The Salem Witch Trials certainly made a mark on American lives. It would be safe to assume that every American knows what had transpired during that period, more than any other events throughout America’s history. Thus far, several scholars and non-scholars have become intrigued with this and made what seems like veritable accounts and analyses.
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The facts, of course, are as simple as these. When two girls began acting strangely in Salem Village and a local doctor can not understand what caused their oddities, they were diagnosed to be suffering from an evil hand, and that they were bewitched. At that time, people were sure that witches exist but are not allowed to live. These girls caused even more panic when they went screaming and contorting in a public hearing conducted by the magistrates and began pointing left and right at the perpetrators. Other girls joined in with their accusations and soon they were mayhem. Later on, a specialized witches’ court was established to try these accused. That period saw numerous people being sentenced to hang, counting to more than two hundred (Detweiler, p. 597).
With such figures, it is no wonder that it is characterized to be one of the biggest and most important outbreaks of witchcraft in British America. The conundrum that people had been analyzing ever since is who was behind this outbreak. Blame ranges from the devil initially to puritan ministers encouraging the witch mania to bring support for the Church, and to the ideology of Puritanism itself, a strong belief that everything strange is the work of the devil, such that all the things they do not understand were categorized as witchery. Some modern scholars see Massachusetts as a place with stifling norms, full of repressions and inhibitions, a suppression of independent thought and uniqueness that ultimately resulted in the said witch trials and deaths (Detweiler, p. 598).
The Salem witch trials were also said to be the result of children having the adult world at their fingertips. That is, they were practicing conscious fraud, deliberately wielding their power over the adults through feigning their attacks and then accusing certain people of witches. In this case, the two girls were just attention-seeking and therefore the ones to blame (Detweiler, p. 599). Or there really could have been witches.
Using today’s technology though to examine what happened with the two girls who started it all, their symptoms were found out to be the ones associated in modern times with hysteria. Unfortunately, in the 17th century, they still don’t have the means of deciding what ails a person and any sort of deviant observed was considered demon-driven.
Though there are too many accounts of who was precisely behind this phenomenon, it is not more important than knowing why the allegations of witchcraft were taken in easily and acted upon fervently by the people of Massachusetts. What was about the place and the people that make it all so believable? Suffice to say, if a person would be told he had been bewitched today, you’ll probably laugh your head off. So what was different then?
More than two hundred people sentenced to hang as a result of young people crying “witch” is quite astounding. Therefore more significant than just equating the incident as a fraud committed by someone, and more than just knowing who started it is finding out why these accusations and these prosecutions transpired in such magnitude. (Detweiler, p. 601)
The studying of the Salem Witch trials brings about different sides to the story and in different aspects. First, through it, we had a clearer understanding of the Massachusetts society in 1692. We can not judge their society with our standards, that is when they do not dismiss witchcraft as nonsense even if different from the mainstream. The fact that they had believed in witches carries with it significant meaning. As said, every incident especially the misfortunate ones in a society should have a reason behind it. Those that cannot be explained are categorized as bewitchery. Even more applicable to Massachusetts since it is a society that believes wholeheartedly that witches exist. This belief makes the ‘witches did it’s more believable and logical. After all, having an explanation for everything is a relief (Detweiler, p. 601). Misfortunate events can cover incidents from just sickness to the bad welfare of the economy.
The belief that witches existed at that time and the fact that they were the reasons for every misfortunate thing in one’s life serves many purposes. First off, as we said, it is a fallback explanation for the things one cannot understand happened in his life, or we could say, it is a direct one can blame on. Second, witchcraft functions as a check on anti-social conduct. The fear of being called a witch, let alone being punished as one toe the line for all the people in the society to act accordingly with all the behavioral rules in their place (Detweiler, p. 602). There is no room for uniqueness, independent thought, and eccentricity.
Another study resonates that these types of behaviors and beliefs with a structural conflict inherent to the lives within that community. This is suggested from the pattern that teenage girls are crying ‘witch’ while middle-aged women are called witches. As the fact that the accused are known to be quite independent in their thinking and actions, different from the social norms.
The issue of sex roles may inadvertently exist at that time, as women are often the accused, and therefore insinuates that women must be the traditional and conformists in a society (Detweiler, p. 604).
