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The Salem Witch Trials in 1692

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“During the colonial period, nearly three hundred women were accused by their neighbors of performing witchcraft. Although those accusations spanned approximately the first century of English settlement in North America, about half were voiced during one ten-month period in 1692.”(Salem Witchcraft Trials). In 1962 in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, mass hysteria erupted when 141 individuals, mainly women, were wrongly accused of witchcraft. The accusations were started by a group of adolescent girls who began experiencing intense fits accompanied by belligerent shouting after sessions of practicing folk magic. Of these 141 individuals, 26 would go on to be convicted of the crime, and 19 were hanged, 16 being women. Without any factual proof or evidence to back the accusers’ allegations, it is easy to question how these trials were able to continue thriving over a span of 10 months in 1692. Changes in the Puritan society and the belief in Satan, the practice of folk magic, and severe manipulation are the core factors in how the Salem Witch Trials came to be.

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It was no question that the citizens of Puritan New England believed in Satan and his powers, as most Christians do. They believed that Satan was out to destroy God’s kingdom, and since New England was where the saints preserved the holy errand of reformation, the Puritans considered their colony to be a target (Witchcraft and the Law). The city of Boston was going through a significant amount of economic changes as it became a bustling commercial center, and while many individuals agreed with these changes, the changes put others in fear. The Puritan society was based on firm religious beliefs, and some feared these changes were distancing New England from its original Godly purpose. In 1689, a man named Cotton Mather warned “Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches; and that tho those night-birds least appear where the day-light of the Gospel comes, yet New-England has had examples of their Existence and Operation”(Witchcraft and the Law). Mather’s warning spread across New England, reaching several easily influenced individuals, thus spreading fear. This message soon reached the town of Salem, Massachusetts, a town that was also significantly feeling the regional economic changes. Salem, just north of Boston, was one of the Puritans’ first New-World settlements and had the reputation of being extremely religious. There were two different Salem’s, Salem Town, which was the thriving port city, and Salem village, a much poorer outskirt. The citizens of Salem village did not practice the evolving ways of life like those in Salem Town, and in turn, they practiced more traditional methods of a religious, conservative lifestyle, several of the citizens leading hard lives.

Citizens of Salem village often resorted to folk practice to try and improve their lifestyles. They firmly believed in this magic as it had been used for years, and they utilized it to give them a sense of hope. Young girls used this magic to help them navigate through their lives, and it was believed that the future could be seen in an egg white during a folk magic session. One night in January 1692, after seeing a blurry image of a coffin at the end of a folk magic session, a group of young girls who were connected with Reverend Samuel Parris, one being his daughter, began having convulsing fits which were reactions to what they had seen. In the following weeks, the girls’ fits continued and intensified, despite trying multiple relief methods such as medical treatment and prayer. Reverend Parris began spreading the word about the intense fits the girls were experiencing, and soon after the girls started to connect their symptoms to three women; Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. The girls accused these three women, who coincidentally were all widowed women, of practicing witchcraft. “A recent epidemic of smallpox heightened threats of Indian attack, economic uncertainties, and small-town rivalries may have all primed the people of Salem and its surrounding areas for the mass hysteria that fueled the witchcraft trials” (Witchcraft in Salem). The town of Salem village was already quite vulnerable during this time, and the allegations of witchcraft only made that vulnerability heighten. After these allegations were put forth, the village was sent into a further panic when it became apparent that witchcraft was being used by citizens of the village. Folk magic was once seen in Salem village to be a way to improve hard lifestyles, however after the allegations of witchcraft came into play, folk magic was viewed extremely different when its evil ties seemed to prevail. Attempting to cure the bewitchments, Reverend Parris turned to prayer. However, his attempts came to no avail. Parris later was horrified to learn that some citizens in the village were still turning to folk magic in their own efforts to cure the bewitchments, such as baking what was called a witch cake. It was said that when the cake was fed to a dog that was familiar with the suspected witch, the dog would then injure the witch, revealing their identity. “Although social status and gender offered little protection from accusations, historians note that single women particularly were vulnerable to charges of practicing witchcraft, while pre-adolescent girls were likewise most vulnerable to affliction” (Witchcraft in Salem). Although women made up much of the accused, men were also among the accused, as well as one four-year-old child. The number of witchcraft accusations grew more rapidly by the day, as did the number of accusers, and the Salem Witch Trials were in full force.

