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The Salem Witches and Mass Hysteria

Updated on January 20, 2011

the Puritan Salem Village

In Salem (Massachusetts) the main attraction is the Salem Witch Museum, where a detailed, if rather static representation of the trial, surrounding this story can be visited.

The background of this tragedy is that the Salem Village congregation had always been rather quarrelsome, and that for years there were many disputes between neighbors. Mostly they had to do with property and grazing rights, but there was also a lot of discontent and personal animosity. Over the course of twenty years, three ministers had left the parish !

In 1689, Puritan Reverend Samuel Parris accepted the position of ordained minister in Salem Village, after taking almost a year to decide. Only half of his parish was actually in support of him.

Unfortunately, the Reverend didn't seem to have the gift of mediation, and to ensure his standing (and probably to bolster his self-confidence ), he sought out "sinners" and publicly blamed them for the slightest misbehavior. This did nothing to relieve the tension in the village, but rather enhanced it.

How the tragedy started

There had been rumors of witchcraft in neighboring villages, and in January 1692, the daughter and the niece of Reverend Parris became ill. The girls screamed, threw things about, uttered strange sounds, and crawled all over the place. According to eyewitnesses, they complained of being pinched and stabbed with pins !

Doctor William Griggs was called in, but he was unable to discover the cause of the illness. Other young women started to show similar symptoms, even during the sermons in the church. The fanatically religious Puritans strongly believed in the existence of the devil and witchcraft, so under the circumstances, reverend Parris quickly reached a diagnosis of possession, witchcraft, spells and black magic...

This conclusion, coupled with the "standing" of the Reverend and the doctor, was enough to develop the situation into a sad string of events, whereby nineteen people were hanged, one man was crushed, and seven others died in prison ! Hundreds of others saw their lives completely upset or destroyed.

Since the leaders of the congregation had both clerical and administrative power, they brought the matter directly to court. In practice, this meant that they retained complete control of the story, while being able to wash their hands of any personal responsibility. This convenient "technique" is still used today in political circles...

The first victims of the wild accusations were people that were "slightly different", and could not defend themselves. Sarah Good was a homeless person, who begged for food or shelter. Sarah Osborne committed the "serious crime" of rarely attending church meetings. Finally, Tituba was a black slave. They were severely interrogated by the magistrates, and sent to prison.

Since the proceedings seemed to be so very easy, and "convenient" convictions were reached without a single shred of proof, soon more than 150 people from surrounding villages were accused by the girls ! These were immediately imprisoned for witchcraft, in anticipation of a "fair" trial. Needless to say, that the girls and the village prominents basked in the general attention and the glory of their righteousness...

The Witch Tribunal

In June 1692, the special Court of Oyer and Terminer (ancient French for "to hear" and "to end") convened in Salem. The chairman was Chief Justice William Stoughton, who was assisted by church magistrates and judges.

The first of the accused to appear was Bridget Bishop, who was promptly found guilty. According to the magistrates, she had used her "invisible astral spectrum" to torture the victims... She was hanged on June 10.

Thirteen women and five men underwent a similar fate, before governor William Phipps dissolved the Witch Tribunal in October, and appointed a new court. This "Superior Court of Judicature" no longer accepted alleged "astral proof", freed the prisoners and pardoned those who already were convicted.

Though the litigation over the Witches of Salem was over, the persons that were responsible for these terrible events were never held accountable...

Mass Hysteria and "Mass Sociogenic Illness"

These remarkable events have since been thoroughly studied in various universities, to learn from this bizarre combination of events and the accompanying mass hysteria. The Judiciary were eager to declare that such a chain of events simply cannot happen anymore. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to discover similarities in modern times.

In 1938, Orson Welles presented the radio drama War of the Worlds. A tremendous panic ensued, and many believed that an actual alien invasion was taking place. The crowds of New York and New Jersey could hardly be kept under control by the police.

In the early 1950s, Senator McCarthy's interrogation techniques and hearings about the "communist astral spectra" in the US bore an astounding resemblance to the Salem Witch trials...

In 1992, a group of 150 disabled children received a packed lunch in Florida. One of the girls felt sick, and almost instantly other children also began to complain. Some had headaches, others felt a tingling in their hands and feet, and still others had stomachs cramps. The supervisor was concerned about food poisoning, and promptly removed the lunch packages.

Within forty minutes sixty-three children were sick ! They were transported to hospitals, but within the hour the problems ceased. Not a single test revealed anything wrong with the food, nor did the same packed lunches produce any problem elsewhere.

In June 1999, several Belgian schoolchildren got sick after drinking a can of Coca-Cola. In no time at all, some 250 children had similar complaints, in five different schools. In a country plagued by widely publicized reports of transformer oil and dioxin, and PCB's in eggs, chicken, meat, and even in milk, an unusual scent in a bottle or can is apparently enough to provoke a strong headache or severe abdominal cramps. However, tests revealed no trace of any poisoning in blood or urine samples.

Coca Cola Belgium stated that maybe the wrong carbon dioxide had been used in the bottling plant in Antwerp-Wilrijk, but later examination showed no connection between the contaminant and the symptoms. The Belgian Health Council came to the conclusion that the crisis had been due to Mass Sociogenic Illness, a form of mass hysteria.

Coca Cola Enterprises did sue its insurers for more than 132 million dollars, to compensate it for the recall and destruction of millions of bottles and cans in Belgium and Luxemburg...


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    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Donna Brown 3 years ago from Alton, Missouri

      As I understand history, witch hunts were more common in Europe than ever in the Americas. How sad that so many people were harmed because of this type of hysteria.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Absolutely fascinating- and these are only SOME of the cases of mass hysteria in history! I wonder what will hit us next... hehee!

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      It doesn't matter how enlightened we think we are, people are the same in every culture and time period.