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Religious Fervor and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692
Background of the Puritan Era
The hubs about Johnathan Edwards and his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," has inspired me to write to write this hub about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. I also taught American Literature to sophomores in high school, so I do know a little bit about the Puritan Era and the phenomena known as The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, which was the worst example of mass hysteria and religious fervor run amuck in the history of our country. And, this era of Puritan history has been used in popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and governmental instrusion on individual liberties. Of course, in the classroom we read, "The Crucible," by Arthur Miller (1952) to bring the Salem Witch Trials alive in the classroom.
The play is very effective in delving into the reasons why people falsely accuse others, follow others blindly out of fear into hysteria, and how lives were lost and destroyed in the name of God and religion. So I decided it was time to delve into another "we will never forget," moment in history, this time in our own country. Even though this happened in the earliest times of life in America, and it encompasses the Puritans and their era, we still want to learn from this hysterical time and not repeat the mistakes made by those living, who, perhaps, didn't know any better.
Around 1629 or 1630, the Puritans arrived in America to seek religious freedom from England, and set up the Massachusetts Bay Colony with Salem Village and Salem Town being the largest Puritan settlements here in the new world. While, living here in the new world, the Puritans had attained their goal of being able to practice their religion as they pleased, but as far as freedom, there was not much of that in these Puritan settlements.
The Puritans lived very repressed lives governed by church law in all aspects of life. Music, dancing, celebration of holidays such as Christmas and Easter were absolutely forbidden. Schooling for children was in religious doctrine only and in the Bible. All villagers were expected to got to meeting house for three hour sermons every Wednesday and Sunday. Leisure or recreation time was unheard of in Puritan life. Every second of daily life was living dutifully for God and carving out a life in the new world.
Also, at this time the two settlements of Salem Village and Salem Town had many internal disputes, and disputes between the town and village especially over who to hire for a minister. Samuel Parris, became the first ordained minister in Salem Village; however his hire only seemed to increase the village's division. He inflamed the congregation's disputes instead of calming them, and made church members in good standing suffer public penance for small infractions and generally contributed to the tension within the village and bickering in the village continued unabated.
All misfortunes that befell Salem Village were attributed to the work of the devil; infant death, crop failures, and contention between fellow members of the congregation. When problems arose in Puritan life, the supernatural was blamed. The supernatural became part of everyday Puritan life. There was a strong belief in Satan that was very active to Puritans. Written works by such men as Joseph Glanvill and Cotton Mather tried to prove in their writings and sermons that "demons were alive," which played on the fears of individuals who believed demons were active among the Puritans. Therefore, Salem Village and the Puritans were ripe for the belief in witchcraft when several young and adolescent girls began acting strangely in Samuel Parris' own household. What could be causing these young girls in the minister's own house to act so out of control? The only explainable cause to the Puritans in Salem Village was ---witchcraft and Satan.
Accusations of Witchcraft and the Trials
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 began with the strange and unusual afflictions of the girls in and near the Parris household in Salem Village. Betty Parris, age 9, her cousin, Abigail Williams, age 11, Ann Putnam, age 12, and Elizabeth Hubbard, began to have fits: they screamed, threw things, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, flapped their arms around like birds, and contorted themselves into unusual positions, complained of being pinched and pricked with pins, and writhed around on the ground. What was causing this? Well, when Samuel Parris investigated, he found that the girls had been spending quite a bit of time with Tituba, the Parris' household slave and servant, from Barbados in the Caribbean and she had been discussing voodoo with the girls. Tituba was a Carib Indian/African American in background and told the girls stories of her life in Barbados and demonstrated the religion, which was very spiritual in nature, that was practiced on the island by the natives.
Well, take impressionable young and adolescent girls, repressed by their Puritan lifestyle, brought up to be prim and proper Puritan girls, music, dance, and celebrating forbidden in their lifestyle and you have girls at the right ages to throw off the repressions of Puritanism. Also, at this time, the girls had heard of the accusations of witchcraft from other nearby villiages. All this, plus Tituba and her stories, and you have young girls throwing off their Puritan repressions and and freely throwing themselves around in bodily freedom. What a release for these girls and it could all be blamed on witchcraft, because that was happening close by anyway.
