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The Salem Witch Trials: A Time of Fear Thesis

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The most distinctive features of Modernism could be enumerated as Universality, development of Political thought, advent of technology and science, different inventions, approach towards Arts, literature, Specified Cultures, distinctive warfare and industry. There are several social and economic factors that make the Modern society different from the Pre Modern Society. Modernism a complex and intricate civilization but the Pre Modern society lacked all these elements and the major aspect of the society and religion was mostly superstition. The aspects of superstition, juxtaposed with entail of religion, was instrumental in every walks of life and this was an alter existence against clear thought process and science. (Knott, 188-9) This was the time in early American history when the fearsome cases of witch-hunt took place and one of the most terrifying incidents was the Salem Witch Trials.

Salem Witch Trials

In 1692 in the counties of the English ruled Massachusetts there were conducted a series of trials which meant to prosecute persons accused of practicing witchcraft in these areas. The outbreak began with the sudden and rather unusual illness of the daughter (Betty) and niece (Abigail) of the local Reverend Samuel Parris. Betty, aged 9 was the first to be affected and displayed what we would today call ‘hysterical’ behavior, often screaming and convulsing with pain, throwing things about and crawling around her room. She has also famously been quoted to have felt “pinched and pricked with pins”. To relive her of her strange affliction reverend Parris soon summoned the local doctor, (supposedly) William Griggs who sowed the first seed of trouble by suggesting that her illness was less physiological and more ‘supernatural’. (Kumar, 334)

Abigail Williams, 11, Parris’ orphaned niece complained of similar symptoms soon after Betty and promptly a handful of other girls all over the village displayed the same antics as Betty and Abigail. The people of the village of Salem were famous for their strict Puritanism. The neighboring revolutionary war (to which the Salem residents apparently contributed and war refugees from which probably took shelter in Salem) had left them even more attached to their faith. Death, war and a frantic return to religion provided a fertile ground for the re-emergence of some time tested superstitions. The timely intervention of the young girl’s ailment was exactly the sort of thing that would set a quiet village like Salem on fire.

Given their interest in the subject village girls often coupled together to ‘tell’ fortunes and practice divinations just to keep themselves busy during long idle evenings. Tituba, a young slave girl Parris had acquired from Barbados proved popular at such congregations due to her stock of mystical stories. Occasionally, she was also reported to have ‘told’ fortunes. Following Griggs’ ‘diagnosis’ the village quickly decided that Betty, Abigail and the other girl’s suffering was surely a result of witchcraft being practiced in the village. Residents quickly justified this allegation by referring to the recent loss of cattle and other such similar misfortunes and before long almost all the villagers were sure about witches inhabiting the same space as them.

Tituba was, predictably enough, the first person to be accused of practicing witchcraft. It could be stated that her sex, social status, proximity to the ‘victims’ and most importantly her ethnicity, though unfortunate, left her particularly vulnerable to the allegations. After her two other women Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, both social outcasts and unpopular were similarly accused of being witches. Ironically, while the two Sarah’s never accepted the allegations as true, Tituba soon confessed to being a witch. Sarah Osbourne later died in prison, the other two were later hanged to death. (Tyerman, 233-37)


Human Beings are naturally expressionistic. Thus, if repressed they consciously or subconsciously search for methods of self-expression. In an atmosphere as that of Salem in 1692 women were allowed little or no room to articulate their personal desires, as a result they remained eager to find means to attract attention and establish their existence. The unexplained affliction of the women in Salem has occupied much academic space. In the absence of any real medical evidence for this sort of collective suffering, most academicians and medical practitioners have time and again suggested that the symptoms exhibited by the girls were, in all probability an ‘act’, which the girls used to attract attention.

Young girls such as Abigail and Betty, who remain confined to their home doing little besides household chores such as sewing, cooking etc. crave the merriment of youth and the spotlight attached to it. Puritans however maintain that kids ‘should be seen and not heard’, and hence their values are often completely contradictory to what children usually want. Given the constant lack of attention received children often resort to tactics to attract the sort of attention they want. This tactics may be the sort that we are used to such as tantrums, crying, throwing things, holding their breath etc. or under certain circumstances it may also be what we otherwise call ‘pretension’ or ‘play acting’. (Prawer, 227-229)


The young girls in Salem were engaged, in all probability in such a mass play acting practice. It possibly began as an accident with Betty, but once she and those around her discovered the potential of being afflicted they too jumped into the bandwagon one by one. Each emulated the other and while in public eye used their sudden position of power to cause harm to and accuse everyone and anyone they despised or disliked in the most juvenile manner. It was a power play of the most childish kind, only it ended with about 19 innocent people being killed unnecessarily. (Powell, 49)

The witch hunt in Salem enflamed further with a sudden outbreak of a small pox epidemic, which many believed was the witches doing. As a result of these minor events the accusations flew till even the most unlikely of people came to be accused of being a witch. And then suddenly in 1693 the witch hunt died down much in the same way as it had begun, without a band but with a whimper. All those accused of practicing witchcraft were pronounced innocent (although this proclamation continued till early 20th century, until when the descendants of the accused fought to clear their ancestors’ name). Many of them were even accepted back within the folds of everyday life in Salem. Many others left forever and never returned to the place which maligned their reputation forever. (Manning, 115)


Not much is known of the Parris household except that they moved and that Abigail Williams never recovered from her affliction and died soon after. It can also be stated that the fact that Parris’ young son too died young and of insanity perhaps indicated a seed of lunacy which remained sown in the family. Academicians, psychologists and descendants of the accused and the victims have never quite figured out what happened during that rather eventful year in 1692 in the somnolent village of Salem. Even today it continues to intrigue people from all over the world like an unsolved mystery in the pages of time. (Powell, 53-55)

Works Cited

Knott, Paul. Development of Science: 15th C-17th C. Dakha: Dasgupta & Chatterjee, 1979.

Kumar, Hiranarayan. Power of Opportunity: Win Some, Lose None. Sydney: HBT & Brooks Ltd, 1988.

Manning, Charles. Principals and Practices: Human History. Wellington: National Book Trust, 1989.

Powell, Mark. Anatomy of Witch Hunts. Dunedin: ABP Ltd, 1991.

Prawer, Ali. Superstition’s Kingdom. Auckland: Allied Publishers, 2004.

Tyerman, John. Invention of the Crusades. Auckland: Allied Publications, 2001.

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