History generally regards the period of Salem witchcraft trials as a radical in-statement of religious zeal which favored superstition over reason and targeted a large number of women over a much smaller number of men. Admittedly, the 1692 witchcraft crisis is a very complex historical episode, yet seeing as the majority of the people involved were women, it can be perceived as a gender issue, and illustrative for the definition of the role of women in New England. The present work aims to outline the colonial mindset concerning women and present relevant theories using analyzing three cases of witchcraft accusation together with delving into the accusers’ perspective.
The Puritans that comprised the colony of Salem, Massachusetts, were extremely religious, attributing biblical meaning to all aspects of their lives and being accustomed to personify the devil (Kocić, 2010). Specifically, church elders strongly believed that their congregation was superlatively righteous and for this reason, the devil would try to target it with attacks in all forms, hence it was impressed upon the community to be vigilant against any signs of his presence. Such signs were subject to interpretation, yet they were generally concentrated on negative events which occurred inexplicably in the colony, for instance in the eventuality of a crop failure, stillborn children, or serious disease of an unknown nature. Common perception identified a witch as someone who bonded their body and soul with the devil and thereby being endowed with supernatural powers that caused harm in the community (Kocić, 2010).
In this superfluous religious environment, everyone concurred that humans were created with a sinful nature, and they were more likely to believe that women were more sinful than men. Even though people thought that men and women were equally inclined to bond with the devil, as Puritan theology described the soul as asexual, they tended to believe that women had a predisposition for that. Based on Eve’s original sin which leads to the downfall of man in the Bible, women were considered to be ‘more susceptible to the workings of Satan, and were consequently to be guarded more carefully against it and more severely punished if transgressed’ (Kocić, 2010).
Another contextual aspect that can be observed when analyzing the ongoing persecutions in Salem from that time is the possible effects and proximity of the frontier war against Native Indians, which may be responsible for the witch hunt hysteria (Balee, 2003). The terms Indian and Devil became synonymous in most colonists’ minds, many of them having fought in the war or lost their homes to enemies, and sought refuge in Salem. Therefore, the warfare horrors experienced by Salem settlers might have caused a rampage of posttraumatic stress disorder which manifested itself in fits, visions, and torments born out of the inherent anxiety (Balee, 2003).
It would be interesting to consider the potential threat that women as a gender could have portrayed in the 17th-century colonial society. Firstly, the Puritan church emphasized sexual temptation as predominantly associated with women and an encumbrance on man’s path to salvation (Cavendish, 1970). Secondly, Carol Karlsen in Kocić’s words suggests that the majority of the accused and executed in the witch trials were women over forty, therefore exceeding childbearing or child upbringing years and most likely to receive care instead of dealing it, which might have made them dispensable for the community at large (Kocić, 2010).
Karlsen also offers that the convicted women were set apart from the ranks of those previously held in high esteem, and subsequently, by voicing liberal views or exhibiting independent thinking, endangered the social patriarchal onset as dictated by God in the Holy Bible – a preordained worldly system of order which placed women, children and servants under male hegemony (Kocić, 2010). Thirdly, the trials seem to have singled out women who did not fit into the typical Puritan framework of good, obedient wives, dedicated to helping reinforce ‘the male-dominated hierarchical structure of the society’ (Kocić, 2010).
Furthermore, it has been argued that most of the female convicted witches had no male heirs in the family and were hence themselves supposed to receive an inheritance from their relatives (Kocić, 2010). Thus, it was threatening to the colonists’ social order to disrupt the established inheritance process of transmitting property from one male to another. In addition, the idea that women could become financially autonomous, and therefore have complete control over their lives, was regarded as preposterous.
Upon analyzing the recorded transcripts, it is surprising to behold the essentially fallacious mechanism of the 1692 Salem witch trials. It is clearly visible that magistrates were pressing the denying accused to admit to an offense that they did not commit, in the total absence of defense, which indicates blatant bias. Under these terms, either the subjects confessed and expected to live, or they denied the accusations and forfeited their lives because they were never believed.
Moreover, confessing to a contract with the devil was not enough; the confessors were required to convincingly denounce other members of the community who were allegedly involved. On the other hand, the accused who denied their guilt beheld ensuing fits from their accusers in the same courtroom, which for the magistrates served as solid proof of witchcraft inflicted upon the accusers as victims. Absurdly, the judges accepted ‘specter testimony’ (Balee, 2003) in proving witches guilty. In this sense, victims and accusers claimed that the accused had admitted their guilt in specter form regardless that the convicted, in person, continued to their proclaim innocence, and the magistrates upheld these testimonies.
Much insight is gained from some of the tried women’s testimonies. The examinations of Rebecca Nurse, Rebecca Eames, and Mary Osgood are exponential for the dubiously conducted witchcraft trials. Rebecca Nurse knows she is not a witch – ‘I must be silent’ (Nurse, 1692). Upon her sturdy denial of witchcraft accusations, the magistrates seem like they are trying to surface whichever humanly sins she committed in the past to link them with witchcraft, which indicates that they are resolved to convict her: ‘Possibly you may apprehend you are no witch but have you not been led aside by temptations that way’ (Nurse, 1692). As a result of this courtroom pressure, she tries to search in her conscience for whatever wrong she has done in her life to be punished with a witchcraft accusation trial: ‘I cannot help it, the Devil may appear in my shape’ (Nurse, 1692). What transpires from this course of action is the general impression that women of New England deeply internalized the intensely circulated view of their natural depravity, which affected their spiritual and everyday lives (Kocić, 2010).
