The Salem witch trials occurred around the 1690s in Salem, Massachusetts. Some young women started to have fits and their bodies would seize. These fits had seemingly no medical explanation, so the people of Salem deemed it witchcraft. The people of Salem then had to decide which people were witches. They accused both men and women of witchery, and when they were found guilty, they were hanged, but why were these people found guilty? The people of 17th century Salem were convicted of witchcraft due to pressure and bias from their community, strict codes involving morality and religion, and mass hysteria.
People were convicted due to the pressure of their community and a bias against them. In order to save themselves, some of the convicted named other people on hope of being spared. Most of these people were social outcasts due to their race or social status. Some of the people accused of witchcraft were enemies of the middle class family, the Putnams. There was bias toward the convicted because “many of the accused proved to be enemies of the Putnams… would end up being the accusers in many of the cases” (Wallenfeldt).
These people were considered enemies to a specific family who had power in Salem, and because this powerful family considered certain people enemies, they were key targets during the trials. There was an immediate bias towards these people, all due to another person’s perspective of who these victims were, which would sway the decisions and convict these people of witchcraft. People also looked down on the victims because “most of the accusers were rich or middle class, where the victims were poor or people of color” and in
Salem village there was a prejudice against these people (Demos). Salem village was not the most liberal and forwardthinking communities. They were a highly religious town, and the trials took place before the most modern human rights were implemented into the United States. People of different skin tone were deemed less than the Salem villagers because of their prejudices. The poor were also looked down on because they were thought of to be lazier and not as successful than the rest.
These people were disassociated from the community and associated with other outside groups, which entailed witches. The accused witches blamed other people in order to defend themselves and ended up bringing more people into the trials. One of the accused, Sarah Goode denies that she has done anything and claims “I do not torment them… it was [Sarah] Osburn”, blaming her rather than herself (Cheevers, 134). This does take some of the immediate attention off of her, but it drags more people into the trials, and she will still be a suspect.
Tensions were created and people grew angry at one another while they pointed fingers, but they had not helped the trials move along. Instead most likely made the trials longer by adding more people into it. Another accused goes as far as claiming “Goody Osburn and Sarah Good… would have hurt the children, but I have not”, putting the blame on two others rather than herself (Cheevers, 137). With one person’s testimony, three people are now thought of to be witches. She had tried to save herself, but others got caught in the crossfire and all were punished.
If one person confessed to being a witch, their testimony against another was proven to be proper evidence. So during the trials “a confessed witch is sufficient evidence to condemn another accused witch”, and these confessions were taken very seriously (Cheevers, 132-133). If any person admitted that they were a witch, anyone they accused would automatically be deemed a witch. These confessions were very important, and in light of that “many confessors to witchcraft were indicted, tried, convicted and jailed; but none were executed” because they were too important to die (Demos).
Although the trials occurred to find and get rid of witches, the ones who admitted they were witches were not killed. They were seen as important elements to the cases and were more useful identifying more ‘witches’. The townspeople’s’ moral and civil codes keyed out certain people, whom later would be convicted. A majority of Salem’s population believed in one way of life, so whoever disagreed with their puritanical views were looked down upon. These specific people would later become the ideal embodiment for someone who seemed to be a witch.
The strict civil codes caused the Salem citizens to turn against a select few because they did not follow in the same civil path. If they did not like what a certain person was doing, they began to look down on them, and “puritans also encouraged neighbors to monitor one another and report improper behavior” (Rafteiri-McArdle, 9). Any individual person could report someone for anything they did not like. If they did not like they way their neighbor treated their family, they could report them, and the community supported these reports.
This led to people claiming that their neighbor’s behavior seemed supernatural, and once they reported it the authorities would now have evidence of them being some kind of mystical creature. The mostly religious population of Salem were very harsh about their religious ways and would consider the non-religious to be witches. The society was deeply involved in their religion and “they believed that following the Bible’s teachings, regular church attendance, and good behavior shielded them from God’s anger”, so people could use others who did not go to church as scapegoats for things like witchcraft (Rafteiri-McArdle, 9).
Any individual who did not regularly attend church was automatically thought as a hater of God which snowballed into lover of satan and therefore, a witch. These people were not lenient on their views and “one of the ministers did what he did because he believed he was cleansing the people and doing God’s work” and felt no remorse for what he had done (Demos). This minister shows no compassion for the people he was sentencing to death because he felt like they were a bad part of the world.
Spectral evidence was used and considered to be very valid during the trials. This term was defined as “a legal term referring to the evidence from the spirit world”, and was commonly used during these times (Rackliffe, 16). Religion was highly regarded and important in their community, so “the accused people were left trying to prove their innocence and defend themselves from things only the accusers could ‘see'”, meaning that a majority of the evidence used was based off of things only certain people claimed true (Rackliffe, 16).
This was regarded as valid and useful evidence, but they court could only hope that the accusers were telling the truth. The accusations of people being witches caused the community to fall into mass hysteria. Once one person was accused of witchery, everyone began falling into a stressful state, Everyone seemed like they could be a potential witch, and any little detail could make one person be accused of witchcraft. Due to their state of hysteria, the accusers were in a wrong state of mind and some later apologized for the false accusations.
The people on the jury would say that they “do hereby declare that [they] justly fear that [they] were sadly deluded and mistaken, for which [they] are much disquieted and distressed in [their] minds” in a written apology letter (Fisk). With the admission of not being completely sure of the evidence used against the victims, it shows that they were wrong to accuse these people of witchcraft. Their only excuse was that they were in a distressed state of mind, which was caused by the overwhelming effect of the trials.
They also “confess that [they] were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the power of darkness and prince of the air”, so they were not even sure of what was going on themselves. One confession of a witch scared the others into believing there were witches in Salem village. “The magistrates then had not only a confession but also what they accepted as evidence of more witches in the community, and hysteria mounted” in Salem (Wallenfeldt). This mass hysteria has been compared to the Red Scare in the American Cold War times.
One historian compares the mass hysteria of all the people in Salem being witches to the Communism scare in the mid 19th century, because both had trials of people being tried and accused from little evidence. People became scared that someone they knew would be a Communist and became paranoid (Demos). The people of Salem were convicted of witchcraft and killed for any reason other than actually being a witch. A majority of the court who convicted them apologized for their actions, because they knew they had wrongly accused them.
These people were convicted because they were different from the rest of the village, and they all turned on each other to prove their own innocence. The village also had strict codes and morals that if people did not follow, they could be deemed a witch. Once one person was thought to be a witch, everyone started to seem like a possible witch and the community grew tense. The events during the Salem Witch Trials raises many questions, like why were the people who admitted to witchery not killed, and will America ever have such a well known and recognized period of trials happen again?