Salem Witchcraft Trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts reveal a complex component to human behavior. It illustrates how hysteria can operate on many levels. Specifically, we can learn about the growing hysteria of the accused and the hysteria of the members of Salem to do something about these so-called witches.
Mary Beth Norton asserts that in order to understand the witchcraft crisis that erupted in Salem Massachusetts, we much explore the origins of the time and place in which the crisis occurred. When doing so, we find that Salem was heavily involved with the Second Indian War, which "dominated public policy and personal decisions alike" (Norton In the Devil's Snare 5). In addition, we must also consider the village itself, as well as Puritan attitudes toward woman.
One critical aspect in understanding the mindset of the Puritans is realizing that they did not have the benefits of science on their side. As a result, many unusual circumstances could not be explained.
The Puritans saw their children become ill and die, strange noises and ghastly visions could not be explained.
To explain strange phenomenon, they resorted to types of superstition. Norton explains, "When they experienced harmful events that other wise seemed inexplicable, New Englanders often concluded that a malevolent witch caused their problems" (6). Norton also notes that gossip is an important aspect of these trials. She says, "the Witchcraft accusations in Salem Village aroused curiosity throughout all of New England, especially in Essex County" (6). The gossip no doubt instilled fear among members in the community.
The issue can be traced as far back as 1647, when Margaret Jones was the first person to be executed for witchcraft. However, it is the trials of 1692 that rivaled many similar witch-hunts in England and Scotland (In the Devil's Snare Norton 8). Many scholars attribute much of the witch hysteria associated with strict the Puritan background. According to Geraldine Woods, many of Salem's documents refer to the Old Testament for explanation, authority, and guidance, particularly in criminal cases" (Woods 22). In 1692, the conditions seemed perfect for a witch-hunt. The winter was harsh and Cotton Mather had delivered many sermons on how the youth were being tempted with sorcery. Many children would pass time with games like fortune telling. In addition, New England was undergoing political and economical changes. Norton claims that if "people could not find rational explanations for their troubles, they tended to suspect they were bewitched" (A People and a Nation Norton 68). This solution, however unreasonable, provided at least an answer for them.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Salem witch trials is the fact that most of the accusers were young girls. Geraldine notes how young Puritan women were often taught that they wear a weaker and more vulnerable gender, therefore, they could fall victim to the devil more easily than men could. Some psychologists support the notion that these young girls suffered from hysteria, a mental condition in which the person is aware of his or her actions, but unable to control them. It has also been noted that many individuals who feel powerless in their current circumstances often experience fits of hysteria. (Woods 45) Regardless of why these fits occurred, they instigated one of the most interesting historical events of the seventeenth century. Before the witch craze ended, nineteen individuals would lose their lives because of these allegations.
A personality that became famous during this time was Tituba, a slave who worked for Samuel Parris. One night before falling asleep, Tituba witnessed a dark figure that told her to harm the Parris children. Tituba was haunted by this figure, which claimed to be the devil, until she signed his book, a sign that indicated she would serve him. Tituba was an Indian and Sarah Osborne described the ghostly image that haunted her as something that was dark, "like an Indian all black" (Kallen 39). Tituba taught the Parris girls how to guess their futures. Shortly thereafter, the girls became ill and suffered from terrible nightmares. The strange behavior spread to other girls and women in the community. The "victims" of this odd behavior been to make claims that they had been hurt by Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba or specter and shapes that looked like them (Norton In the Devil's Snare 21). Tituba was the first to confess that she was a witch. Many historians believe that Tituba was simply relating aspects of her Indian heritage, which from a Puritan perspective, seemed to be more like witchcraft than anything else was. Tituba's confession may have saved her life, as the Puritans considered confession as the first step to "moral revival" (Kallen 61). However, not all would be so lucky.
The story of Rebecca Nurse is perhaps one of the most famous when it comes to witches and Salem, Massachusetts. Along with Nurse, Sarah Good, Susanah Martin, Sarah Wild, and Elizabeth Howe were also tried for being a witch. Nurse was an older woman who many found hard to believe that she was a witch. In fact, she had the best reputation of any of the accused. Interestingly, Nurse was not found guilty at her trial. However, when the verdict was announced, the accusers in the courtroom made a loud outburst that "struck terror in the hearts of the judges" (Kallen 64). The noise spread outside the courtroom to the crowd that was gathered outside. Upon hearing the commotion, one of the judges determined that the verdict was not satisfactory. Judge Staughton asked the jury to consider the remark Nurse made when she said that Hobbs one "one of us" (Kallen 64). The jury took this remark to mean that Nurse was calling Hobbs a witch; Nurse later said that she was indicating that Hobbs was a fellow prisoner. The jury found Nurse guilty and she was hanged on October 19.
Martha Corey was also accused of being a witch. According to Kallen, she was a "member in good standing of the church" (Kallen 46). Corey was arrested and taken to the magistrates. She was treated harshly because she did not believe the accusations about Good, Tituba, and Osborne. She also told them that she did not believe that there were witches in Salem, a statement that was held against her. She was hanged on September 22. Incidentally, her husband, Giles Corey suffered a similar fate. Giles was accused and pleaded not guilty before the magistrate. Punishment for this type of action was being placed under stones and being pressed to death until either a plea was heard or death occurred. Ann Putnam claimed that an apparition told her that Giles had murdered someone by pressing him to death. This was indeed true, and Cotton Mather exploited this situation by claiming it was confirmation of God's providential intervention in human affairs and the validity of spectral visions" (Norton 277). The case involving the Coreys demonstrate how the community was growing more and more obsessed with no only seeking out witches, but doing away with them.
A significant aspect of the witch hysteria included searching the accused witches for marks on their bodies that would prove that they were indeed witches. These marks are described as "extra nipples at which she supposedly sucked her familiars -- and devil's marks, intensive spots if skin allegedly made by the devil's claws or teeth" (Kallen 40). This awful act often included being "stripped and shaved from head to toe, then exhaustively examined for blemishes, moles, or scars that could be labeled diabolical" (40). This type of behavior illustrates how the community became obsessed with seeking out witches.
Thomas Brattle, a merchant, was never quite satisfied with the witchcraft trials. He noted that errors in testimony "pervert the great end of authority and government" (Brattle qtd. In Roach 312). He condemned the touch tests that were commonly used to identify witches. He claimed they were in themselves a form of sorcery. He also said that looking for marks on so-called witches were "useless" (Roach 312) because everyone has a blemish of some sort.
Norton observes that one of the most fascinating aspects of the trails is how abruptly they ended. She notes two reasons for this. First, the accusers had become "too bold" (A People and a Nation 69). For instance, when some of the most distinguished individuals in the community were being accused of being witches, the "ruling elite began to doubt their veracity" (69). Second, the new royal charter was implemented that same year and was bringing to an end many fear and anxieties regarding the political and economic future of Salem.
On September 22, 1692, the last of the accused witches were hanged. In 1692, Cotton Mather delivered a sermon in which he disapproved of the spectral evidence and touch tests in determining if the accused persons were actually witches. All prisoners that were held in prison were released but they were still charged for fuel, clothing and transportation once they were released.…