Salem Witch Trials Essay, Research Paper
The Salem Witch trials started in 1692 resulted in 19 executions and 150 accusations of
witchcraft. This is one of the historical events almost everyone has heard of. It is a topic that is
talked about, and can be seen as controversial. A quote by Laurie Carlson shows just how
controversial the topic can be. “(A) character myth is certainly what the witch hunts in Europe
and Salem have become, though they have more basis in fact than most myths. The stories of
the witch hunts are character myths for our time, to be told by feminists, left-wing intellectuals,
and lawyers for President Clinton, each taking what he or she needs from the story, adding or
subtracting as it seems fit.” (1).
The trials began because three young girls, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann
Putnam began having hysterical fits after being caught engaging in forbidden fortune telling.
That’s right fortune telling, not dancing naked in the woods like the story has been told to many
times (2). The fortune telling occurred because they were trying to find out what type of men
they were going to marry. Betty Parris’ father was a reverend of the town on Salem,
Massachusetts. The Reverend, Samuel Parris called in 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 remaining two girls were joined by other young and old 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. Anthropologists
also take interest in these writings because they display some of the characteristics of village
witchcraft as well as 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 which was
transported to North America. As in African and new Guinea villages, the original accusations
in Salem were made against people who the accusers had reason to resent or fear. 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 soon encompassed people not involved in
any of Salem’s grudges or problems. As in Europe, there was a belief that the accused were in
league with the devil.
Supposed “experts” went out to do “scientific” studies to diagnose witchcraft.
Interestingly, during the colonial period in Africa, just after WWII, there was a number of witch
finding movements in Africa that closely resembled the Salem episode. Typically in these witch
finding movements, the witch finders would come in from outside a village and claim to be able
to rid the village of all of it’s witchcraft. At this period there was great dislocation, with people
moving around because of government employment, suitable farmland, and many other causes.
Some people were improving their economic status as a result of these change, and others ended
up being worse off. Whereas in the past, everyone in a location 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. Frenzies increased throughout time, people
began to be accused who had not aroused any particular jealousies, possibly because they
possessed a peculiar looking item which might be said to contain magical medicine. These
crazes tended to die down, at least after considerable conflict and property damage, and the
witch finders would then move on to the next town. As witchcraft accusations still occurred in
the areas, we can conclude that the movements did not get rid of witches forever.
Witch Trials 4
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 the 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 behaviors to spread in crowds, have also been
mentioned. Various dietary deficiencies at the end of a New England winter is the third option
that was studied as an option to blame for the symptoms. Calcium deficiency is known to cause
muscle 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 today as sleep paralysis.
The reasons why witchcraft was blamed for the symptoms, rater than psychological
disturbance, physical illness, or even religious conversion have often been sought in the theology
of the Puritan inhabitants of Salem. Another generation of New England Puritans, just over
fifty years later, did experience a similar outbreak of spasms and hysterias in young girls seen as
salvation, 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.
In the Salem Witch Trials, both church members and non-church members were accused
of witchcraft. For a true believer, a decision to make a false confession or alibi might really
appear to be sacrificing a hope of eternal life for an extra few 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 to place strong emphasis on individual
ambition and responsibility. The Great Awakening was one of the evidences of this new
opportunity for individuals to actively seek evidence of salvation, but even back then, there was
dispute as to how open church members 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, might take communion.
Witchcraft confessions were incomplete without reference to attendance at secret
meeting to worship Satan. Acknowledgments that the accused and others had signed secret
documents enrolling in Satan’s secret services was even more hoped for. Belief in a secret
world where forces of good was at war with the forces of evil prompted for a search of visible
clues that at least some people were involved in a Satanic plot. This search might be seen as a
negative mirror of the search for clues that one was saved. In the film The Burning Times, some
of the clues that were seen included strange marks on the body (e.g. birthmarks and extra nipples
- which were considered “witches teats” used to suckle demons). More controversial was
“spectral evidence”. The afflicted girls and some male witnesses said that they had seen
“spectres” (normally invisible spirits) of the accused either in the courtroom or at other times,
and that these “spectras” tried to cause harm to them. These actions included choking,
frightening or tormenting them. No doubt, some of those who confessed, and their lives were
spared, were able to justify confessing on the ground that their “spectras” might have done
things of which they were not aware.
A book that discusses much of what occurred in Salem called “Salem Possessed,
attempts to explain the witch craze primarily in sociological, political, and economic terms. It
also uses some means of “Theological and Psychological views to explain the occurances” (3).
