Since there never was a spurned lover stirring things up in Salem Village, and there is no evidence from the time that Tituba practiced Caribbean black magic, yet these trials and executions actually still took place, how can you explain why they occurred? The Salem Witchcraft Trials began not as an act of revenge against an ex-lover, as they did in The Crucible, but as series of seemingly unlinked, complex events, which a paranoid and scared group of people incorrectly linked. And while there were countless other witchcraft trials, Salems trials remain the best-known.
In Salem, fears of witchcraft perpetuated by popular writings were personified when two girls were said to be bewitched. A hysteria overcame the people of Salem, whose trials went awry. In less than six months, 19 men and women were hanged, 17 innocents died in filthy prisons, an 80-year old man was crushed to death, and two dogs were stoned to death for collaborating with the Devil (Richardson 6). How could an entire village, including scholars, believe in witchcraft? Were these trials justified? Or were they evil, as many people think?
How could respected, learned men believe the accounts of psychotics? Most importantly, could the trials have been avoided? A major cause of the Salem Witchcraft trials was superstition, an “irrational [belief] … resulting from ignorance or fear of the unknown” (Saliba). A lack of scientific reasoning led many people to believe that, for instance, walking under a ladder would bring seven years of bad luck. The Puritans in Salem had even more reasons to be superstitious. Cotton Mathers “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions,” with its inaccurate accounts of witchcraft, terrified.
In addition, crude medical techniques, constant food poisoning, and unsanitary conditions killed many Puritans. (In the Trials, dead people and dead livestock were used as evidence of witchcraft. ) More importantly, war with a nearby Indian tribe was imminent (Schlect 1); when livestock died, the Puritans thought their village was cursed, vulnerable to Indian attack. With several factions vying for control of the Village, and a series of legislative and property disputes with the nearby Salem Town which controlled Salem Village, it is easy to see how the people of Salem were so vulnerable to the notion of witches taking over their town.
Upon arriving in Massachusetts, the Puritans established a theocracy; religion and the power of religious authorities became vital to the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Some historians believe that, without religion, the Salem Witchcraft Trials and other persecutions would never have taken place. Reverend Parriss chief duty should not have been religious; he needed to resolve squabbles between factions in his village; regardless, he used his religious authority to persecute those who were allegedly sinful. Ironically, he showed visible signs of decay: he was greedy in his land disputes (rule 1); he did not free those who pleaded innocent, because that would weaken his power (rule 2); and he chose not to reform (rule 9).
Puritans believed that the Devil could possess any non-secular person, and cause him to say or do unordinary (and thus heretical) things. That Little Betty Parris was sick, and that the Dr. Griggs (who was too proud to say that he could not diagnose Little Bettys illness) claimed she was bewitched (Richardson 7), were enough reasons for court authorities to suspect witchcraft was the cause of the illness. In addition, several young girls in the village had participated in “black magic” experiments harmless adolescent games in the company of Tituba, Reverend Parriss slave. The restless young girls allegedly met in Parriss shed, and created and listened to Titubas incredible tales of sorcery and black arts, which were doubtless an outlet for their repressed feelings. Soon, faulty cause-and-effect relationships sparked delirium.
When the girls had fits of hysteria seizures, trance-like states, and sacrilegious screaming Parris called upon his colleagues to exorcise the demons that possessed the girls. Ministers from nearby communities met in Salem Village “to lead a public day of fasting and prayer, and to question the afflicted girls about what had caused their disturbing behavior” (8). Occasionally, the girls went mute or blind, choked, had muscle spasms, and had visions of frightening spirits. They claimed that evil spirits “pursued them, threatening, biting, pinching, pricking, and performing other bodily injuries” (8). After that, public concern became mass hysteria. Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne, were arrested and tried. Only Tituba confessed to signing the Devils book. Afraid of being accused of witchcraft, the power-hangedry girls accused innocent people to save their own lives. The rest is history.
Many historians today believe that religion was not the catalyst of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. They cite a series of quarrels among townspeople as the cause of the string of accusations that sent more than 200 people to jail. Based on the few documented quarrels, this seems plausible. The town was divided into two factions; each wanted a different church leader. Like people today, many citizens of Salem probably held grudges (Richardson 6). In addition, there were land disputes between members of Salem Village, and between Salem Village and Salem Town. Many people saw the Trials as an effective means of gaining land and silencing embarrassing enemies. Accused witches names were defiled. If the accused did not confess, they were imprisoned or hanged.
