Another Salem Witch Trials Essay, Research Paper
The Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, which resulted in 19 executions, and 150 accusations of
witchcraft, are one of the historical events almost everyone has heard of. They began when three
young girls, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam began to have hysterical fits, after being
discovered engaging in forbidden fortune-telling (not dancing naked in the woods) to learn what sorts
of men they would marry. Betty’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris, called in more senior
authorities to determine if the girls’ affliction was caused by witchcraft. Although Betty was sent away
fairly soon, and did not participate in the trials, the other girls were joined by other young and mature
women in staging public demonstrations of their affliction when in the presence of accused "witches."
The events in Salem have been used as a theme in many literary works, including the play by Arthur
Miller which we are going to read during this unit. They are interesting to anthropologists because
they display some of the characteristics of "village" witchcraft and some of the features of the
European witch craze. Many commentators have seen the Salem witch craze as the last outbreak of
the European witch craze, transported to North America. As in African and New Guinea villages, the
original accusations in Salem were made against people who, in one way or another, the accusers
had reason to fear or resent. Moreover, the first few of the accused fit the definition of "marginal"
persons, likely to arouse suspicion. However, as in Europe, the accusations spread, and came to
encompass people not involved in any of Salem’s local grudges. As in Europe there was a belief that
the accused were in league with the Devil and "experts" employed "scientific" ways of diagnosing
Interestingly, during the colonial period in Africa, shortly after World War II, there were a number of
witch finding movements in Africa, which resembled the Salem episode in some ways, and had a
similar status "in between" the sort of witch hunt found in Europe and the typical African pattern.
Typically, in these movements, "witch finders" would come in from outside a village and claim to be
able to rid the village of witchcraft. At this period there was great dislocation, with people moving
around because of government employment, appropriation of farmland, and other causes. Some
people were improving their economic status as a result of these changes, and some were doing
much worse than before. Whereas in the past everyone in a locality had followed the same religion,
people were now exposed to Christianity and the local religions of people who had moved to their
region, or whose regions they had moved to. In the cities of central and southern Africa, many local
religions and Christian sects could be found, as well as Islam. Belief in witchcraft tended to unite
people across religious differences. Typically, the names brought to witch finders were those of the
same sort of local enemies we have become familiar with in reading about the Azande. As the frenzy
increased, people began to be accused who had not aroused any particular jealousies, possibly
because they possessed a peculiar bag or horn, which might be said to contain "medicine" – in one
reported case, such a container did indeed contain "medicine" but ordinary physical medicine, not
magical substances. These crazes tended to die down, often after considerable conflict and property
damage, and the witch finders would then move on to the next town. As witchcraft accusations still
occur in the area, we can conclude that the movements did not get rid of witches forever, nor, unlike
the situation Salem or Europe, did belief in witchcraft itself actually end with the witch crazes.
The actual execution of witches was not usually a feature in African witchcraft, so there was probably
less to repent in the end, though there was certainly social disruption and property damage. Despite
these differences, these African witch movements are evidence that events like the Salem witch trials,
where village witchcraft accusations blossom into something larger, while still remaining relatively
localized, have happened elsewhere under particular social conditions. These social conditions
include fairly rapid social change, a distrusted outside political authority (the British government in
Africa, Salem town council in Salem village), and new opportunities for betterment which are not
evenly distributed throughout the population, causing increased social inequality.
There have been three basic approaches taken to the analysis of the Salem witch trials. Scholars have
sought psychological and biological explanations for the symptoms displayed by the bewitched girls.