In times of insecurity, and adjustment, there could also be witnessed the increasing rate of people accused of witchcraft and people said to be bewitched. In particular, in the late 1680s and the 1690s, Massachusetts was a nation in general unrest, with Puritanism in decline and religion in decay. People were commonly in fear of dealing with God’s wrath and afraid of the penetration of the devil into their lives. Along with such, Massachusetts also lost so much of its self-determination when the whole of New England was united under one government. Institutions, political well as economic systems all lose their credibility and power till the outbreak of civil war. Still, that period marked the start of many indecisive behaviors, and political uncertainties (Detweiler, 606). The result of course was the witch episodes we are discussed now. These accounts are mostly from anthropologists, focusing their research on the social systems.
In general, the witch craze crystallized during the 14th Century, with Pope John XXII encouraging it. He was a believer in magic and its power, and he encouraged all Dominicans and the Inquisitors to pursue all alleged sorcerers, magicians, and heretics to stop the spread of witchcraft practices. The damage that this and subsequently authorized witch hunts wrought was somewhere between 200,000 and half a million people burned, beheaded, drowned, changes, and other forms of execution (Ben-Yehuda, p. 378). Conversely, the executed were mostly women.
In the field of psychology and psychiatry, the explanations for these witch crazes delved more into the individual aspects. Analyzing the victim’s behavior, (the executed), it was construed that they are mentally ill. Yet because of medieval technological deficiency, the only means of analyzing queer behaviors was by attributing it to a supernatural phenomenon that they believed in. This assumption did not go unchallenged of course (Ben-Yehuda, p. 329).
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The witch hunters, on the other hand, it was found that they have emotional problems and uses the alleged witches as scapegoats.
Science of course has different explanations. For this area of study, the lure of witchcraft and hunting coincides with the emerging scientific revolution. The craft resembles science experiments.
Generally, though, social scientists see the advent of witch-hunting as a gender issue. They manifest the inequality in gender identity and gender roles, and the political and economic struggle of the different groups in society (Ben-Yehuda, p. 330).
Interestingly, we have an account of who was the first confessor in the Salem Witch Trials. Her name is Tituba, a slave from the West Indies, and presumed to be practicing hoodoo. She had confessed to night rides on a pole and participation in satanic ceremonies. The puritan authorities banished her away, for fear being in her presence would mean separation from God. She was also black, and by her skin color, she was deemed to be a condemned being of God (Tuker, p. 624).
Her jail fees were not paid by Reverend Parris, the one responsible for bringing her to Salem Village for fear of being in her diabolical presence. She was rescued by an unknown man 13 months later. Regrettably, when many of the accusers and executers publicly repented, she was not given the honor of receiving redress. Properties of the convicted witches were returned to their families, yet no one claimed Tubita’s. And when restitutions were given, or the cost of being imprisoned was given back, no one claimed hers (Tuker, p. 625).
Far from being removed from the witch craze history, Tubita’s name becomes embroiled into it, in which a shroud of mystery remains surrounding her sullied name. Up until now, reasons for quickly believing her testimonies and executing her ardently remain a puzzle.
Modern speculations revolved around her being a woman, a slave, and an African-Indian. The fact that she was seen as a dual race brings her resemblance closer to the Devil itself, who was referred to as a black man first and later tawny (African to Indian) (Tuker, p. 627)
Frankly, all that one can deduce from the phenomenon is again, like everything that hounded America’s history, the inherent presence of discrimination, with accordance to gender, identity, and race. The fact that the nation had believed in witchcraft cushioned these discriminating tendencies and blew them out of proportion.
Truly another side then to the story is the economic aspect of it. Although not quite as evident, the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts still created enough for economic interpretation to hold.
The economic angle here involves the workings of the medieval Catholoc Church. The studies put forward that the Church had supplied a monopoly. Specifically, the church made use of the Salem witch hunts as the conditions of salvation. The witchcraft episode in Salem draws the picture that the ministers use Puritan religious doctrine regarding witches and witchcraft to maintain the Church’s or strengthen its monopoly and authority, as well as increase church membership. They intend to expand their wealth through augmented church membership (Mixon, p. 179).
