The Devil In Salem

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
What caused the Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692?

Submitted: December 12, 2009

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Submitted: December 12, 2009



 The Devil in Salem?
The True Cause of the Witchcraft Trials of 1692
In every country’s history, there are “black marks”— certain events whose unpleasantness often astounds later generations. For the United States, one such “black mark” has become known as the Salem Witch Trials. These trials resulted in the deaths of many innocent people, and a wide-spread fear that shook the entire state of Massachusetts. However, this fear was weakly justified. The hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials was sparked and fuelled by the oppressive nature of a society that lived by very strict Puritan values, and not by the presence of the Devil in Salem. This is evident in the way Salem authorities reacted to the young girls’ initial odd behaviour, by the pattern of social standing among the accusers and those accused, and by the court proceedings and treatment of the accused. Because Puritanism placed so little trust in science, supportable logic was absent during the time of accusations and trials, allowing the instability of the social atmosphere in Salem to escalate without any sort of check.
Psychology was a non-existent science in 1692. Consequently, madness, eccentricity, and strange, out-of-place behaviour was said to be brought on by the Devil, a belief that the Puritans of New England held with a fierce conviction. In early January of 1692, a group of Salem Village girls were discovered performing love spells to divine the profession of their future husbands.1 Those young girls were then faced with the prospect of severe punishment, because such frivolous indulgences were seen as cult-like and evil. Two of the girls, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris, began to exhibit bizarre behaviour which mimicked that of the victims of a witchcraft trial in Boston from four years prior. Salem authorities immediately assumed that witchcraft was again the cause, not even considering that the girls may have been acting out of fear, because Puritan belief was that the harsh treatment of young children was a good thing, as it gave the children a better chance of discovering God’s love.2 When Abigail and Elizabeth were treated for their ‘condition,’ rather than being punished for dabbling in magic, the other girls all fell into similar patterns of behaviour, thus escaping the repercussions also.3 The problem this created, since witchcraft had been deemed the cause, was that
nobody knew who the “witch” was, and therefore the girls could not be cured.4 The afflicted girls showed no inclination of knowing who it was that tortured them, and while Reverend Parris searched his congregation for the suspected witch, they merely kept up their frenetic antics: “barking like dogs, crawling under tables, and contorting their bodies in abnormal ways.”5 However, when finally pressured to say who was causing their suffering, the girls pointed out Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave. Tituba was an ideal scapegoat; as a slave, she had no rights, and she often told the children myths and stories of voodoo magic from her native country, Barbados.6 The ministers did not ask the girls how they knew it was Tituba, or what exactly she did to them, or even how or when she appeared to them, and the girls never offered any details. Tituba was not given any warning of the accusation, nor was she questioned.7 Salem authorities arrested her, and she was beaten until she confessed to complying with the Devil. It is more than likely that Tituba confessed in order to stop the beating.8 The ministers were satisfied with the confession, and eager to end the witchcraft episode with Tituba’s trial. Tituba, however, elaborated on her dealings with the Devil, and named two other witches in Salem: Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.9 Because she was a lowly slave, the ministers never took it into consideration that Tituba was known as a great storyteller.
One of the most influential forces in a society is the rift between social classes, and in Salem, this division fuelled the fire of witchcraft hysteria and manifested itself not only in the town, but also in the court. The social division was visible from the very start of the witch hunt, when Tituba was named as the first witch.10 Being black, Tituba was already a visible minority in Salem Village, and being a slave, she was viewed as a ‘nobody’ by the village people. Therefore, she was the perfect person to blame: the word of a slave was worthless against the word of the Reverend’s daughter, Elizabeth, and niece, Abigail.11 After Tituba, several other villagers, mainly women, were accused of being witches. Approximately 80% of all accused witches were women.12 The first person to be condemned to death was a woman by the name of Bridget Bishop, a woman whose lifestyle frequently clashed with Puritan belief.13 Puritans prided themselves on
their purity of mind, and sought to create a perfect society to serve as an example to God and the world.14 Bridget Bishop did not fit in with that ideal: she had married three times, yet had no children, something that was unacceptable in a Puritan’s eye.15 She also took far too much personal liberty: entertaining guests late at night, quarrelling publicly with her husband, and wearing frilly, fashionable clothes that were seen by many as a “sign and snare of the Devil.”16 John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts, expressed his feelings on such liberty in his journal:
“This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority, and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority. The exercise and maintaining of this liberty makes men grow more evil and in time to be worse than brute beasts.”
