Between February 1692 and May 1693 in the village of Salem, Massachusetts, a series of trails and executions took place with people being found guilty of witchcraft.
The witch hysteria in Salem, in which approximately 200 people were arrested, is most commonly referred to as the “Salem Witch Trials”.
In order to understand the mass hysteria and barbaric convictions of people accused of being witches, it’s important that the religious context of the era is noted.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Puritans were a group of people who, according to the University of Notre Dame, grew discontent in the Church of England and worked towards ‘religious, moral and societal reforms.’ (1)
The laws imposed by the Puritans were extremely strict and when the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, they ‘believed that God wanted them to construct a holy society that everyone would model their own after.’ (2).
The Influences of Satan
The Puritans had a strong belief that Satan was present through sickness and misfortune, and if anyone went against the sumptuary laws enforced by God, they could be accused of practising witchcraft. It was this combination of religious views and morals and strict regulations that paved the way for the Salem Witch Trials.
In the seventeenth century, an Englishman named Matthew Hopkins developed techniques to determine whether a person was a witch. These techniques included tying a suspect’s hand and feet together and throwing them into water. If the person was innocent, they would sink to the bottom. However, a guilty ‘witch’ would float to the top. (3)
According to Local Histories, the witch mania in Salem began when two young girls, 9-year-old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams, started to dabble in fortune telling. The Parris family owned a slave named Tituba, an Arawak Indian.
The story goes that Tituba told the girls tales about witchcraft. In January 1692, the girls started to have strange fits, to which a doctor, William Griggs, claimed were because the girls were bewitched. (4) In making this claim, Dr Griggs initiated a chain of mass hysteria.
The first account of someone being executed in the Salem Witch Trials was a controversial figure in the town, a lady called Bridget Bishop. Bishop certainly went against the strict Puritan laws and moral codes of conduct allegedly enforced by God, as not only did she dress in a ‘showy’ way, but she had been married three times, and hosted drinking and gambling parties in a tavern.
While Bridget Bishop was not the first to be accused of witchcraft, she was the first to be sentenced. On June 10 1680, Bishop was found guilty of being a witch and was hung at Gallows Hill. (5)
Lower-Class More Likely to Be Charged
People of low status were more inclined to be charged for witchcraft than those who were more respected and of higher status. For example, the girls identified as being responsible for Betty Parris’ and Abigail Williams’ strange fits, and being allegedly possessed by Satan, were Tituba, the slave, Sarah Good, who was poor and begged for food, and Sarah Osborne who was generally ‘disproved’ of for not attending church.
All three women were arrested, and whilst Good and Osborne denied the charges and were subsequently hung, Tituba confessed and was imprisoned but not executed. (6)
This could be considered as being one of the most horrific aspects of the Salem witch hysteria, the fact that if one was accused of witchcraft and confessed their life was spared, but if they denied the charge, they were hung. Not only that, but if anyone was heard expressing doubt and cynicism towards the witch hysteria, they themselves ran the risk of being accused of being a witch.
When reading stories about the witch hysteria of the 16th and 17th centuries, one tends to put the absurdity and barbarity of hanging or burning someone at the stake because they were a ‘witch’, to the backwardness of the times.
Although, according to many different historical accounts, people of this era did have fits and seizures. I have often wondered, as Satan was obviously not responsible for those convulsions, what was the actual medical cause might have been?
According to Tabbapush, the fits were convulsive ergotism, and were caused by ingesting rye plagued with a fungus called ergot. The infected fungus could be found in cereal and bread, and caused the victims to have violent fits, choking and hallucinations. (7)
While the medical explanation for those illnesses allegedly caused by witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries are easy to explain today, the reasons behind the intense mass hysteria are a little more ambiguous.
According to the Skeptical Inquirer, mass hysteria commonly occurs when a group of people believe that they are suffering from the same disease or ailment. (8)
The Salem Witch Trials were one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria, caused by a lethal collision of the cult beliefs of the Puritans and the group hysteria caused by convulsive ergotism from eating fungus found in bread.
As a consequence of what was – in the 16th and 17th centuries – a potent recipe of religious beliefs and mass hysteria, the Salem Witch Trials have been used in both political rhetoric and in literature, as a dramatic deterrent of the potential dangers of religious extremism and false accusations. As the U.S. historian, diplomat, author and educator George Lincoln Burr once said:
“More than once it has been said, too, that the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.” (9)