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The Salem Witch Trials: An Overview

Updated on March 31, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

Judge Hawthorne: They say you bewitcht your first husband to death.
Bishop: If it please your worship I know nothing of it.
(She shake her head & the afflicted were tortured. The like again upon the motion of her head).
Sam: Braybrook affirmed that she told him to day that she had been accounted a Witch these 10 years, but she was no Witch, the Devil cannot hurt her.
Bishop: I am no witch.

-- from court documents and transcripts of Bridget Bishop's Trial 1692

The Salem Witch Trial of 1692 was one of the darkest chapters in colonial American history. A frenzy of fabricated accusations quickly became legal battles that turned neighbors against neighbors. And, when this hysteria ended 10 months later, nineteen women and one man were dead, and an additional 150 people were convicted of practicing witchcraft.

Traditionally, the trials started after several teenage girls blamed their "bizarre behavior" on a secret covenant of witches living in Salem. While this is historically accurate, it was only one situation that either started or fueled it.

Historians and anthropologists point to several complex factors. They analyzed colonial Salem's demographics, religious practices, and social customs, patterns of greed, religious fervor, and difference between socioeconomic classes played crucial role in this event.

tituba and the girls
tituba and the girls | Source

The Spark that Set the Flame

The Salem Witch Trials began innocently when several teenage girls came into contact with a West African slave named Tituba who claimed to have supernatural powers.The story, however, is murky and is based on the girls' accounts and Tituba -- who may have been under duress, considering her unfortunate status in the village, as well as being named the chief suspect.

Upon hearing about her "magical powers" (whether they assumed she had it or heard about it from others is not clear) the teens sought Tituba's help to see into the future. Tituba agreed to help them by holding a séance.

After the séance, however, the girls claimed to have been "haunted" by something. Eye-witnesses stated the girls were acting strange.Within a week, they were throwing fits and going in convulsions. Some girls, it was reported, had mysterious physical marks appear on their skins.

Immediately Many in this religious settlement -- including the uncle of one of the accused, the town preacher -- feared the worst. The girls were interrogated, and they immediately placed the blame on Tituba. Tituba feared the punishment she may incur. Thus, she accused several Salem residents of "working for Satan."

Later, the girls added more names to a growing list of suspected witches. And once word got out, other people in the community began to accuse their neighbors, friends or family members of being "in league with the Devil."

News of the scare soon spread beyond Salem's boundaries. It resulted in the creation of a special tribunal of judges -- led by Judge Hawthorne -- that tried, convicted and ordered execution of suspected witches. The accusations continued unhindered until the colonial governor's wife was accused of being a witch.

Still, the witch trials had caused extensive damage to the people involved. Many were forced to sign a confession (as seen in the picture), while those who maintained their innocence were hanged. In one case, a man Giles Corey died during a torturous interrogation, in heavy rocks were stacked on him.

Abigal William's Confession

example of a "confession."
example of a "confession." | Source

Skepticism Weighs In

Many historians and researchers point to the teenagers' guilt in the witch hunt. In 1750, Thomas Hutchinson wrote about the event in a New England journal. He claimed the accusers lied about being possessed, claiming they made it up to garner attention. In 1867 Charles Upton supported the this claim by saying "the girls, the original accusers, acted out [pretended] the convulsions."

Although many historians agree with the Hutchinson and Upton, they also felt the two didn't didn't take into account the type of superstition that existed at the time. Researchers point to certain facts about the villagers. They stated that the villagers were deeply religious. They believed in existence of Satan as much as they believed in God. This includes the girls.

The religious aspect may explain the girls' motives, too. When they dabbled in "black magic", they may have believed that they were doing something unholy. They feared God's punishment, as well as the villagers. The only way out was to confess to this sin and help the church and authorities in town hunt down the suspected witches.

he religious aspect may explain the girls' motives, too. When they dabbled in "black magic", they may have believed that they were doing something unholy.