The first three arrested for witchcraft and afflicting these girls were: Tituba, Sara Good, and Sarah Osborn. And why these three women? Because they were the outcasts and those disliked by others in Salem Village. Here were the "usual suspects" to be arrested for witchcraft and the explanation for the strange behavior of the girls:
- Sara Good was a homeless beggar with an appalling reputation in Salem Village
- Sarah Osborn rarely attended church meetings. The villagers believed she had her own self-interest in mind, for she had remarried to an indentured servant. She even attempted to control her son's inheritance from her previous marriage
- Tituba, the slave from Barbados, who worked in the Parris household was accused of enchanting the girls with voodoo stories
Other accusations followed a few months later, Martha Corey, Dorothy Good, and Rebecca Nurse were accused and arrested for witchcraft. As time went on the witchcraft accusations became bolder and bolder, encompassing more and more decent members of Salem Village and the church, and less of the outcasts. Anyone who voiced opposition or skepticism of the accusations were eventually arrested for witchcraft also:
- Martha Corey had voiced skepticism about the credibility of the girl's accusations
- Dorothy Good was a four year old child, the daughter of Sara Good, and when questioned by the magistrates, her answers were construed as a confession, implicating her mother
- John Proctor, a very upstanding citizen of Salem Village, but when he raised objections during the trial proceedings was arrested. In the officials' investigation of him, they found he was committing adultery with one of the afflicted girls.
- Giles Corey, husband of Martha, who boldly refused to enter a plea in court and was subsequently crushed to death as the court officials tried to force him to enter a plea.
Court convened on June 2, 1692. William Stoughton appointed as Chief Magistrate of the court by the Crown, Thomas Newton, was the Crown's attorney prosecuting the cases and Stephen Sewall was appointed as clerk of court.
And, what evidence was presented in court to convict these people? It was spectral evidence, used against the accused, supported by Minister Increase Mather in a letter he wrote to the Salem Village Court that this evidence should be accepted as valid and the trials proceeded using this evidence. Spectral evidence was when the afflicted persons claimed to see the apparition or shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. If the afflicted were haunted by the ghost of the accused at night in their dreams, then the fact that they "saw" the accused was evidence enough to convict the accused. This evidence and "touching evidence," where when the accused touched the afflicted ones, they suddenly started the strange behavior of writhing on the ground, etc, the accused were convicted in court. This silly evidence was all it took to gain a conviction.
And once convicted the executions began! Most were hanged at Gallows Hill near Salem Village. Some died while being held in prison. As mentioned before, Giles Corey died from the crushing torture. More than 150 people were arrested and imprisoned during a year's time of the hysteria and trials. At least approximately thirty to fifty people were executed as witches.
The End of the Hysteria
What finally ended the hysteria and the trials? The accusations finally stopped when doubt grew about the accusers and respected and upstanding citizens of Salem Village were convicted and executed:
- The accused included the powerful and well-connected
- The educated elite of Boston pressured the courts to exclude the spectral evidence "
- Governor Phips of the Massachusetts Bay Colony barred spectral evidence from being used and disbanded the courts
There was a public call for justice at the time and in 1695, Thomas Maule, a Quaker, publicly criticized the handling of the trials by Puritan leaders. He wrote, "better that 100 witches should live, than one person be put to death as a witch, which is not a Witch." When his writings were published, Maule was imprisoned for twelve months, tried, and found not guilty. Finally, the idea of witchcraft, Satan, and trials ended for all time.
But all this was too late for the innocent lives that were lost during this hysterical year, 1692, in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. How do we know the names of those arrested, imprisoned, and executed? Copious court records were kept on all the investigations and trials and transcripts were kept of each trial. These records have given us the history of the the times, and that is how we know so much about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Today, you can visit Salem, Massachusetts, about an hour's car drive outside of Boston, and see the Salem Witch Museum and visit the places mentioned in this article. Nathaniel Hawthorne's literal House of the Seven Gables is in Salem and that can be viewed and toured also. His American classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, also takes place in Salem Village during the Puritan era.
"We will never forget."
- EyeWitness to History - history through the eyes of those who lived it
First hand accounts, illustrated with vintage photos, original radio broadcasts.
- Salem Witch Museum - Education - Salem, Massachusetts
- UMKC School of Law
UMKC School of Law