Boyer and Nissenbaum suggest that Salem was in a state of some transformation at the time of
the witch trials. Several ministers had left Salem as a result of factionalism in the village of
Salem. Minister Samuel Parris, in 1962, was involved in several disputes over his salary, the
ownership of his home, his supply of firewood, and many other things. Boyer and Nissenbaum
go on to tell that they believe the core of the trouble was a tension between the Salem town and
the Salem village. From what one can capture from “Salem Possessed”, is the idea that it is
possible that the whole situation was taken too far. Since Parris obviously had some enemies,
when the problems with his daughter arouse, people found that this was a way to get back at
Parris. Instead, it actually got back at the entire town. People who were not anti-Parris, were
not aware the rumors about the girls were not all true. Instead, the other residents of the town
panicked, and started pointing fingers at everyone.
One of the earliest people to be arrested, and eventually hung was Bridget Bishop, who
ran an unliscenced cider shop out of her home in Salem village. Boyer and Nissenbaum that
there were personal enmities, based on land ownership and inheritance in Salem Village and
neighboring towns. There was a general potential for schism between those parts of the village
near Salem town vs. the area further away from the town. The authors of “Salem Possessed”
note that most of the accused witches lived in the Salem town side of the village, while most of
the accusers lived in the side that was further from town.
What finally stopped the witch craze was it’s spread beyond Salem, so that important
people in Boston, the capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony, began to get accused. Even a
famous figure Cotton Mather was named at one point, even though he was never formally
charged. There was a breaking point however. This was when the governor’s wife was accused.
The Governor then called an end to the trial. Eventually everyone who was still in jail was
released, and some compensation was paid to the survivors.
“Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, uses the Salem Witch Trials as a metaphor for the
obsession in the U.S. during the 1950’s, with a vast, hidden communist conspiracy, threatening
that all was good in America.” (4). This suggestion is trying to show that the girls symptoms
were interrupted as they were because of communism. The kinds of evidence that was used in
the trials could also be looked at by this comment as writings of communism. Miller made
certain alterations to his play for theatrical convince. These alterations tell us something of the
nature of recent witch hunts, as compared to those of the 17th century. The communist fear lead
to many arrests and “blacklisting”. Indeed, many people who worked in industries such as the
entertainment and media business, including Miller himself, did not have left-wing sympathies,
but it is unlikely that many, or any, were actively working for the Soviet Union. Pressure was
put on publishers and film studios to not allow suspected Communists to work. Arthur Miller
himself, already a famous playwright, was at least partially blacklisted until he could prove that
he was a normal American. One of the things that helped Miller prove this to the skeptical was
that he married Marilyn Monroe. Jewish intellectuals like Miller were automatically suspect,
and given Miller’s history of divorces, his stand would not have been good. He, however,
managed to get out of being blacklisted, primarily due to his marriage with Marilyn Monroe.
Sexual conformity during the McCarthy era led Miller to exaggerate the sexual aspects of
the Salem story , changing the ages of some of the characters to make sexual interpretations
more credible. Sexual innuendoes were certainly not absent in Salem, but sexual politics were
were just as present in the McCarthy era as they are today .
As this topic was studied, at first I began to see comparisons between feminism and the
witch trials of 1692. A book by Frances Hill claims to be a “feminist psychoanalytical” reading
of the events in Salem Village, 1692 (5). While this book began with the topic of women, it
veered quickly from the topic, and did no more to prove that this is a feminism case, than it did
to disprove it. Another book, by Carol Karlsen, is another attempt to show the relation to
women and how they were treated, and how it relates to feminism (6). This book does show that
the typical witch was: female, married (at least at one point in her life), without any sons, past
childbearing stage, and related to, or friends of another accused witch. Once again, not enough
conclusive evidence was given, so rather than further an idea, that might not be completely true,
the conclusion of this paper is that women were no more picked out to be victims in these cases,
than they were victimized everyday, in all situations. The people Salem Village did not only
pick women to be witches because they were women, rather because the prosecutors had a
problem with either the woman, or indirect problems with her, through her family. Granted,
these women were picked out for who they were, they were not just picked out because they
(1.) Carlson, Laurie Winn. A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials. Ivan R. Dee. Chicago. 1999.
(2.) Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. Doubleday: New York. 1995.
(3.) Boyer, Paul and Nissenbaum, Stephen. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard: Cambridge, MA. 1974.
(4.) Burns, Margo. Twentieth Century New England with Special Emphasis on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Online at www.ogram.org/17thc/crucible.shtml
(5.) Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. Doubleday: New York. 1995.
(6.) Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. Random House: New York. 1987.