Imagine yourself living in Salem, Massachusetts. The year is 1692. You consider yourself to be an upstanding citizen of the community. You have a spouse, children, and a lovely home. You attend church every Sunday and work hard the other six days of the week. Then one day there is a knock on your door. Essex County High Sheriff, George Corwin, is standing in front of you with an arrest warrant. You have been accused of witchcraft. Your mind is racing. Who would accuse you of such a thing and more importantly…why? Is it because someone became ill after seeing you? Or perhaps it is because you recently paid a friendly visit to your neighbor and by coincidence they lost a calf shortly after. The only “known” at this point is that you have become another victim of the mass hysteria known as the Salem Witch Trials. To this day, nobody really knows why certain people were accused of such a crime; however, there are a few contributing factors that may have set the stage for the hysteria created by the Salem Witch Trials such as religious beliefs, political conflicts, and social issues.
It is important to know the background of the Salem witch trials before diving into factors that contributed to this hysteria. The Salem witch trials took place in Salem Village, Massachusetts, during the Spring of 1692 (“Salem Witch Trials” 1). The Village of Salem was located in what is known today as Danver, Massachusetts (“What about Witches The Witch Trials” 1). The trials began when Elizabeth Parris, the 9-year-old daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, and her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, began displaying odd behavior such as outbursts of screaming and violent contortions (“Salem Witch Trials” 1). A doctor was called in by the Parris family to examine the girls. When the doctor could not find a medical cause for Elizabeth’s and Abigail’s behavior, it was concluded that the girls were under the control of a witch. (“Salem Witch Trials” 1) This conclusion caused village authorities to begin the search for the witch who controlled the young girls. The girls accused three women of “bewitching” them; Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn. Before this frenzy died down, nineteen people were executed by hanging for witchcraft. One individual, Giles Corey, died during interrogation, which is an unusual story.
Giles Corey was a successful farmer. In September of 1691, he was accused of witchcraft. Giles pleaded “not guilty”. When his case went to trial, Corey used a legal tactic known as “standing mute”. At that time, English law forced any prisoner that “stood mute” to be tortured. They tortured the prisoners so they would be forced to talk or confess. This tactic was known as “peine forte et dure”, which translates to “strong and harsh punishment” (Brooks 1). Examiners tortured Giles by placing stone weights on his body. This toruture killed Giles after two days. This was the beginning of the hysteria known as the Salem witch trials which was fueled by contributing factors setting the stage.
Religious beliefs played a major role in setting the stage for this historical event. The residents in the town of Salem consisted of mainly Puritans. These Puritans wanted their own church, which was more pure than the church of England. The Puritan belief system led a very strict and rigid way of living (“New World Times” 1). The Puritans were required to attend church, follow the dress code, and attend church class. If any of these rules were not followed, harsh punishment would occur (Hill 1). There was little to no tolerance for individuality among the Puritans and their beliefs (“New World Times” 1).
The Puritans believed that God would only choose a select few to be accepted into heaven. The only way God would choose you is if you were free of sin and fully committed to the Puritan church. The Puritans believed those who were wealthy were blessed by God and in good standing with him (Kizer 1). They also believed that God would punish those who didn’t abide by the rules of the Puritan Church and life. Most importantly, though, the Puritans believed that Satan was acting in the world (Hill 1). It was not uncommon for crops to fail or for illness and disease to claim innocent lives. The town of Salem Village also went through a smallpox outbreak at one point (“History Lesson: ‘Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch to Live’” 1). One particular illness among the Puritans is Huntington’s Disease. Most of the Puritans married within their gene pool. This caused a lot of them to have Huntington’s Disease. Huntington’s Disease is a “hereditary neurodegenerative illness with physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms exactly like the west Salem village girls experienced”. When such tragedies occurred, it would often be believed that the devil was to blame for causing anything bad in the world. In addition to this, it was believed that the devil would use the witches to carry out his evil doings (Kizer 1). In the Bible, The Book of Exodus (22:18) states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” This verse was used literally by a lot of the citizens of Salem Village (Leath 1). Sermons centered around these teachings were to create fear in the Puritans. Children were especially warned of the dangers of the world (Kizer 1).