As we’re discussing ministers, Reverend Samuel Parris, the one conferred a while ago briefly about Tubita’s case, will be talked about more in detail. He and his daughter, Betty and niece came into Salem Village in 1689 to take up a position in the Parish. He was treated rather rubbish and was even denied the simplest of courtesy (Mixon, p. 180).
Matters went bad to worse when the village experienced dismal winters, smallpox outbreaks and Indian raids. Parishioners started to look for reasons why these unfortunate events were happening. At that time, Reverend Parris’s daughter and niece picked up that moment to seek entertainment outside their Calvinist upbringing. They become close to Tituba, their house’s slave and spent many nights with her and along with the village girls learning voodoo, magic, fortune telling and making od witch cakes (Mixon, p. 180).
The following events would be the reiteration of the Salem witch trials facts mentioned early in this paper and which everyone quite knows. Betty and Alice got sick with an unfamiliar disease, as well as other village girls that were once pupils of Tituba. Unknown to the physician, the disease was then described to be the work of the evil hand. Being that case, the reponsibility of finding the solution to the crisis was left in the hands of the ministry (Mixon, p. 180).
The ministry took on the role rather earnestly and aggesively. Reverend Parris articulated that God must be angry with them and sending forth His destroyers in the form of witches. He and other ministers therefore rebuke and rebuff anyone who had doubts in hunting for witches. Vague evidence was admitted in court by the ministers. They served as counsel and jurists on the same court later on. The outcome of course was the terrible losses of lives in an extent. The thing is, the affliction the girls suffered could now be explained in concrete trms by modern research. They have had actually only bread poisoning called ergotism (Mixon, pp. 180-181).
Revernd Pariss reactions and actions as well as his peers and the church at that time points to us the economic interpretation of the events. The Puritan Church of that period holds monopoly on rights to interpret the spectral evidence, biblical interpretations of witchcraft, and the fate of these alleged witches. This let us see the political and economic power the Puritan theologians had at that time and let us surmiss on how they wield the power. They had become the experts on the subject of witchcraft that one cannot fully understand what the Salem witch trials are without associating it with Puritanist ideologies. The fact that they allowed in spectral evidences to be interpreted in their own volition is quite presumptous of the bias incorporated here (Mixon, p. 181).
When the trials were halted, many ministers agreed that this type of trial lead to the demise of innocent people. The evidences for the capture and ultimate punishment of death were rather unreliable. Of course, these new ministers though not agreeable with how the hunt was managed, still believed that demons could penetrate their lives through the use of innocent people. Confessions and other types of evidence aside from spectral hence were given credibility and used as grounds to execute witches (Mixon, pp. 181-182).
Several studies contended that the group of Parris took advantage of accusers or the girls for their personal gain. Parris had been having difficulty in filling up his weekly worship so that he used the girls’ allegations to instill fear in the villagers and persuade them to turn to him for guidance and attendance. Ministerial services became the rage at that time (Mixon, p. 183).
Puritanism, a religion that is not unyielding in terms of doctrine, can easily be used or manipulated to fetter several results like in this case, to increase church membership and increase personal wealth. This is of course their intention, yet they did not forsee the extent of these manipulations, more or less 20 dead and hundred more sentenced to be (Mixon, p. 183).
Therefore, the Salem witch trial is famous as it is for raising several issues at once; the issue of the existence of witchcraft, the issue of gender discrimination, race discrimination and the issue of Church manipulation. Yet, there is still no concrete way of analyzing what truly happened during 1692, starting from when two girls fell sick simultaneously.
- Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “Problems Inherent in Socio-Historical Approaches to the European Witch Craze.”Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 20:4 (1981). Web.
- Detweiler, Robert. “Shifting Perspectives on the Salem Witches.” The History Teacher. 8:4 (1975). Web.
- Mixon Jr, Franklin G. “Homo Economicus and the Salem Witch Trials.” The Journal of Economic Education. 31: 2. (2000). Web.
- Tuker, Veta Smith. “Purloined Identity: The Racial Metamorphosis of Tituba of Salem Village.” Journal of Black Studies. 30: 4 (2000). Web.