Sexual repression in Puritan New England, the low status of women, especially young women, in the
community, and lack of opportunity for any sort of entertainment are among the psychological
explanations which have been offered. "Group psychology," or the tendency for out of control
behaviours to spread in crowds, has also been mentioned. Various dietary deficiencies at the end of a
New England winter have also been blamed for the symptoms. My colleague, Anne Zeller, has
written an excellent article suggesting that the diet of Salem villagers at that time might well have led to
calcium deficiency, which is known to cause spasms and "hysterical" states. It has also been
suggested that some of the "spectral evidence" (claims to have been visited or actually sat upon,
choked, etc. by the "spectres" of accused witches) might have been the result of a condition known
as sleep paralysis. (Click here to visit a site maintained by a University of Waterloo psychology
professor, in which sleep paralysis is compared to both beliefs in demons and beliefs in alien
invasion.) While some of these psychological and biochemical factors were undoubtedly present, we
need to look further to explain why the symptoms were interpreted in the precise way they were,
why so many people were accused and convicted, and why certain people were accused and not
The reasons why "witchcraft" was blamed for the symptoms, rather than psychological disturbance,
physical illness, or even religious conversion (the experience of receiving Christ and being saved)
have often been sought in the theology of the Puritan inhabitants of Salem. Another generation of
New England Puritans, a little over fifty years later, did interpret a similar outbreak of spasms and
hysterias in young girls as "salvation," an event which led to The Great Awakening, a series of mass
conversion experiences throughout New England.
A core belief held by New England Puritans, which may have led to both interpersonal suspicion and
conceptions of a secret world, hidden from living humans, was the notion of predestination, the
belief that God had already determined who was to be saved and who was to be damned. As He
had not made his choices known, however, believers had to rely on clues as to who was among the
elect, the souls destined for salvation. Only these people could become full church members and
receive communion. Adherence to strict codes of conduct was necessary, but not sufficient, evidence
of salvation. A "feeling" of being saved, and, above all, the ability to convince others of one’s status,
were important. To some degree, wealth and status in the community counted as evidence of
salvation, but there were relatively poor church members and relatively rich non-members. Whether a
member or not, everyone was expected to attend Sunday meeting, and failure to do so, as we shall
see in The Crucible, could count against one if one were accused of witchcraft.
Both church members and non-members were accused and convicted of witchcraft. Indeed, a
sincere church member would be most likely to have difficulty issuing a false confession to save his or
her life, since to lie was evidence (at least to oneself) that one might not, after all, be saved. For a true
believer, a decision to make a false confession might really appear to be sacrificing a hope of eternal
life for a few extra years of life on earth.
During the century after the Salem witch trials, the New England Congregationalist church struggled
to reconcile the notion of predestination with a culture which placed strong emphasis on individual
ambition and responsibility. (I notice, by the way, that many Distance Education students have
indicated on the Web Board that you blame yourselves for your own misfortunes — that is a very
modern notion, which was just in the process of being born in 1692.) The experience of being
converted, or born again, began to be actively sought and to become the main requirement for church
membership, though one was expected to verify the conversion experience by living a virtuous life.
The Great Awakening, referred to above, was one of the evidences of this new opportunity for
individuals to actively seek evidence of salvation, but even then there was dispute as to how open
church membership should be. Jonathan Edwards, the minister who diagnosed the Northampton,
Massachusetts girls as being visited by divine spirit, rather than bewitched, eventually was dismissed
from his pulpit for insisting that only those who had experienced conversion, and not those who
simply awaited it with sincerity, might take communion. Early in the eighteenth century, Cotton
Mather, a rather complex Massachusetts theologian, who, during his life, both wrote a manual for the
prosecution of witches, which was used in the Salem trials, and encouraged smallpox vaccination in
Massachusetts, prepared advice for those who wished to be saved. You may read that advice at this
website. Mather placed great emphasis on fear of God and an acute sense of one’s own sinfulness -
only by feeling truly bad could one have hope of avoiding damnation.
In a world where God was seen as giving clues, at best, to His intentions, it was also credible that
another secret force was at work: God’s enemy, the Devil. Witchcraft confessions were incomplete
without reference to attendance at secret meetings to worship Satan, and acknowledgments that
oneself and others had signed documents enrolling in Satan’s service. Belief in a secret world, where
the forces of good warred with the forces of evil, both acting out of human sight, prompted a search
for visible "clues" that some people were involved in a Satanic plot. This search might be seen as a
kind of negative mirror of the search for clues that one was saved. Cotton Mather’s guide to the
prosecution of witches described some of these clues, including ones familiar to us from the film The
Burning Times. They included strange marks on the body (e.g. birthmarks, and extra nipples, which
many women have, and which were considered "witches’ teats" used to suckle demons). More
controversial was "spectral evidence." The afflicted girls and some male witnesses said that they saw
"spectres" (normally invisible spirits) of the accused, either in the courtroom or at other times, and
that these "spectres" choked them, frightened them, and otherwise tormented them. No doubt some
of those who confessed, and were spared, were able to justify confessing on the ground that their
spectres might have done things of which they were not aware, rather like confessing Azande witches
who say that mangu may have acted without their knowledge. Although some authorities, including
Increase Mather, Cotton Mather’s father, were dubious about the use of spectral evidence, the fact
that it was used is evidence of how deep was the belief among Salem residents in an unseen world,
peopled by malign forces.