The Salem Witch Trials and a large number of witchcraft accusations in Salem village thrived on the severe manipulation that was being put forth by the girls doing the accusing. One could be accused of witchcraft for nearly anything, and if accused, were able to be arrested without any proof or evidence of the allegation. A special court was made specifically to try the accused in these cases. Although gaining a wealth of support, after the first trial for defendant Bridget Bishop, who was found guilty and later hanged, there was perplexity regarding the trial. “Their question concerned “spectral evidence,” the acceptance of testimony that described actions by a specter, or devil, in the image of the accused witch. Already, Cotton Mather had urged Judge John Richards not to allow such evidence. Mather’s reasoning was hardly modern or secular in the sense of rejecting specters as unnatural and thus impossible.” (Witchcraft and the Law) The topic of whether spectral evidence should be allowed as conclusive proof in the subsequent trials was a debated one. Those who opposed it argued that it would only cause further abuse to the innocent. After debate on whether or not to allow the use of spectral evidence in the trials, it was ultimately ruled that spectral evidence would be allowed in the trials followed. Allowing spectral evidence as conclusive proof of one’s witchcraft lead to the deaths of several of the accused, with one of the most controversial beings that of Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca Nurse was a 71-year-old lady, much different than others who were accused, and most everyone in Salem village thought remarkably of her. During her trial, Rebecca Nurse had two character witnesses, and 39 of her neighbors petitioned the court in an attempt to prove her innocence. The jury did acquit her; however, they were overruled by Chief Justice Stoughton, and Nurse was ordered to be interrogated. Being interrogated proved to be overwhelming to Nurse, and after she failed to respond to her interrogation, the jury deliberated further and found her guilty. After being found guilty, Nurse’s conviction was turned. “According to the practice of witch-hunting, a witch might be identified by physical signs of suckling a demon, or “familiar.” As Dalton described what to look for, the court should be watchful for “some big or little Teat upon their body, and in some secret place, where he (the Devil) sucketh them. And besides their sucking, the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body, sometimes like a blew spot or red spot, like a flea-biting; sometimes the flesh sunk in and hollow.” (Witchcraft and the Law). Rebecca Nurse and a handful of other women were said to be examined for such marks. After being found to have marks that did resemble the marks that were forewarned, the Nurse petitioned the court, relating the found marks to her old age. Again, the jury deliberated and found her not guilty, but after yet another overruling by Chief Justice Stoughton, Rebecca Nurse was ultimately found guilty. The nurse and five other women who were found to possess those marks were all hanged on Gallows Hill in June of 1962. The verdict of Rebecca Nurse helped to aid the continuing uncertainties that surrounded the trials. To get confessions out of the accused, the court was doing everything in its power. Accused witches and wizards were known to be abused and tortured for an extended amount of time, being manipulated to give the court the confession they were seeking. Many individuals feeling manipulated began confessing to witchcraft on their own to avoid the torture that would be placed upon them otherwise. During August, 21 individuals were convicted, and 13 would be hanged. The accusations put forth by the girls only continued to grow, and the names of those who were being accused proved that no one was safe. It is easy to say that the manipulation done by the adolescent girls that were accusing citizens of witchcraft in Salem village played a crucial role in the intense magnitude of the Salem Witch Trials.

In the fall of 1692, the number of those who were in opposition to the Salem Witch Trials began to grow as their uncertainties began to be known amongst the general public. On October 3rd, 1692, Increase Mather made his views and beliefs on spectral evidence be known to the public. “Mather lashed out at the reliance on spectral evidence, which the devil himself probably was using to send innocent people to the gallows. “It were better that ten suspected witches shall escape,” Mather urged, “than that one innocent person should be condemned.” (Witchcraft and the Law). Mather’s attempt to make his beliefs known and heard was successful, and thus marked a turning point in the trials. Soon after, on October 29th, 1692, Governor William Phips dismissed the special court that was in charge of handling the trials, and further forbid any other trials from occurring. By this point in time, the trials had been responsible for the arrests of 141 individuals, the convictions of 26, and the unfortunate deaths of 19. After the dismissal of the special court, the trials were handed over to a newly formed court who proceeded in handling the remainder of the trials in January of 1693. The new court dealt with the trials under many different guidelines and without the use of spectral evidence. Under the newly formed court, the remainder of those imprisoned as a result of the witchcraft allegations were all acquitted of their charges. The rest of the trials were heard in May of 1693, and no further convictions were made. In 1711, legislation was passed which restored the good names of those who fell victim to the accusations made during the Salem Witch Trials, further proving their innocence. The Salem Witch trials were an unfathomable series of tragedies that took the lives and freedom of nearly 150 individuals. Changes in the Puritan society and the belief in Satan, the practice of folk magic, and severe manipulation are the core factors in how the Salem Witch Trials came to be. It is easy to realize how differently the tragic events that took place in Salem would have turned out without the changing society and belief of Satan, the practice of folk magic, and especially the severe manipulation. Without these core factors, perhaps the Salem Witch Trials could have been avoided as a whole, and innocent lives could have been saved.    

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