Family politics also played a role in setting the stage for the Salem witch trials. Salem Village had a population of approximately 600 residents. These 600 citizens of Salem Village divided into two different groups that started with a family feud. The first group was represented by the Putnam Family. The Putnam Family was a wealthy farming family in the western portion of Salem Village. They owned most of the farmland in Salem. The families on the eastern side of Salem controlled the harbors and gained great wealth from the shipping business. The Putnam’s and their followers, who were also farmers, believed that Salem Town’s thriving economy was in opposition to the communal nature that Puritanism mandated. This opposition caused the Putnam’s and their followers to want to separate from Salem (Source H). The other group consisted of people that did not want to separate themselves. This group was the anti-separist group, which was led by the Porter family. The Porter’s were very wealthy due to their harbor business. In 1672, the Putnam’s farm was flooded due to the dam and sawmill owned by the Porters. This created a feud between the Porters and the Putnam family.
As a result of the feud between the two families and divided sections of Salem, members of one group would accuse the members of the other group of witchcraft. They would never accuse members of their own group (Source J). The two groups would do this in their individual quests for power. Lobbying accusations at the opposing group became common practice in an attempt to control the opposing group.
The process for such accusations was rather simple. “The Salem witch trials occurred long before the United States Constitution was a gleam in revolutionary eyes” (Source N). Evidence for witchcraft cases often came from uneducated and manipulated common folk, not from independent and credible witnesses (Source N). Rules of evidence in the Salem witch trials came from English common law and principles based on religious doctrine (Source N). If a citizen claimed a loss or discomfort was caused by witchcraft, they filed a complaint with the magistrate against the accused (Source N). If a witchcraft complaint appeared credible, according to the magistrate, the accused was arrested and brought in for mandatory interrogation. This was before the right to remain silent (Source N). Witch interrogations were public events, which included questioning by a panel and audience members. The questioning was aimed at getting the accused to confess and name other fellow witches (Source N). “Witch trials depended on what’s called ‘spectral evidence’”. This was a testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition of the accused, which appeared in a ghostly form while performing witchcraft upon them (Source N). Spectral evidence could not be proven, but also could not be disputed. This was one of the most damaging pieces of evidence used in the trials, as well as the behavior of those who claimed to be afflicted by a witch.
There were various societal aspects that are believed to have contributed to the Salem witch trials. These aspects apply most specifically to the teenage girls who made the initial accusations. According to a book written by John Putnam, the Salem witch trials were a teenage rebellion against their parents. This is because most of the accusers were teenagers and most of the people that were accused were the adults (Source K). Various women were accused for various reasons. Most of the women that were accused were the women that “did not prescribe to the social norms of the time”. If a woman is poor, homeless, or childish, they would easily be targeted (Source K).
It is believed that the teenagers would accuse individuals of witchcraft simply because the teens were bored. Girls were prohibited from playing games. Girls were not allowed to play hide and seek, and other childhood games because playing was a sign of idleness, and idleness allowed the devil to work his mischief (Source O). The girls would read for entertainment and books about fortune telling were popular among young girls. Girls would form small groups to practice the fortune telling they learned from these books (Source O).
Lack of attention and peer pressure may have also contributed to the accusations by the teenage girls (Source M). Girls received very little attention from adults; however, that changed when they began the witch accusations (Source J). Girls who made such accusations were some of the most powerless members of their society. In the Puritan culture, nobody paid attention to these girls (Source P). When a girl became “afflicted” she became the center of attention, which was something young girls in this age wanted (Source M). The girls who accused people of witchcraft soon became famous, not only in the village, but throughout Massachusetts (Source P). Once a girl became an accuser, they were trapped. If they admitted they were lying, they knew they would be punished by the other girls or by the authorities (Source P). One of the girls admitted to lying about the accusations and that the other girls had been lying too. The other girls found out about this and eventually turned on her and accused her of being a witch (Source P).