Cross-Cultural Comparison

Cross-cultural comparison has been used to explained this event. This is a conceptual tool used by cultural anthropologists. It compares two cultures with each other to see where similarities and differences are.

One anthropological case that parallels the possession - and acting out - of the teen was a study made on Australian aborigines. In this case, aborigines, who were deeply superstitious, convinced themselves they were possessed by evil spirits They'd contort and convulse - in very similar fashion as the teens in Salem.

In some cases, the belief of possession was so strong that the "possessed one" attempted suicide in order to rid one's self of the evil spirits. Cross-cultural comparisons reveal the remarkable depth of reaction possible in a community that believes in its own magic. However, one problems remains with this theory;1692 Salem was far different - technically and spiritually - than the aboriginals.

Hysterics

So what else could account for the witch scare? In 1907, the French physician Pierre Janet wrote "Major Symptoms of Hysteria." In her essay, she describes hysterical convulsions she observed in mental patients - the reactions displayed were the same habits first observed in during the Salem Witch Trials. .

This could explain an individual's perception of possession. It also explains the actions of a group of people. Hysterics were notably suggestible: a person with it was sensitive to the influence of the environment. If a person is in a room full of people suffering from hysterical convulsion, that one person will develop the same symptoms. Another important aspect of hysteria is the inflictions that suddenly appear on the hysteric person's skin. In some cases, a person suffering from this condition can make open sores or marks similar to teeth marks appear on their skin - as was the case in Salem.

In other cases, undesirables such as females who ran taverns or were prostitutes were tried and convicted of being witches.

Socioeconomic Factors

There's another theory that may lead to one of the chief reasons the event became so widespread. When historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum studied the demography of the colony, their conclusion was revealing, if not startling. They discovered that the the majority of the accused lived in the impoverished eastern section (Salem Village) and the accusers lived in the affluent western section (Salem Town).

Boyer and Nissenbaum discovered that the Salem Village didn't have enough money to support its own minister. Because of this, religious practices that were part of Salem's ordinance could not be practiced in Salem Village. Instead, the red-light districts and taverns of Salem were found here. Quickly, it became an undesirable place - a sore spot in a colony that prided itself for being pious in the eyes of the Lord.

However, the accusations went beyond accusing those in the poorest section of Salem. In some accounts, neighbors who had historically been involved in land disputes accused each other. In many cases, the accuser managed to take the land of the accused. In other cases, undesirables such as females who ran taverns or were prostitutes were tried and convicted of being witches. Even mid-wives were suspected.

There was another problem revealed by Boyer and Nissenbaum. Salem Village was about to break away from Salem. Tax money from both districts paid for the one minister in the colony, road maintenance and care of the poor. If Salem Village became a separate colony, financial support would bring serious problems for the remaining district. Although the residence of Salem Town may have looked down on those living Salem Village, they realized they still needed them, financially . The "witch-scare" was the one incident that brought the two district's feud into light.

By applying several factors, a believable image of the trials takes place. The people in these two districts in Salem distrusted each other, and when the witch scare began, that distrust had tragic results.

The hysteria, convulsion and attacks accompanied by the superstition, took the distrust to supernatural plateaus. And, as a result, innocent people died. However, the events were not merely the result of one group of girls accusing citizens of being witches. This was caused by numerous events that set the witch hunt to run its horrific course in American history.

More Information the Salem Witch Trials

© 2014 Dean Traylor

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A very thorough and interesting account, especially of the reasoning behind the Salem witch trials Dean. A very good read, especially for Halloween.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 2 years ago

      It was also a time of war and of political uncertainty. (The British government had revoked the Massachusetts charter.) During times of stress, people might be more prone to believe things that they normally wouldn't. And since Puritans believed in God's omnipotence and in the existence of Satan, they were prone to seeing negative circumstances as signs of either God's displeasure or of Satan doing his thing.

    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 2 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      How Ironic! Those that believed in God chose to kill in the name of God!

      Then why not ! Since the old testament bible is full of such killing. Of,course the God they killed for was not the same God. They were pagan Gods of course.

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