So although Bishop never actually harmed anyone, her un-Puritan-like habits made her the proverbial ‘black sheep’ of the community, and when she was accused of witchcraft, mob mentality took over, and even strangers to her clamoured for her conviction.18 Really, her death sentence was a way for the Puritans to remove a spot of imperfection from their ‘perfect society,’ under the guise of exterminating an agent of Satan.19 The social rift also manifested itself geographically:
“There were fourteen accused witches who lived within the bounds of Salem Village. Twelve of these fourteen lived in the eastern section of the Village. There were thirty-two adult Villagers who testified against these accused witches. Only two of these lived in that eastern section. The other thirty lived on the western side. In other words, the alleged witches and those who accused them resided on opposite sides of the village. There were twenty-nine villagers who publicly showed their skepticism about the trials or came to the defense of one or more of the accused witches. Twenty-four of theses lived in the eastern part of the Village— the same side on which the witches lived— and only five of them in the west. Those who defended the witches were generally their neighbours, often their immediate neighbours. Those who accused them were not.”20
This residential pattern shows that it was mob mentality, rather than personal quarrels, which drove the accusations and trials, because very few of the accusers and those they accused knew each other in any sort of personal way. Another important fact to note is that every member of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, who tried and sentenced the witchcraft cases, was a high-ranking, male member of New England Puritan society.21 Cotton Mather was a prominent Minister of the Puritan faith, William Stoughton, Chief Justice of the Court, was a scholar born to wealthy, land-owning parents, Sir William Phips was a successful merchant, knighted for his discovery of sunken, treasure-laden Spanish ships, and John Hathorne and Samuel Sewall were noted Salem merchants. None of these men had any formal legal training, and three were personal friends of the Mathers.22 The unorthodoxy of the trial procedures was due to this absence of legal expertise on the Court.
During the witch-hunt in Salem, there was no such thing as what would be called a ‘fair trial’ today. Accused witches were arrested on accounts of crimes that could not be proven, forced to endure months in squalid jails, and then subjected to one-sided examinations. Because the Puritans did not recognize a distinction between crime and sin, they argued that the state “…could execute someone found guilty of a deal with the devil just as it could execute someone found guilty of murder.”23 The way that Chief Justice William Stoughton formulated the trial procedures made it impossible for the accused witches to prove their innocence. He permitted private conversations to take place between the accusers and the judges, allowed spectators to interrupts the proceedings with personal remarks, and accepted the use of spectral evidence.24 He also forbade defense council for the accused, and had his Judges act as interrogators.25 Under the rule of Justice Stoughton, accused witches had two choices: confess to making a pact with the Devil, or hang for maintaining their innocence.26 This practice, rather than getting the hysteria under control, actually spurred on the accusations, because each forced confession helped to solidify the belief that witches really were at large in Salem. In March of 1692, the Salem Marshall-Deputy arrested a four-year-old girl named Dorcas Good.27  Dorcas was the only daughter of Sarah Good, a destitute and despised woman in Salem, and the girl was kept chained in a jail cell for three days before being brought before the magistrates for examination.28 Under interrogation by two Judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Dorcas eventually confessed to being a witch, and her confession implicated her mother, Sarah.29 Since every aspect of a toddler’s life is dominated by their mother, there is no way that a four-year-old could fabricate a confession to escape execution without in some way implicating their mother in the story. The Judges did not consider this, so Sarah Good was arrested and tried.30 During her trial, one of the ‘afflicted girls’ claimed that Good’s spirit was stabbing her, and, when examined, the magistrates did find a broken knife on the girl, but when the knife was shown to the court a man came forward with the other piece. He said he had broken it the day before and thrown it away in front of the afflicted girls. However, the Judges were already prejudiced against Good, due to her habit of muttering angrily at neighbours who refused her requests for charity. They ignored the fact that false testimony had been given against her, and when she refused to concede her innocence, they sentenced her to hang.31 Had the court proceedings been more reasonable— for example, had the accused been able to seek defense council— the entire situation would not have spiraled out of control the way it did.
After two years of terror and the executions of twenty so-called ‘witches,’ the Salem Witch Trials became an infamous episode in the history of the United States. As many as seventeen other accused witches died in prison, due to the sordid conditions that they were forced to live in. The witch-hysteria in Salem Village was weakly justified by any concrete fact, but the oppressive, almost extremist nature of the Puritan lifestyle there allowed it to escalate out of control. The tenacity and severity of Salem’s Puritanism, which drove the hysteria to its peak, was reflected in the authorities’ reaction to the afflicted girls’ behaviour, by the difference in social standing between accusers and the people they accused, and by the unfair format of the court proceedings. The trials were unreasonable, employing no supportable evidence to convict those who were accused of witchcraft, and behind it all was the unshakable Puritan belief that anything out of place was the work of Satan.

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