Salem Witch Trials Essay, Research Paper
In the winter of 1692, a wave of witch hysteria surrounded the settlement of Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The accusations began with two little girls who were acting strangely. There are many underlying factors to why these thoughts of witchcraft started coming about. These issues were going on before that winter of 1692. The winter of 1692 was the onset of the hysterics behind the witchcraft trials.
To understand the reasons behind the hysteria, you have to know a little about the people who settled the area of Salem Village. Mainly Puritans inhabited Salem Village. There were very few other religions at that time. The Puritans left England to escape religious persecution. Puritans wanted to purify the national church by eliminated what they saw as Catholic influence. They believed in the total sovereignty of God and the absolute sinfulness of man. They wanted to establish a union of church and state (Kallen 17). Church membership was required for voting rights or to serve on juries (Roach 77). Puritans believed they were entering into a sacred compact with God in the founding of the Massachusetts colony. The agreed to live according to his will in return for a divine endorsement in the New World (Rice 10). To commune with Satan invited God s wrath and exposed the entire community to threat of divine retribution. Individual sin was considered an act of treason (Rice 11).
The people of Salem Village believed in witches. The word witchcraft meant the art of bewitching, casting spells, or manipulating the forces of nature . It was the idea of the people that this was impossible without the cooperation of the Devil (LeBeau 1). Many perceived that the Devil resented their way of life (Roach 7). The Devil had to act through a witch to do physical harm to human beings. He couldn t do it on his own (Dickinson 2). People who wholly believed in witches were always on the lookout for them. As a result, many people were wrongly accused (Dickinson 4).
Puritans viewed the world in basic black and white. The towns and villages stood as strongholds of righteousness. Armies of dark intent surrounded them. Discipline and devotion were slogans in the service of the Lord. The simplest acts of innocence were looked upon as questionable conduct or even abnormal (Rice 11). Sinners were severely punished in Salem Village. The punishments were meant to humiliate the person as well as hurt (Kallen 18).
There was little play or amusement during this time. Children were expected to work at all household chores at around six or seven years of age. Some five- and six-year-old daughters were expected to help upholster chairs and make curtains (Kallen 21). Toys were thought to be frivolous and time-wasting in general (Jackson 24). Dolls were especially harmful because witches used them as small replicas of people to perform magic (Jackson 27). There was also a widespread belief that witches targeted children (Linder).
There was never respect for the privacy of any individual in the seventeenth century. The community as a whole was expected to uphold the Puritan religion. They were encouraged to watch their neighbors closely and report any behavior that drifted even slightly from the straight and narrow (Dickinson 8). In 1644, it was decided that every Sunday two people would walk around town and take note of the people who were not attending church (Jackson 19). In the winter of 1647, a man fell into a pool late Saturday night and couldn t get his clothes dry in time for church. So he stayed home in bed to keep warm. He was convicted of slothfulness and whipped for not attending the sermon (Kallen 18).
According to some sources there was a problem with women s increasing independence (Karlson 160). They lived in a society where men exercised substantial authority over a woman. It was more difficult for women without brothers, widows who remarried or remained single and had no sons during the witch hunts. These women stood to inherit property and were resented for it. They stood in the way of orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to the other generation (LeBeau 30). 61% of the women accused during the witch trials were women without brothers or sons. 64% of those were tried. 76% of the women tried were convicted. 89% of those convicted were executed. Once a woman under these circumstances was accused, they were even more likely to be tried, convicted, and executed (Karlson 102).
The behavior in Salem was also a result of fear (Hansen 117). The Massachusetts colony at this time was threatened. King Charles I recalled their charter in 1684 (Hansen 118). In 1686, James II appointed a royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros. William and Mary came into power in 1689. They enforced the Test Act of 1673, which required Anglican assembly for civil or military office. At this time Massachusetts was still excluding anyone but Puritans from civil office (Hansen 119). They probably feared that they were going to lose their religious foothold on the colony.
In 1688, Samuel Parris was invited to Salem Village to preach to the Village church. After negotiations he accepted the job. He came with his wife, daughter (Elizabeth), niece (Abigail), and his two slaves, Tituba and John Indian (Linder). In 1692, the two girls began experiencing odd behavior. The doctors couldn t figure out what was wrong with them, so it was determined that the hand of Satan was in them (Carlson 10). And so began the accusations.
On February 29, 1692 the girls accused three women at the constant pressure from the adults to give them a name (Boyer & Nissenbaum 3). By early spring the jails were filling up with accused witches. Anyone who was known to sympathize with an accused witch was automatically suspected (Jackson 28). The governor, Sir William Phips, had to take quick action.
Phips established a special court to hear the cases, the Court of Oyer and Terminer (Boyer & Nissenbaum 7). Seven judges were appointed to the Court. Only one of these was from Salem (Starkey 152). The judges were generally without legal training and looked to the ministers for advice. It was determined that the judges could conducted touching tests (defendants were asked to touch the afflicted persons to see if it would stop the contortions) and examined the bodies of the accused for evidence of witches marks (Linder). The court was dismissed on October 29, 1692 due to tremendous backlash against the trials (Starkey 220).
Early autumn was the beginning of the end for the witch-hunts. Many people began to develop doubts as to how so many people could be guilty. During the trials a lot of spectral evidence had been used to convict people. Spectral evidence allowed hallucinations, dreams, and simple notions to be admitted to the court as factual proof of the behavior of the accused (Starkey 54). This began efforts to end the witch-hunting.
Reverend Increase Mather wrote a work entitled Cases of Conscience. In it he encouraged the court to exclude spectral evidence from the trials. He stated that it were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned. (Linder). Samuel Willard, a highly regarded Boston minister, is believed to have anonymously published A Dialogue Between S and B. This suggested that the accusers were scandalous persons, liars, and loose in their conversation. (Starkey 213). These publications made their way to Governor Phips, and most likely influenced his decision to exclude spectral evidence from the trials and require proof of guilt by clear and convincing evidence (Linder).
The day of the last execution was on September 22, 1692. This is the day the witchcraft hysteria ended (Jackson 154). On October 12, 1692, Governor Phips forbids further imprisonment of witchcraft (Rice 105). By this time 150 people were still imprisoned on witchcraft charges, and about 200 more stood accused (Kallen 80). The jails weren t cleared until May of 1693 (Kallen 69).
The witch-hunt ended with twenty-five people dead. Nineteen of those were executed by hanging. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death by heavy stones for two days. Four accused witches had died in prison for unknown reasons (Linder). An unnamed infant of Sarah Good died with her in jail the day before her hanging (Kallen 78).
A grave injustice had been done to innocent people. No one was without blame. January 14, 1697 was set aside by the Massachusetts General Court as a day of fasting when the people would ask God s forgiveness for what they had done in 1692. On this day one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, had a letter read aloud to his congregation in which he admitted his error against the persons convicted and asked for forgiveness (Dickinson 57).
The Salem Witch Trials can t be attributed onto one certain aspect. It was a combination of things that led to these events. As the witchcraft fever died down, people began to see it for what it was. It was something that began as personal fear, grew with neighborhood suspicion, and then expanded through the region promoted by the time s tensions (Roach 83). As the Reverend John Hale wrote in 1697, We walked in the clouds and could not see our way. And we have most cause to be humbled for error which cannot be retrieved. (Rice 102).