How much do you know about the Salem witch trials? All that I previously knew about this infamous event was from The Crucible by Arthur Miller which was taught in school; I remember screaming girls in a courtroom, an old guy being crushed by a stone, and lots of hats with buckles. Unfortunately, The Crucible, which was written in 1953, was not historically accurate and actually was an allegory for McCarthyism and the “witch hunt” against communists in America. Thankfully, to fill my limited knowledge, Christina checked out A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience by Emerson W. Baker. Between the period of 1400 to 1775 in America and Europe over 100,000 people were prosecuted for witchcraft with approximately 50,000 of those being executed; in just a decade (1626-1636) over 2,000 people were sentenced to death in the German Electorate of Cologne. When put in perspective the Salem witch trials were not an anomaly but they were the largest trials of witchcraft in American history.
The trials began in February 1692 and ended in May of 1693. Accusations of witchcraft were first given by Abigail Williams age 11 and Betty Parris age 9, niece and daughter respectively to Reverend Samuel Parris. The girls contorted their bodies, threw fits, made weird noises, threw things, interrupted church services, and complained of being pricked by pins. They claimed along with two other girls that town members Sarah Osborn, Sarah Good, and Tituba were witches that associated with the devil to torment them with black magic. Sarah Osborn rarely attended church and was married to an indentured servant. Sarah Good was a homeless woman who begged neighbors for food and shelter regularly. Tituba was the slave of Samuel Parris and was from Barbados where she was said to have learned witchcraft. Accusations soon would come from many more members of the community with a total of 100 people being imprisoned, 19 people being hanged, and 1 person being pressed to death. So the obvious question is what caused this mass hysteria? Was there really a group of witches in the sleepy town of Salem hell bent on destroying the lives of God-fearing Puritans? The quick answer is no, but the reasons behind this trials occurrence is as myriad as the people falsely accused.
The initial accusers were young girls from very prominent families. These prominent families at the time were bickering with other families over property rights, old grievances, and religious/political opinions. Salem as a whole at the time was dealing with economic and spiritual strain from the ongoing King William’s War (1688-1697) which was raging in the frontier. Additionally, Salem was known for its citizen disputes and had cycled through many pastors-leaving a void of strong leadership. All these factors combined to create a stressed environment which was ripe for neighbors to use the accusation of “witchcraft” as the easiest way to get back at others for past transgressions and differences. A thorough analysis of those accused shows that they had differences in the past with the accusers or the accuser’s family. Additionally, some accusers were flat out frauds just for the sake of receiving attention; this was especially true among the young girls who were given no voice in Puritan society. In the end, the Salem trials were covered up by the Massachusetts government because of the obvious injustice that occurred; it was actually illegal in the aftermath of the trials to publish any materials that portrayed the grim truth. By 1711 most of those who were executed were released of charges and the defaced families of the accused could begin the long process of healing. Today, we look at the trials as a bunch of ignorant Puritans who were susceptible to mass hysteria-forgetting due process of law and the rights of its citizens. That could never happen in today’s age of reason. Well, think again. What happened after 9/11? Mass hysteria that led to the Patriot Act which took away many citizen rights. A general fear of others because of differences in politics, religions, and appearances. Very interesting similarities that make me think about how history repeats itself and the importance of its study.