The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Sixteen
The Salem Witchcraft Trials
I would like to talk about the Salem Witchcraft Trials in the context of the examination of factors, which seemed to influence the decision of the settlers to revolt against the Crown, against the country of England.
In order to do this I shall try to persuade you that this particular series of witchcraft trials, and the purge that came with them, was not primarily a religious event. Instead, I want to invite you to think of the event as an important signpost, a symptom if you will, of the psychological, sociological, and strategic pressures driving the settlers to the decision to revolt.
Yet again, in order to make that happen, we have to lift the Salem Witchcraft Trials out of their usual religious context, and look at it as a political event. Our source material for this exercise is an essay by Chadwick Hansen titled Andover Witchcraft and the Causes of the Salem Witchcraft Trials.
The first thing to say is that the belief in witchcraft was basically universal in seventeenth century colonial America and Europe. This being the case, it is also true that witchcraft trials were a part of the normal, perfectly routine judicial proceedings of the courts. What makes the Salem Witchcraft Trials noteworthy, however, is the severely elevated level of violence and bloodletting that attended them, as well as their massive scale (1).
Anywhere between two-hundred and three-hundred-fifty people were accused. Nineteen people were hanged and one was pressed to death for refusing to plead his indictment. The question is not why the Salem Witchcraft Trials happened; the question is why did these particular witchcraft trials get so far out of hand (2).
The first warrant was issued on May 28, 1692 for Martha Carrier. Her accusers were several "afflicted" girls of Salem Village. At Carrier's examination the girls went into convulsive seizures and hallucinations. The girls complained that Mrs. Carrier's 'specter' was biting, pinching, pricking, and choking them (3).
Every word of defense Martha Carrier offered, only seemed to bring forth increased hysterics from the girls. Mrs. Carrier had to be taken away, her hands and feet tied up; only this seemed to bring some relief to the delirious girls. Things snowballed from there. Others came forward to accuse Carrier; and these included her own nephew, Allen Toothaker. Martha Carrier's son, Richard, was also accused of witchcraft (4).
Ballard was a constable at Andover. For several months his wife had been purportedly 'sorely afflicted and visited with strange pains and pressures.' He thought his wife had been bewitched, and so he brought over several of the 'hallucinating girls' of Salem to try to detect who was doing it. Whose 'specters' were afflicting his wife (5).
As a result of this, Mary Lacey Sr., and Mary Lacey, Jr., were arrested on July 20. They were the daughter and granddaughter of Ann Foster, who had been arrested a few days before. The two Mary Laceys confessed. The next day the three sons of Martha Carrier were arrested. They all confessed (6).
After July 28 the town of Andover did not have to rely of the 'hallucinating girls' of Salem, having developed their own group of sensitives (7).
Chadwick Hansen said of Andover: "... Andover became notorious for the ease and thoroughness with which family and community bonds were broken in the face of witchcraft accusations." Contemporary accounts observed that 'husbands who, having taken up that corrupt and highly pernicious opinion that whoever were accused by the afflicted were guilty, did break charity with their wives upon their being accused and urge them to confess their guilt' (8).
Its worth noting, here, that Salem dealt with confessions differently from all other jurisdictions in colonial America and England. The normal procedure was to executed confessors, but the Salem courts did not do this. Indeed confessors were not even brought to trial in Salem. Furthermore, the Salem courts even stayed the executions of condemned witches who had confessed. We don't know the reason for this divergence (9).
They may have been following the advice of Cotton Mather, who advised that 'lesser criminals be only scourged with lesser punishments, and also put upon some solemn, open, public, and explicit renunciation of the Devil.' (10).
Or, they may very well have been attracted to the drama of redemption that the confessions presented, and thus, rendered reluctant to executed those they had redeemed (11).
Or, they may have been hungry for guilt and pleased that the confessors had not only incriminated themselves but others. Chadwick Hansen noted that the courts policy toward confessors, was a major cause of the escalation of the accusations (12).
Here is a final point Hansen makes, which is not nearly exploited enough in the scholarship on the Salem Witchcraft Trials, in my opinion.
Chadwick Hansen: "... 1692 was a time of extraordinary troubles for Massachusetts. She had finally and irrevocably lost her old charter, which had been the very basis of her identity. There were some troubles with the French and the Indians on the frontier" (13).
Let's wrap it up here and proceed with the analysis in part seventeen.
Thank you for reading
1. Hansen, C. (1983). Andover Witchcraft and the Causes of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. In Kerr, H. & Crew, C.L. (eds.). The Occult in America: New Historical Perspectives. [University of Illinois Press]. 53-54.
2. ibid, 54
3. ibid, 41
4. ibid, 41, 43, 45
5. ibid, 46
8. ibid, 52
9. ibid, 55
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