The witch trials of Salem Massachusetts represent one of the most fascinating events in American history. Although the witch-hunt hysteria only lasted approximately one year, the ramifications and lessons learned are still alive today. Questions still abound over the sudden fear of witches in 1691-2. This paper will examine the circumstances which led to the trials including the Puritan lifestyle, conflicts that arise within communities (and how they affect the community), the hysteria related to so-called witches, the power of fear that can grow out of control, and the voice of reason that finally triumphs in the end.
According to Mary Norton, author of In the Devil's Snare, the "witchcraft crisis" began in the middle of January 1661, which resulted in legal action against 144 people. (Norton 3) Of that number, nine women were executed for being witches. Norton states that to understand the situation clearly, one must understand the views of the Puritans in a "pre-Enlightenment" world (6). Their view taught them that they were a "chosen people charged with bringing God's message to the heathen" (Norton 295). The Puritans were a part of the Church of England, which chose to separate from the Roman Catholic Church in an attempt to find a more pure religion. The Puritan belief consisted of a personal religious experience, strict moral conduct, and simple worship services. (Kallen 17) Those who were considered sinful were severely punished. In fact, according to Frances Hill's book, A Delusion of Satan, points out some of the petty crimes for which some people were punished. They include sleeping through church services and "unseemly speeches against the rule of the church" (18). In addition, David Fremon, author of The Salem Witchcraft Trials, "self-expression, self-assertion, or opposition to the community were signs of sin." (Fremon 26) The sudden mystery of the Salem Village "afflictions" fell into this category as well. Norton also surmises that the Puritans believed these afflictions were signs from God just like natural catastrophes, the smallpox epidemic, and the sudden death of children. (295) It is clear that the Puritan mindset was integral in the definition and eventual accusations of those who practiced witchcraft.
In addition, women suffered any lack of independence during this time. According to Earle Rice, author of The Salem Witch Trials, the Puritans were "woman haters" (Rice 11). In fact, Peter Hoffer, author of The Salem Witchcraft Trials, women who were different, would not show submissiveness to men, and who violated the "special rules men laid down making women inferior to men" were accused of witchcraft. Hoffer says that John Gaule half-joked that "[E]very old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr'd brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue" was fair game for the accusation of witch. (Hoffer 5) Although the situation may not have been that bad, it may well have been as events leading to the persecution of so-called witches were just as weak and flimsy. According to Mary Norton, author of In the Devil's Snare," most of the accused during the Salem trials were older women with "dubious reputations that fit the seventeenth-century stereotype of the witch" (Norton 8). Although a few men were accused of practicing witchcraft, the association of witch with a female was clearly evident during this time.
This issue is important because it represents the stark contrast of good and evil as seen through Puritan eyes. As Stuart Kallen notes in The Salem Witch Trials, "every practitioner of magic or sorcery" was "regarded with grave uneasiness" (Kallen 11). The case of Tituba's "witch cake," is a classic example of a strong Puritan reaction. The incident was regarded as "going to the Devil for help against the Devil" and therefore, the "Devil has been raised against us," said Pastor Parris. That event spurred "fits" among three girls, which in turn started the witch craze in Salem Village.
At about the same time in Salem, another conflict was brewing in the village that led to a deep division among the members of that community: the conflict of the Porters and the Putnams. The Porters and the Putnams were the most visible laypeople in the community and conflict that surrounded their families turned into a conflict that divided the village. Salem Village at the time was struggling over the issue of staying autonomous or joining Salem Town. The Porters interests led them in the direction of joining Salem Town. (Hoffer 24). The Putnam family and those who agreed with them were not as interested in becoming part of Salem Town as the Porters were. The Porters stood in the way for complete independence of the Village would put the Porters at the mercy of the Putnams. The Porters did not withdraw their interest in Village affairs but instead quietly interfered with the Putnam's plans for the village's independence. The Porters answer to the Putnams efforts was to create closer ties to the rest of the town, based on participation in the world market. The "Porters had married into mercantile families whose interest reached across the Atlantic to the British Isles and from West Africa to the Caribbean" (Hoffer 26). This division reached its peak when the Porters took control of the village committee, formerly held by the Putnams. (26) Clearly a possible connection to this dispute can be made when examining the accusers and the accused, as three girl accusers belonged to the Putnam family or where friends of the Putnam family. Many have speculated how much this conflict played into the accusations and this example demonstrates the devastating affects of such a conflict is it isn't resolved.
Ann Putnam was probably the first among this community to accuse anyone of being a witch and her story made the Putnam home the "center of hysteria" (Kallen 35). She testified that the apparition of Sarah Good tortured her grievously. This excitement was heightened when the twelve-year-old Putnam daughter, Ann, was also began to experience "fits." (Norton 21) In one reported account, it is said that Ann "fell in to grievous feets of Choking blinding feat and hands twisted in a most grievous manner and told martha Corey to her face that she did it, and emediately hur tonge was dran out of her: mouth and teeth fasned upon it in a most grievous manner" (Norton 47-48). Other girls who claimed they had suffered similar afflictions were Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Betty Hubbard, and Mary Walcott. Norton speculates that gossip may have had much to do with the growing afflictions, stating that their accusations "encouraged the expression of even more accusations, thereby renewing and repeating what became seemingly endless cycles of suspicion, gossips, and complaints, leading to more suspicion, more gossip, and additional complaints" (Norton 113). Some causes for such accusations can be traced to their origins, says Norton. For example, one of Ann's afflictions was inspired by the gossip of a "drunken Goodman Farrar who stumbled into a house that wasn't his" (114). Clearly, Norton asserts, that Ann turned gossip into "formal accusations, and rumor-mongering in various towns thus became witchcraft charges in the village" (114). These situations illustrate the dangers involved with a growing fear that, if unchecked, becomes uncontrollable and, in certain cases, deadly.
With such a background, it is understandable to question who would be the victim in such instances. One woman who was accused of practicing witchcraft, and who might be considered a victim of such accusations was Rebecca Nurse. According to Kallen, Rebecca was an "unlikely witch" as she was an "elderly, gentle woman known for her piety and goodness" (Kallen 51). Israel and Elizabeth Porter visited Rebecca, as this was the proper way to deal with scandalous rumors. It was this visit by the Porters that first alerted the aged and fail Rebecca that she was considered "accused." She denied any accusations and the Porters believed her. (Roach 49-50) However, the accusations continued. According to David Fremon, author of The Salem Witchcraft Trials in American History, Ann Putnam also testified that Rebecca Nurse had tried to get her to sign the "devil's book and give up her soul or she would tear Ann's soul out of her body. An important thing to note in studying this case is that nobody actually believed that Rebecca Nurse actually did these things, but rather Rebecca's spirit was responsible. Mary Walcott, another afflicted girl, even testified that Rebecca Nurse's apparition told her that she murdered Benjamin Porter, Benjamin Holten, and John Harrod. (Roach 110) Israel Porter managed to organize a petition to save her to no avail. After a long trail and some deliberation, Rebecca was found guilty. (Fremon 8) The Porter's involvement in Rebecca's case deepened the ongoing conflict with the Putnams and the Porters would soon be associated with the accused. (Roach 76)
Historians agree that most of the accusers lived in the western part of Salem Village while the accused lived closer to Salem Town. The accusers all seemed to…