However, Chadwick Hanson, author of “Witchcraft at Salem,” argued that this account of the Trials, written by Reverend Charles Wentworth Upham, was fictional. “Upham had been a minister of Salem and then its mayor. He was as interested in genealogy and local history as he was in witchcraft, and therefore he outlined in considerable detail the village quarrels he thought to be one cause of the events. … The overall impression he leaves is that the whole affair is a monstrous conspiracy, in which the ministers and magistrates took advantage of the fraudulent behavior of the afflicted girls to exercise a mindless and irresponsible power at the expense of the suffering community” (xi). Hanson was certain that the girls were not possessed, but clinically insane (x). And that, he explained, may have been the result of witchcraft which, contrary to popular belief, is psychogenic, rather than occult. That means that the girls may have experienced their hysterical symptoms as a result of their fear. Regardless, the girls were insane, Hanson contended, “long before any clergyman got to them.”
Another possible explanation for the girls insanity was ergot poisoning, a common problem during the time period. Ergot is extremely toxic to humans and animals. “For cattle, 0.5% by weight of ergot in the diet causes [significantly] reduced feed consumption and weight loss” (Evans 5). Ergot poisoning was possibly responsible for a number of miscarriages in Salem Village, which were blamed on witchcraft. According to Britannica.com, symptoms of ergot poisoning include convulsions and muscle twitches, two common symptoms of “witches.” In addition, ergot is said to have hallucinogenic powers; it very well may, since LSD is derived from it. That would explain the spectral figures and the girls “tripped-out” behavior. The evidence of ergot poisoning is so solid that there seems to be only one more possibility: boredom.
Danver County (Salem Village) archives report that, of the 13 stricken, eight were not yet 21 years old. It seems impossible that teenagers 300 years ago could have been entirely different from teenagers today; teenagers have always had peak hormonal levels. In todays society, these hormones are often vented in violent behavior, sports, and social activities. Without a vent for their hormonal imbalances, it is possible that the teenagers in Salem invented fantasies of witchcraft to amuse themselves. When several of the girls went insane, the others acted in knew they would be blamed and accused of witchcraft.
The girls may have formed a coalition. Regardless, they confessed to bewitchment. By doing this, they were able to save themselves from hanging, which was the punishment for witchcraft in the Puritan colonies under the Blue Laws (Marquis and Mello 1). The bases for the witchcraft law were Exodus 22:20, Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, and Deuteronomy 18.10 (1-2). Deuteronomy 13:6 states “If any man or woman, after legal conviction, shall worship any other God but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.” In addition, they were able to avoid censure, ridicule, and imprisonment, which would have been standard punishment for fantasizing or discussing witchcraft.
Whatever the cause of the girls insanity, the Salem Witchcraft Trials would not have consumed so many lives had there been a different legal system in the Puritan colonies. Since the Puritan colonies were theocracies, violations of the Bibles laws and its interpretations were punishable by death. It is ironic that the Puritans left the theocracy and injustice of the Church to set up a system that was nearly identical to the old one. Villagers who committed crimes that many people today think are trivial such as using the Lords name in vain or being disrespectful to elders were severely punished. Witches, murderers, and adulteresses were after a brief trial imprisoned or hanged on Gallows Hill.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Salem Witchcraft Trials was not the hysteria that swept through the town, but the lack of concrete evidence in the court. Poppets (voodoo dolls) and potions were used to arrest and try suspected witches. The most popular evidence was “spectral evidence”, claims that ghosts of people were tormenting others. The afflicted sometimes confessed that “spectral images” would waken or attack them. Cotton Mather, one of Salems clergymen, wisely questioned whether “spectral evidence” should be used in trials (Encarta Online 1). Court officials disputed his arguments, and the trial procedures remained unchanged.
None of the evidence in the trials would stand up in court today. For instance, in 1692, a clergyman or doctor would examine the accused for “the Devils” birthmarks, such as webbed hands. If such marks were found, the court would believe that he was a witch. Gossip was also used as evidence in trials. In one trial, a woman was accused of witchcraft because a neighbor heard rumors that she had bewitched someones pigs. Occasionally, citizens would create gossip to imprison their enemies. The court continued to believe outlandish testimonies.
At the height of the trials, over 200 people were jailed. Only a letter that Thomas Brattle wrote to Governor Phips slowed the trials. On October 8, “reliance on spectral and intangible evidence [was] no longer … allowed in trials” (Salem Witch Trials 1). Less than one month later, Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer and replaced it with a fairer court. The new court imprisoned two people.
Three hundred years later, it still frightens people to think that the testimonies of insane girls were used to send people to the gallows. It seems impossible that fallacies could be responsible for the deaths of 25 people in Salem and tens of thousands elsewhere. While there were several other witchcraft trials in New England, and thousands on other continents (most notably, the Inquisitions), none have captured our morbid fear of the supernatural as did the Salem Witchcraft Trials. It is amazing today to think of a time where people actually believed in absurd folklore such as witches flying and possessing their victims. As George Lyman Kittredge said, “Our forefathers believed in witchcraft, not because they were Puritans, not because they were [Colonialists], not because they were New Englanders but because they were men of their time.”