The Salem Witch Trials took place in British North America in Salem, Massachusetts at the time of the early 1690s. It involved a series of hearings followed by county court trials to prosecute the people accused of being a witch or practicing witchcraft. Salem was not the only place that had witch scares, however. Witchcraft is found in many cultures around the world including Sub Saharan Africa and Europe. The witch scare in early modern Europe lasted from the 14th century through the 18th century, and was seen as a conspiracy against Christianity.
To further understand the Salem Witch Trials, an understanding of the religious influence in Colonial America is necessary. People began coming to America searching for freedom, and this included the escape of religious prosecution. Groups such as the Quakers and Puritans formed the first thirteen colonies on the basis of religious beliefs. Baptist, Roman Catholics, and Protestants then came about in the colonies, followed by Lutherans and Presbyterians. At this time the colonies were a mixture of religiously diverse communities. America’s population was growing due to the freedom of religion, and with population growth came new influences and ideas. The Salem Witchcraft Trials only increased the influence of religion in America.
The accusation of being a witch is the basis to the great scare. But what exactly does that mean, to be a “witch”. A witch is said to be someone who uses supernatural or magical powers, usually believed to use these powers to inflict harm or destruction. In anthropological terms a witch does not use physical instruments or actions to curse. The person may be unaware they are cursed or may have been convinced by the suggestions of others that they posses some evil. It is believed that the concept of witchcraft was a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it on a supernatural entity or a person in the community.
There are several theories of why and how the witch scare in Salem came about. Theories include mass hysteria, economic jealousy, over eager religious faith, superstition, and rye mold. There are so many numerous events that helped create and influence the trials that there is no direct answer to what caused the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Things such as politics, religion, family feuds, economics, and the imagination and fear of the people were all contributing factors.
The Salem Witch Trials were in the peak from February of 1692 through May 1693. There were 150 plus people who were arrested and imprisoned due to the fact that they were accused of using witchcraft. Twenty nine people were convicted with the capital felony of witchcraft. Out of the accused people, nineteen were hanged. Of those nineteen fourteen were women, and the other five were men. Over five of the people being held in prisons died, and another man died when the community attempted to force him to enter a plea, and crushed him to death under heavy stones.
One of the most common and well known stories of the Salem Witch Trials is the story of Tituba, and her influence on a family household in Salem. She is sometimes referred to as the “Black Witch of Salem”. It starts with a man by the name of Reverend Samuel Paris. He had a nine year old daughter, Betty, and a niece, Abigail. The Paris family had a slave named Tituba who scholars say Reverend Paris bought in Barbados, not knowing she would bring voodoo and witchcraft under his roof.
His daughter and niece started acting strange when they began having spontaneous fits. They were also said to have experimented with predicting the future using an egg white in a glass of water. It became alarming to the Reverend, so he called in a doctor to examine them. The doctor’s efforts did nothing for the girls, so he diagnosed them as bewitched. This set an outbreak of panic and hysteria through the town, and the blame for the girl’s behavior was put upon Tituba.
In reality, there is not much reliable information on her. Many of these accusations are stated as fact, when actually they come from traditional stories and fictional literature. The story of her as the “Black Witch of Salem” also suggests some racial influence. She was also known as the “Indian woman servant”, “Negro”, “Half-Indian”, so it’s obvious to say that her origin is unknown or confused. It is important to consider racial stereotypes and presumptions along with how they contribute to the blame she took.
Although she did not confess to teaching the girls the future telling rituals, she did confess to signing the devils book, flying in the air upon a pole, and pinching or choking some of the “afflicted” girls. She also is said to have described the devil and his minions in vivid detail. However, she also said she was beaten into confessing to witchcraft, so the confessions could possibly be made up. This is also very likely due to the fact that her confessions went along with the European myths of witches. The evidence that she did provide to the court stimulated the court to find and convict more people for witchcraft.
Another contributing factor in the Salem Witch Trials is economic and social division. In 1692, Salem was divided into two distinct parts: Salem Town and Salem Village. Salem Village was set apart by its economy, class, and character. Residents of Salem Village were mostly poor farmers who made their living cultivating crops in the rocky terrain. Salem Town, on the other hand, was a prosperous port town at the center of trade with London. For many years, Salem Village tried to gain independence from Salem Town. The town, which depended on the farmers for food, determined crop prices and collected taxes from the village. Many of the farmers believed the worldliness and wealth of Salem Town threatened their Puritan values.
One of the main families to accuse the economic changes was the Putnams, an influential force behind the witchcraft accusations. Tensions became worse when Salem Village selected Reverend Samuel Parris as their new minister. It is likely that the jealousies and aggression between these two factions played a major role in the Witch Trials. It is also interesting to note that most of the villagers accused of witchcraft lived in the Salem Town area, whereas the accusers lived in the distant farms of Salem Village.
A very different rooted theory is that of the rye mold. It is stated that ingestion of the chemical basis for the drug LSD found on Rye bread and mushrooms caused hallucinations. Ergot poisoning can cause a distressing display of side effects. The initial symptoms are usually gastrointestinal, including nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Shortly after that the sufferer may experience a range of symptoms caused by ergot’s influence on the central nervous system. These usually start with relatively gentle sensations such as headaches, “pins and needles,” and burning or itching sensations on the skin, but it can escalate into spasms, convulsions, unconsciousness, hallucinations, and psychosis.
Ergotism is also seen in other time periods of history as well, including the “Dance Mania” in Europe. This includes dancing uncontrollably and bizarrely, screaming, shouting, singing, and seeing visions and hallucinations. This dance mania has theories behind it of religious cults, and seems to have similar incidences to that of the Salem Witch Trials. Another interesting thought on the topic is that it could have been a way of stress relief, suggesting that dance mania lives on today, examples being raves, parties, excessive laughter, and other acts of mass hysteria.
There are many different ideas behind the Salem Witch Trials, and there is not enough evidence to say what is truth and what is myth. The general information that we do have from this time does give us an idea, however, of how these thoughts of witches came about. With the rumors of witchcraft and demons spreading within communities tensions were high among the members of the community. All of this happened in a time of new beginnings for these people, so superstitions may not have sounded so farfetched to them.
Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story, 1997.
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Pavlac, Brian A. “Ten General Historical Theories about the Origins and Causes Of the Witch Hunts.” History Resource Site. 2006
“Ergot Caused Some Witch Hunts Theory: Ergotism’s Symptoms Similar to Alleged Witches Behavior”. Suite101.com. Web. 2008
D’Amario, Alison. Director of Education. “The Salem Witch Trials of 1692.”
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