A generalized paranoia regarding devilish possession is clearly visible in the way that the transcript assigns meaning to patterns of physical gestures in the courtroom: ‘Upon stirring her hands the afflicted persons were seized with violent fits of torture’ (Nurse, 1692). In this case, the mirroring of any action done by Nurse is regarded as undeniable proof of her afflicting the other women present in the room: ‘She held her Neck on one side, & accordingly so were the afflicted taken’ (Nurse, 1692). In the end, Rebecca Nurse does not succumb to the community’s pressure to confess demonic affiliation, yet her anguished final statement can be interpreted as a sign of resignation to an incomprehensible fate, which she feels is unfair.
The elaborate confessions of Rebecca Eames and Mary Osgood further illustrate the confusion revolving around witch trial testimonies. First of all, the confessions had to be credible to the audience. In this sense, Mary Osgood gave the court exactly what they wanted to hear, possibly by using memories of ministers’ sermons to create a realistic or believable story. By and large, it was appealing, legitimating, and gratifying for the witnesses to register her acknowledgment of a deal with the devil.
In another significant instance, it is indirectly conveyed that during the 17th century in New England, it was expected of women to exude chastity and obedience, as it would have breached the moral fundament of a community if women were free to engage in sexual relations of their own accord. In this light, as part of her elaborate confession, Rebecca Eames owns up to ‘her great sin in Committing adultery’ (Eames, 1692) when she was actually only accused of witchcraft. On this subject, Carol Karlson contends that the witch trial proceedings frequently included questions regarding women’s fidelity to their lord husbands, their alleged ability to cause impotence, or their presumed enchantments of men or sometimes women, in the form of a ghost (Kocić, 2010). Consequently, the majority of women accused of witchcraft during the Salem frenzy from 1692 were also found guilty of ‘adultery, fornication, and other sexually related crimes’ (Kocić, 2010).
Surely, it would be relevant to observe the witch-catching hysteria from another perspective and venture an interpretation of the accusing parts’ behavior about the initiation of witchcraft trials. The accusers may have had malicious intent or simply acted out of adversity, yet on the whole, the situation did not seem preposterous to them, and supernatural explanations were entirely credible as determinants of their community problems.
What is more, the colonial outlook shaped by wars against hostile Indians may have left the leading magistrates convinced that previous attacks in Maine had not occurred out of any negligence from their part, but due to ‘witches in their midst who were colluding with the devil and the devilish Indians’ (Balee, 2003). This theory does much in the sense of explaining the extraordinary amount of zeal employed in convicting and neutralizing the women suspected of witchcraft.
Another interesting aspect of the Salem witchcraft hysteria is the inversion of hierarchy it seemingly represented. Several of the accusers were employed maids of wealthy local families. Seeing that in both the familial and the social system of Puritan Massachusetts, young girls ranked low and young servant girls ranked lowest (Balee, 2003), the social ladder was all of a sudden decomposed. Servant girls were suddenly enjoying a high standard of power, as they had male citizens and powerful colony leaders unknowingly heeding them. Moreover, it can be asserted that they held the absolute power of dictating the life or death of people that they accused of witchcraft. And as the chaos unfolded, those targeted individuals were local women and servants, as well as wealthy men (Balee, 2003).
Interestingly, magistrates of the Salem witch trials considered female afflicted witnesses’ testimony with a high amount of respect. Thereby, women who had never before been associated with political or judicial authority were all of a sudden heeded, and their spoken words were granted the potential of ending lives and wreaking havoc in the entire community.
Overall, the Massachusetts Puritans from 1692 regarded themselves as God’s holy emissaries, chosen to deliver the New World from Satan, be it in the form of a hostile enemy or disguised as an integral part of their communities, namely in women. It might be assumed that they were failing in this self-entitled crusade if ‘witches were popping up everywhere among them, not to mention the fact that the devilish Indians seemed to be constantly winning skirmishes on the frontier’. (Balee, 2003)
In conclusion, it can be stated that the establishment of witchcraft endowed accuser women with immense power and placed accused colonial women in a position that completely obliterated what reputation and freedom they had and determinedly labeled them as instruments of evil.
Whereas admittedly it is uncertain whether fear of female empowerment, post-traumatic stress disorder, or sincere preoccupation with the community’s welfare is what engineered the crisis presently remembered as the Salem witch trials, the general outburst of hysteria about witchcraft depositions is heavily deceptive of the limitations imposed on women during this historical period.
Notwithstanding the colonial widely spread religious, moral, and social bias against women, Salem trials portray a faulty justice methodology, bereft of lawful content and organized in chaotic proceedings which altogether justify the chaotic emblem which history remembers this specific period by.