Today, the idea of seeing a witch is almost inconsequential. Our Halloween holiday marks a celebration in which many will adorn themselves with pointy black hats and long stringy hair, and most will embrace them as comical and festive. Even the contemporary witchcraft religious groups forming are being accepted with less criticism. More recently, the Blair Witch movie craze has brought more fascination than fear to these dark and magical figures.
So, it becomes no wonder that when our generations watch movies like the Crucible, a somewhat accurate depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, we are enraged and confused by the injustice and the mayhem that occurred in 1692. For most, our egocentric view of the past almost stops us from seeing what a dilemma was brewing in that Puritan lifestyle. At that time, witches were far more than a generic costume for a casual holiday celebration, or a tolerated religion, or a new form of Hollywood fascination, they were the work of an awful, vengeful, unseen power.
In the seventeenth century, almost everyone, even those with the best of educations, where under the belief that witchcraft was evil and the control of the devil. Witchcraft had once, before the Middle Ages had been accepted as the powers of medicine and good deeds; however, the church of that time had proclaimed the craft as the work of the devil and the actions of heretics. From then on witches were greatly dreaded.
They believed that they had special powers that allowed them to cause harm to those that they had quarrels with; they could read minds, tell the future, bring up ghosts of the dead and force the holy to perform unholy acts. There was only one way to save someone who sold their soul to the devil for the gifts of witchcraft, to kill them (Dickinson 4). People were branded witches for unrelated mishaps. If the farmers sheep all died from a virus in the water, then the neighbor who fought with him last week must have cast a spell. In a world where people are certain of witchcraft, nothing is accidental.
Consequentially, many people were unjustly condemned to death. In the beginning of the century the targets for witchcraft were the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill, the rude and quarrelsome, but as the century drew to an end those accused were chosen more [democratically], even those as young as four were labeled witches (Trask 1). Witchcraft in the New England was a civil felony, and those who broke it were hanged. Witchcraft in New England was easier to prove, compared to the English laws where witchcraft was seen as heresy against the church.
Approximately 1,500 people in England were killed; but, over three centuries in New England tens of thousands where killed. Many historians believe that many of the witchcraft fears in New England were related to the settlements by the Puritans (Trask 1). In the beginning of the century in Massachusetts, many changes where taking place.
It became the settling ground for English Puritans, who fled Europe to dissociate themselves from the Catholic Church, which they believed betrayed God by their wickedness and vanity (pg. . Many created small congregations to form a closer communion with God. The Puritan church would become a zealous group of Bible followers that would base the interpretation of their laws on Gods word, even in maters of civil government (Dickinson 5-6). After time, the Puritans prepared a shareholding stock company. Then in 1629, they received a royal charter from the king of England at that time, Charles I, who contracted them the rights to own a sizeable piece of land on the bay of Massachusetts.
Those who planned on being the colonists of the state refused to leave their charter in the hands of shareholders that would remain in England, and in secret the emigrating Puritans bought up the shares from the men that were staying behind, and when they left England they took the charter with them. With Massachusetts in their ownership, the Puritans could create their ideal state without any interference from across the seas (27: 358). In June of 1630, the Puritans arrived in Salem, which had already been settled.
They elected John Winthrop as their governor, and began to build their colony. The colony was broken up into towns, each of which had its own church and minister. Because they had such supreme confidence that their colony was their own, those outside the church were not accepted easily into the community (DAmario 1). As attention from the mother country began to dwindle their freedom began to seem more a curse than a blessing, and with the death of Oliver Cromwell, Puritan Lord Protector, and the restoration of the throne of England in 1660, the future of Massachusetts appeared dim.
The king began to send commissioners to the colony to advise the Puritans to become more tolerant to those of other beliefs. This put the colony in a state of unrest. The Puritan people felt as if heretics were invading their tight-knit community, but they did not dare ignore the kings wishes. Resistance could mean the loss of their charter. Thus, the stronghold that had once held the Puritan colony had begun to crumble. On a small, but influential scale, people began to convert to other religions, ignore the strict rules of Sabbath day, and become drunk and profane.
Science was also beginning to dissolve their beliefs. It debunked the ideas of predestination and the belief that God and the devil were the influence of all that was good in evil in the world (Dickinson 9). Then, in 1684, a work written by Increase Mather, An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, began to point the finger at witchcraft. His accounts of New Englands witches, hauntings, and poltergeists created an outlet for the peoples frustration over their colony. In that same year, however, things began to turn for the worst for the colony. Sir Edmund Andros arrived and ruled like a tyrant.
