relatively homogenous society that the first generations of settlers had formed began to split up and develop distinctive classes. The work for the benefit of the community was replaced by the struggle for individual success, which left the less successful feeling that the Christian values were endangered by the devil, who had seduced their neighbors to turn away from God by giving them material wealth. These moral conflicts were typical for the Puritans. Witch crises never occured in the non-Puritan regions of America and, as soon as the social changes in New England affected the Puritan value system in such a way that economic success was not to be condemned anymore, witchcraft was no longer an issue in the formerly Puritan regions. (50)
There is a theory which explains the Salem crisis with the hypothesis of the rye being contaminated at that time by a fungus which led to severe ergot poisoning that caused the villagers to have hallucinations. However, because of the complexity of the witchcraft episode I do not believe that this is sufficient as an explanation. (51)
I was surprised that many studies focused on economic and political explanations for the trials without considering the question why almost exclusively women were involved in the trials, both as accused witches and as main accusers. Therefore I agree more with Elizabeth Reis’s and Carol Karlsen’s interpretations because they also take these factors into account but, at the same time, emphasize the central role that women played in the Salem witch crisis.
Several times the parallels between the witch hysteria in Salem and contemporary hysterical phenomena have been pointed out, as in the play „The Crucible" by Arthur Miller, who had the fear of communism in the McCarthy era in mind when he wrote his play. Elizabeth Reis also mentions the persecution of child abusers which at times reaches a hysterical element that resembles that of Salem.(52) These examples show that even though the belief in witchcraft has disappeared over time, events similar to the Salem witch trials occur even in our time, so that they have not lost their historical importance.
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(click on the footnote numbers to get back to the correspondent paragraph)
(1) Most information about the trials is taken from Gragg (1992), pp. 28-199. See also the introduction of Boyer and Nissenbaum (1974)
(2) These cunning rituals, which also involved the ‘satanic’ methods they were meant to prove, were later condemned by minister Parris.
(3) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 23
(4) Gragg (1992): p.126 ff
(5) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 31
(6) Gragg (1992): p.87
(7) Gragg (1992): p. 182ff
(8) Gildrie (1994): p. 157
(9) One example is the sentence "Thou shalt not permit a sorceress to live" (2. Moses 22, 17), upon which most of the European witch trials had already been conducted.
(10) See Deutoronomy 18:10-11 "There shall not be found among you any one who [...] practices
divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a
necromancer." And Levithicus 20:6 "If a person turns to mediums and wizards, playing the harlot after them, I will set my face against that person, and will cut him off from among his people."
(11) Gildrie(1994): p. 158ff
(12) Thomas (1978): p. 257ff Although Thomas refers to witchcraft in England in the 17th century, most of it is also true for New England because the ideas of magic came from English settlers.
(13) Larry Gragg: The Salem Witch Crisis, New York, Westport, Connecticut, London 1992, p. 10
(14) For an analysis of the psychological, historical and sociological background of the witches see Demos (1982): pp. 86ff, 208ff, 298ff, 394ff
(15) Gragg (1992): pp. 25f
(16) Reis (1997): pp. 37ff
(17) Reis (1997): p. 122
(18) Gragg (1992): pp. 25f
(19) Demos (1982): pp. 93f
(20) Demos (1982): pp. 89f
(21) Gildrie (1994): p.161
(22) e.g. John 6:70 "Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil"
(23) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 114
(24) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 24
(25) Gragg (1992): p. 55
(26) Quaife (1987): p. 58
(27) 1. Sam. 27: 13-14
(28) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 26f
(29) Woloch (1994): p. 29
(30) quotation taken from Woloch (1994): p. 30
(31) Raeithel (1995): Bd. I, p. 132
(32) Quoted after Gragg (1992): p. 27
(33) Demos (1982): p. 208f
(34) Demos (1982): p. 210
(35) Demos (1982): p.298
(36) This belief has a biblical basis in "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." 1 Peter 5:8
(37) Reis (1997): p. 14
(38) Reis (1997): pp. 23ff
(39) Reis (1997): p.38f
(40) Quaife (1987): p. 181
(41) Thomas (1978): p. 270
(42) Demos (1982): p. 308
(43) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 94
(44) This also led to a conflict within families. For example, sons of widowed mothers often believed that the inheritance should be theirs and not a woman`s property.
(45) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 37ff
(46) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p. 35
(47) Boyer/Nissenbaum (1974): p.189
(48) Gragg (1992): p. 32f
(49) Gragg (1992): p. 34ff
(50) see Demos (1982): p. 394f
(51) Although this theory was mentioned by several authors, I did not find any references to specific studies about ergotism at Salem.
(52) Reis (1997): p. 10
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Boyer, Paul and Nissenbaum, Steve (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1974): Salem Possessed. The Social Origins of Witchcraft.
Demos, John (Oxford et. al. 1982): Entertaining Satan. Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England.
Gildrie, Richard P. (Pennsylvania 1994): The Profane, the Civil and the Godly. The Reformation of Manners in Orthodox New England.
Gragg, Larry (New York 1992): The Salem Witch Crisis.
Karlsen, Carol F. (New York 1987): The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
Quaife, G. R. (London and Sydney 1987): Godly Zeal and Furious Rage. The Witch in Early M odern Europe.
Raeithel, Gert (Frankfurt am Main 1995): Geschiche der Nordamerikanischen Kultur, Bd. 1: Vom Puritanismus bis zum Bürgerkrieg 1600-1860.
Reis, Elizabeth (Ithaca and London 1997): Damned Women. Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England.
Thomas, Keith (Frankfurt am Main 1978): Die Hexen und ihre soziale Umwelt, in: Honegger, Claudia (ed.): Die Hexen der Neuzeit. Studien zur Sozialgeschichte eines kulturellen Deutungsmusters Woloch, Nancy (New York et.al. 1994): Woman and the American Experience. A Concise History.
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Victims of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 Executed
June 10th Bridget Bishop
June 19th Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Wilds
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Accused of Witchcraft, died in jail
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©Anke Schönwälder 1998