A belief in an ongoing battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil can quickly become an
excuse for scapegoating in times of real or perceived crisis. And demons need not always be spirits.
As we shall see, Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, uses the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the
obsession, in the U.S. during the 1950s, with a vast, hidden communist conspiracy, threatening all
that was good in America.
This excursion into theology, I hope, helps to explain why the girls’ symptoms were interpreted as
they were, and why certain kinds of evidence were used at the trial. To understand why certain
people were accused and certain others accused them, we require an analysis in terms of social
relationships, just as we did in the case of the Azande. The selection in your text, from a well-known
book on Salem, Salem Possessed, attempts to explain the witch craze primarily in sociological,
political and economic terms, though it does not neglect psychology or theology.
Boyer and Nissenbaum suggest that Salem was in a state of some flux at the time of the witch trials.
Several ministers had left Salem as a result of factionalism in the village. The minister in 1692, Samuel
Parris, was involved in several disputes over his salary, his supply of firewood, and the ownership of
his house, among other things. Boyer and Nissenbaum believe that the core of the trouble was
tension between Salem town, the larger entity of which Salem village was a part, and the village of
Salem. Salem town, which was a prosperous seaport, received taxes from the residents of Salem
village and until 1689, the year Parris was appointed, controlled the "Church" in the sense of those
covenanted members who had been saved. Until then, although some Church members lived in
Salem village, one could only become a covenanted member and receive communion through the
Salem town church. Salem village had been given permission to build a meeting house because of the
inconvenience of travelling several miles to meeting, but the local committee which hired Salem village
ministers did not really have legitimacy. It was simply a committee of townsmen, with shifting
membership, rather than the group of covenanted elders who would normally have the authority to
elect a minister. Salem village had repeatedly asked for permission to form its own "Church" in the
proper sense, but been denied. This meant the status of Salem village’s minister was never secure.
This, along with town factionalism, may have accounted for the fact that several ministers before
Parris had either been dismissed or left voluntarily when they saw the hopelessness of their situation.
One of them, George Burroughs, was called back to be executed as a witch. Although Salem Village
finally obtained a covenanted Church in 1689, which hired Parris as its first minister, the tensions and
factionalism of the preceding period did not disappear overnight. Authority was further compromised
by the fact that there had recently been a bloodless revolution in England, and the king had been
deposed, leaving weakened authority in that quarter. Moreover, the Governor was away fighting
Indians during much of the furor, giving the judges more power than they otherwise would have had.
The trials, in fact, were stopped shortly after the Governor’s return.
In general, Boyer and Nissenbaum argue, Salem town was richer than Salem village. Salem village
was particularly pressed for land, being hemmed in on all sides. Salem town also was more open to
the outside influences one would expect in a wealthy seaport, while Salem village was more strictly
agrarian. The Puritan religion forbade most forms of entertainment, but Boyer and Nissenbaum
suggest that Salem town offered more possibilities than Salem village. One of the earliest people to
be accused (and ultimately hanged) was Bridget Bishop, who ran an unlicenced cider-shop in her
home in Salem village.
Boyer and Nissenbaum argue that there were personal enmities, based on land ownership and
inheritance, in Salem village and neighbouring towns. There was also general potential for schism
between those parts of the village near to Salem town and those further away from it. The authors
note that most of the accused witches lived in the Salem town side of the village, and most of the
accusers lived in the side of the village further from the town. The meeting house was in the part of
the village where most of the accusers lived. Those who accused their neighbours tended to be
supporters of Rev. Parris. The accused and their relatives and supporters tended to belong to the
faction that opposed Parris. In general, the opposition to Parris represented the better-off residents.
The anti-Parris faction clustered around Israel Porter, a member of Salem town church, and the