Short after the colonists drove him from the colony and the charter was revoked. It was a hard blow for the Puritans, who were beginning to become convinced that it was the work of the devil (DAmario 1 and Dickinson 10). In 1689, Cotton Mather wrote the book called Memorable Providences relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, which concerned itself with one of the most widespread knowledge of witchcraft cases in Boston that the people would know. This cleared the path of paranoia that would plague the lands into the next century, and bring about one of the most infamous witch trials history would know.
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 would distort and change the way of Puritan life forever (Dickinson 11). On January 20, 1692, nine-year old Elizabeth Parris and eleven-year old Abigail Williams began to exhibit strange behavior, such as blasphemous screaming, convulsive seizures, trance-like states and mysterious spells. Within a short time, several other Salem girls began to demonstrate similar behavior. A month later, unable to determine any physical cause for the symptoms and dreadful behavior, physicians concluded that the girls were under the influence of the devil.
Reverend Samuel Parries, in hopes of relieving the evil forces that plagued the young girls, conducted prayer services and community fasting. Also to help end their turmoil by exposing the witch or witches involved, John Indian baked a witch cake made of rye meal and the girls urine. The cake customarily was then fed to an animal and if it exhibited a strange behavior, it would prove that their illness was in fact the work of the devil (DAmario 1). The community began to pressure the girls to expose those afflicting them.
Naturally, the girls were without a name because their illness was not caused by anyone. The girls named three women, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, Parris Indian slave, as witches. These names were natural targets for anyone casting about for witches. Sarah Good was homeless, rough-speaking mother who lived in and out of friends homes. Sarah Osborne was considered to be a good woman, but she was looked down upon for her recent absence from church. Tituba was of another race, a slave, and an alien to the community.
Shortly after warrants were sent out for their arrest, and on March 1 in the Ingersolls tavern, magistrates John Hawthorne and Jonathan Corwin examined the women. Only Tituba would confess (Dickinson 19,20). Over the next weeks, other townspeople came forward and testified that they, too, had been harmed by or seen strange apparitions of some of the community members. As the witch-hunt continued, accusations were made against many different people. Frequently denounced were women whose behavior or economic circumstances were somehow disturbing to the social order and conventions of the time.
Some of the accused had previous records of criminal activity, including witchcraft, but others were faithful churchgoers and people of high standing in the community. Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, Sarah Cloyce, John Proctor, Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Giles Corey, Mary Warren, Nehemiah Abbott, William Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, Edward Bishop, Sarah Bishop, Mary Easty, Mary Black, Sarah Wildes, and Mary English, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Margaret Jacobs were all accused, arrested and tried for witchcraft over the next few weeks.
Only Nehemiah Abbott would be found innocent and cleared of the charges (DAmario 1). On May 27, Governor Phips set up a special Court of Oyer and Terminer comprised of seven judges to try the witchcraft cases. Appointed were Lieutenant Governor William Stouhgton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hawthorne, and Jonathan Corwin. On June 2, they found pronounced the first to be found guilty, Bridget Bishop, of witchcraft and condemned to death, marking the first of nineteen hangings and one crushing (DAmario 1).
Finally, on October 8, Thomas Brattle wrote a letter criticizing the witchcraft trials. This letter had a great impact on Governor Phips, who ordered that reliance on spectral and intangible evidence no longer be allowed in trials. He then dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. To finalize the issue, the General Court of the colony created the Superior Court to try the remaining witchcraft cases, which took place in May of 1693. This time no one was convicted (DAmario 1). Many researchers have different theories of what the girls were afflicted with.
Several researchers postulated that they were suffering from ergot poisoning from spoiled rye grain. Others thought that girls were enjoying the attention that they would have never received otherwise being young females. Similarly, others thought that the cause of their symptoms are from a popular psychological disorder from the 1970s called clinical hysteria or mass hysteria, referring to a condition experienced by a group of people who, through suggestion, observation, or other psychological processes, develop similar fears, delusions, abnormal behaviors, or physical symptoms.
The Salem witchcraft delusion became the road to what is now known as the road to Enlightenment. Although the trials in New England did not end there, Salem marked the beginning of and end to the horrible injustice. Witch-hunting is still an epidemic that plagues today in other forms. People are made to suffer for their beliefs. Religious and political persecution has stained every century since then. Perhaps, the greatest thing gained from the trials was the understanding that the majority is not always the voice of justice.