Salem Witch Trials Of 1692
In colonial Massachusetts, between February of 1692 and May of 1963, over one hundred and fifty people were arrested and imprisoned for the capital felony of witchcraft. The witch trials occurred in the main towns of Essex County, Massachusetts, which included Salem Village, Ipswich, Andover and Salem Town. Accusations of witchcraft occurred in surrounding counties in addition to Essex. This hysteria led to the accusation of hundreds of people throughout the region. Nineteen of the accused, fourteen women and five men, were sentenced to hang at Gallows Hill near Salem Village. These paranoia and accusations may have been symptoms of an ongoing frontier war, declining economic conditions, congregational strife, teenage boredom, and personal jealousy among neighbors.
Crisis in Essex County:
The Witchcraft crisis began in mid-January of 1691, when a young girl named Betty Parris living in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village, Massachusetts, became strangely ill. She had suffered from fits of hysteria and delusions. The Reverend called upon the local physician, William Griggs, whom could find nothing physically wrong with her and ultimately concluded that she had been bewitched. It is now believed that Betty Parris may have been suffering from stress, asthma, guilt, boredom, child abuse, epilepsy, and delusional psychosis. Betty, in turn, accused three woman of her bewitching: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, a slave owned by Reverend Parris. While Good and Osborne claimed their innocence, Tituba confessed to witchcraft possibly due to the practice of fortune telling. All three women were sent to a prison in Boston, where Osborne later died of natural causes. The mysterious fits of Betty Parris, according to some historians, may have been a symptom of convulsive ergotism, a disease resulting from ingesting rye infected with Ergot, which is caused by a fungus which invades developing kernels of rye grain. This disease can cause violent fits, a crawling sensation on the skin, vomiting, choking, and even hallucinations. Soon afterwards, mass hysteria ensued.
Accusations of witchcraft continued to spread throughout Essex County, despite the jailing of the three accused. Members of the public claimed that they were being tortured by ghosts and other apparitions of witches and even accused their neighbors of the horrific acts. Historians now believe that social and economic factors caused much of the anxiety experienced by most people. These factors included small pox, fears of random Indian attacks, and King William’s War or the Second Indian War. The Puritans strongly believed that Satan was the ultimate cause of witchcraft. As the hysteria spread, more and more people were accused of working for the Devil. Before long, county jails were reaching capacity with the accused witches. Many of the accused confessed for fear of being sent to the gallows.
A new court was established to hear the witchcraft cases. The appointed judges and magistrates allowed spectral evidence, or testimony of a person accusing another of witchcraft based on dreams and visions. There was little or no hard evidence against any of the accused. Hearsay, gossip, stories, unsupported assertions, surmises were generally admitted. The accused did not have legal counsel, witnesses to testify for them under oath, or an opportunity for appeal if they were convicted. They were allowed to represent themselves and produce their own evidence. Many were afraid to criticize the witch trials for fear of being accused themselves. Only nineteen of the accused witches were executed. Five had died in prison from disease, and one man, Eighty year old Giles Corey, was pressed to death. Soon after the executions, people began to ignore the accusations against suspected witches. In May of 1693, Governor Philps ended the witch trials and pardoned the remaining accused. As the Salem Witch trials concluded, the land was in turmoil due to lack of farming. Crops failed and epidemics continued. Since the trials of 1692, no person has died after being convicted of witchcraft.
The Salem Witch trials of 1692 represent a unique event for early America. While the practices of witchcraft had existed for centuries prior to the founding of the American colonies, the events leading up to and after the witch trials in colonial Massachusetts ultimately changed the views of witchcraft, as it was never again an issue brought to trial. I chose this event because of it’s significance in early American history and the controversy of witchcraft. People living during this time acted out of fear before they could act out from reason. If more had been understood about mental illness and the effects of famine and war on society, perhaps less paranoia and fear would have occurred.
Although the accounts of the trials were well documented between 1692 and 1693, there is still much debate as to why the trials even occurred. The historian Mary Beth Norton, author of In the Devil’s Snare The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, describes the Indian wars on the Maine frontier affected the people of New England and the Salem Witch Trials. It is not well documented or even mentioned in most sources on the event that the Indian Wars had much to do with the trials at all. Only that people were anxious and fearful because of them. I also find it interesting that women, usually under the age of 25, were the ones accusing others of witchcraft and why they were believed by the colony’s magistrates. I believe that witchcraft offered a valid excuse to the colonies misfourtions and the unexplained “Invisible World”. The Puritans strict religion created much fear in the people, and the idea of Satan and witchcraft was a way of keeping people in order, since there wasn’t really a police system at the time.
After much research I became rather fascinated by the events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials. I believe that many societies of today are manipulated by widespread fear and paranoia. This period in early American history demonstrates the effects of desparity and weakness in society and how it yeilds people to be easily manipulated. The Salem Witch Trials are among many early episodes in our nation’s history where values and morals were challenged.
Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft crisis of 1692. New York: Knoff. 2002.
Roach, Marilynne K. In the days of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1996.