Salem Witch Trials were an atrocity in a period of American history. Several young girls, who had heard tales of the supernatural from a West Indian slave, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused three women of witchcraft. Put in that position, the three women, in turn, named others in false confessions (Merriam-Webster 1416).
This caused hysteria much like Joseph McCarthy caused in 1950 in his hunt for Communists. Unlike the McCarthy era, the penalty for "witches" was death. Anyone that behaved in a way that people couldn't understand was subjected to scrutiny.
There are many theories that have been made of the behavior of the citizens of Salem, Massachusetts in May to October 1692. The behavior that caused nineteen "witches" to be executed and one hundred-fifty others to be imprisoned (Merriam-Webster 1416). What caused the people in that town to turn against their own? Did the Salem witch trials occur because of a sociological, psychological, and/or physiological problem? This paper will explain the physiological theories, the psychological theories, and the sociological theories based on various sources and let the reader make up his or her mind regarding what really was happening during the Salem witch trials. The reader can decide whether it was physiological, psychological, or sociological, or maybe, a little of all three.
The physiological theories, regarding the Salem witch trials, are that the citizens of Salem were afflicted with a virus or fungus. Laurie Winn Carlson's theory is that the citizens of Salem were afflicted physiologically with a virus called encephalitis lethargica. Did this virus cause some citizens of Salem to become victims, not to the virus, but to execution, imprisonment, and abuse? This is the question that will be explored.
Carlson, in A Fever In Salem, writes that the people of Salem behaved very strangely.
During this period something unexplainable and distinct from known illness caused people and domestic animals to behave strangely. This unseen force caused people to fall into fits, feel pains in their arms and legs like biting and pricking, bark like dogs, grovel on the ground like hogs, and even turn suicidal. Psychotic hallucinations were frightening." (Carlson 6).
She attributes these symptoms to the encephalitis virus, usually caused by mosquitoes.
Dr. Marjorie Lazoff describes the symptoms of encephalitis. Encephalitis, otherwise known as the sleeping disease, causes a person to have fevers, headaches, stiff neck, and photophobia. A person can have the same body aches, as a person who has the flu, be lethargic, and, sometimes, slip into a coma. Characteristic neurological signs can include delirium, uncoordinated, involuntary movements and localized weakness. The most severe cases of encephalitis can cause a person to contort and convulse, although convulsions are most common with infants (Merriam-Webster 530). There is no predilection for gender other than that for SSPE, Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis, which is 2-4 times more prevalent in male children (Lazoff, 5).
The symptoms that the afflicted had were convulsive fits that were grotesque and violent. The fits were so strange because the seizures would cause body parts to move and be positioned in ways that were not natural and that a well person would not be able to duplicate (Hansen 21). Other symptoms of the afflicted were "temporary loss of hearing, speech, and sight; loss of memory, a choking sensation in their throat, and loss of appetite" (Hansen 21). Add hallucinations and body aches to that mix as well. Sometimes the afflicted would talk in a voice not their own or bark like dogs.
Perhaps, it can be said that since doctors did not know about encephalitis and the symptoms, in order to cover their own ignorance, they blamed it on Satan and possession, quite like a present day doctor blaming unknown sicknesses and symptoms as psychosomatic.
However, the symptoms that the afflicted exhibited and the symptoms of encephalitis do seem to coincide but there are some symptoms that can't be explained. The temporary loss of hearing, speech, and sight do not seem to be apart of the encephalitis symptom inventory. The convulsions of encephalitis are most common with infants, not adults. Yet, a good many adults, in 1692, had convulsions that protruded their tongue and locked their limbs, so severely, that their limbs had to be broken to move them. Perhaps there could have been a severe encephalitis virus, since there are many strains of this virus, according to Dr. Marjorie Lazoff.
Another theory, regarding the Salem witch trials, is that the symptoms that people were afflicted with were psychological. There are four parts to the psychological aspect of the theory, pretense, mob hysteria, hysteria from anxiousness and fear, and mental illness, such as schizophrenia and senility.
The pretense theory is that people were pretending to have the afflictions because they did not want to be accused of witchcraft or because they wanted the chance to accuse other people for revenge or other reasons. In fact, that is how it all started. When Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Martha Goodwin, and others started to exhibit strange symptoms, that's when the accusations started.
In the days of 1692, there was nothing for a young girl to do but work, work, and go to church. Their actions were restrained to abide by religious beliefs.
Young women in that time and place had nothing to feed the imagination to expand understanding or heighten sensitivity. There were no fairytales or stories to help order and make sense of experience. Thee was not art or theater or any but the simplest music to express and give form to chaotic emotion. Boys enjoyed hunting, trapping, and fishing, carpentry, and crafts. For girls there were no such outlets for animal high spirits or mental creativity" (Hill 7).
The theory is that they were so repressed and so wanted to act out and be free that they pretended to bark like dogs and have incoherent speech. They pretended to act as though they didn't know what they were doing. They knew they would not get into trouble if these were serious afflictions and they were caused by serious means. How good it must have felt to them to act out without repercussions. Other girls, seeing that Betty and Abigail were so free, started to pretend that they had the symptoms as well.
When the doctor couldn't explain what was happening to them, they started yelling out the names of their tormentors. The idea to blame their afflictions on witchcraft came from tales told by the family's West Indian slave couple. Witchcraft was the perfect solution to let them continue their antics. Nobody could prove that this was or was not the cause of the girls' afflictions and they were safe from consequences. The panic grew among the adults at seeing their children afflicted and not being able to do anything about it. It was quite easy for the adults to blame something tangible and eradicate it, rather than not know what the cause of their daughters' or nieces' distress was or how to deal with it.
When it was time for the accused to receive their punishment of hanging, the girls, while they attended the executions, would laugh and gloat. They must have been drunk with power when they surveyed the devastation that they had created.
Recorded in documents are examples of how the people would lie outright and it was not attributed to any physical or mental problem.
The testimony of Daniel Eliot, aged twenty-seven years or thereabouts, who testifieth and saith, that I being at the house of Lieutenant Ingersoll on the 28th of March in the year 1692, there being present one of the afflicted persons, which cried out and said, 'There's Goody Procter.' William Raymond being there present told the girl he believed she lied, for he saw nothing. Goody Ingersoll told the girl she told a lie. Then the girl said that she did it for sport -- they must have some sport" (Hansen 154).
Another psychological theory is the mob hysteria theory. Just a few girls were pretending to have afflictions for either the theory stated above or, perhaps, family conflicts with certain people caused the girls to accuse the people that the family had problems with. In any event, the fear of being accused started a wave of hysteria. Other people started to pretend that they had afflictions, as well, but they did it for different reasons. When the panic grew and more people were executed or jailed, they pretended to have afflictions because they did not want to be accused of being "witches." They wanted to show publicly that they were the bewitched, not the bewitcher.
Also mob hysteria caused the citizens of Salem to scrutinize one another and make more accusations if their neighbor did anything as little as blink. This caused more people to be executed or jailed.
The third psychological theory is hysteria due to anxiousness or fear.
Hysteria is a term formerly used in psychology to designate a neurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of…