There are many different elements that can explain the Salem Witch Trials and hysteria. For instance, some believe, the witchcraft controversy was due to the tensions between upper and lower classes in the Salem community. By the lower class lashing out at the richer class, accusing them of witchcraft, they could easily eliminate them or their servants (Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer; Stephen Nissenbaum). The common belief was that when strange things happened in their community, it was because of witchcraft. When someone had strange symptoms in the community that could not be explained, usually it was determined by the members to be witchcraft. Another common belief now is that there was possibly some kind of poisoning in local plants that could have been causing the strange behaviors that led to the members of the community to think that these specific behaviors demonstrated by the people affected were witches. Witch hunting had been going on in Europe for centuries, thus when people migrated to the Americas and developed colonies, they brought the “witch hunting tradition” with them. Catholics and Puritans had strong belief in the devil. The devil was believed to have been working thru members in their community when strange or bad things happened in their colony. In my opinion religious beliefs brought over from Europe had a lot to do with the idea of witchcraft, not the “strange behaviors” exhibited by the accused. Where these beliefs were already planted in these people’s minds, they neglected to really look into whether it could be a physical or mental illness.
Mostly women were accused of being witches. Very few men were accused of witchcraft during this time. The women who were accused of witchcraft were usually widows who owned land ( respectable women/members) or women who caused any kind of problems within the community or were disliked. Early on it was typically women that were less reputable in the Salem community. Then later more respected people in the community were targeted. In our textbook it states ( Carol Karlsen’s, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman ) “through the intensive scrutiny of records across New England that a disproportionate number of those accused of witchcraft were property-owning widows or unmarried women, in other words, women who did not fit comfortable into the normal pattern of male-dominated families. Karlsen concluded that such women were vulnerable to these accusations because they seemed threatening to people who were accustomed to women as subordinate members of the community.” To me, the community found people who weren’t living the usual lifestyle as they would of had in Europe and attempted to eliminate them from their community in hopes of making the community the way they thought to be socially acceptable.
Children were believed at the time to be targets of witches. The event that caused this sudden hysteria in Salem about witchcraft was when Samuel Parris’s daughter started exhibiting strange symptoms that could not be explained. These symptoms could have been explained by possible mental or physical illness, but the people of Salem already had firm beliefs in the devil and witchcraft. A book, which I mention later, ( Memorable Providences ) swayed the belief that his daughter had been affected by witchcraft. Soon his daughters friends began showing the same symptoms. This, when it could not be explained, made the idea that it was witchcraft even more believable to the Salem community. Eventually these girls accused other women of being witches and practically named them their leaders. Basically stating that they made them do these strange “witchcraft” things.
When someone was accused of being a witch, occasionally, they admitted to it. All in hopes of a lighter sentencing. Commonly it was said when a confession was made that the devil had forced them to become a witch. Confessions by the accused only made the colonies belief in witches grow even more. The number of guilty verdicts escalated quickly. Almost all of the accused confessed, by doing so they had a higher possibility of avoiding being hung or burned. The jails in the community reached capacity rapidly.
Anyone who stood up against this inadequate way of convicting “witches” became a target not long after. This happened to several members of Salem. For example, when a man in the community, John Proctor, criticized this witch hunt several people declared that ghosts had approached them stating that Proctor was a murderer. When he fought back against these accusations, and requested that his trial be moved to Boston, his request was quickly rejected. During his trial he was convicted and hung.
The execution that had the most prominent affect on the ways the people of Salem thought of witches, was the George Burroughs conviction. George Burroughs was a retired minister in the colony that was accused of witchcraft and one of the few who refused to confess to being a witch. A book had been previously published ( Memorable Providences, by Cotton Mather ) about the believed symptoms of witchcraft. While George Burroughs recited the lord’s prayer, Cotton Mather was in the crowd watching. Since witches were believed to have been working thru the devil, they weren’t supposed to be able to recite the lord’s prayer. When the crowd became upset because witches weren’t supposed to be able to do this they immediately turned to Mather. Mather simply stated that Burroughs had had his trial and was convicted so they hanging proceeded, regardless of the confused crowds minds. Which right then changed the outlook on the convictions of witches in the people of Salem’s minds. People of Salem started question the methods used in determining who was guilty of witchcraft and who wasn’t. Eventually one Boston minister suggested that the devil was only projecting the image of witchcraft thru these people, that maybe they weren’t actual witches.
The views of the people of the Salem community were changing rapidly. Eventually an enlightenment came about. As our book says the enlightenment was ” the product of science and intellectual discoveries”, “discoveries that revealed natural laws that regulated the workings of nature”, ” the scientific knowledge that encouraged many thinkers to begin celebrating the power of human reason and to argue that rational thought, not just religious faith”. This enlightenment helped lessen the meticulous religious beliefs that during this time period were very planted in these people’s minds. Witchcraft started to fade away and people started becoming more educated and interested in what caused these behaviors rather than automatically relating to the typical religious beliefs.
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