Gomez Salem Witch Trials
This paper will discuss the events related to Salem Witch Trials. The historical, and social factors, which contributed to those events. This research is aimed to prove that there were several reasons for persecution of Salem witches such as the desire of New England clergy to create true Christian church, the assertion of male power, superstitious beliefs of people and their inability to explain natural phenomena, and slow development in the field of medicine and incapability to determine causes of certain illnesses. Three hundred years ago, the people in and around Salem, Massachusetts were engaged in the most massive witch-hunt in American history. Authorities arrested over 150 suspects from more than two- dozen towns, juries convicted twenty-eight, and nineteen were hanged. Contemporaries of the tragedy grappled with Satan's role in the affair. Embracing the reality of witchcraft, many wondered if the Devil had not manipulated the people of New England into an orgy of destructive accusations. With the passing of the participants, researchers began to discount a satanic role and sought instead to assign blame to human agents for the tragedy. In the seventeenth century people automatically assumed that their difficulties had a supernatural explanation. Floods, thunder, lightning, hailstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and comets were considered the harbingers of illness or destruction. Curses, spells, and the evil eye, most believed, could cause harm. Reports of strange dreams, visions, unseen voices, and prophecies circulated frequently. In England, practitioners of magic, men and women who sought to manipulate supernatural powers, abounded. Rich and poor alike consulted cunning folk to recover lost property, to discover a cure for illness, for help in finding missing family members or livestock, for advice in making personal and business decisions, or to identify 1
witches. New Englanders were engaged in fortunetelling; carefully read almanacs for astronomical data essential to the practice of astrology; read about and pursued the mysteries of alchemy; and a few boasted about their knowledge of the occult. Religious and secular authorities in Catholic and Protestant regions grew concerned about an organized cult of witches. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull condemning witchcraft as heresy, the exercise of supernatural powers obtained through a demonic pact. Two years later, with papal approval, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominican inquisitors, published the Malleus Maleficarum also known as The Hammer of Witches, the first major treatise on witchcraft beliefs. By the early seventeenth century, works on witchcraft beliefs collectively offered a picture of a secret society of Devil-worshiping witches. Despite the efforts of writers like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, and Jeffrey B. Russell to prove the existence of such cults, recent scholarship has demonstrated that no organized society of witches ever developed. Women comprised almost eighty percent of those accused, making gender the most significant characteristic. Approximately half of the males accused had direct involvement with accused women as friends, supporters, or kin. Karlsen concluded "most witches in New England were middle-aged or old women eligible for inheritances because they had no brothers or sons." They stood in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another." As land became scarcer in the more settled communities, men began to resent these women who had access to it through a demographic accident. The resentment was expressed in witchcraft accusations. "Whether as actual or potential inheritors of property, as healers or tavern-keepers or merchants," Karlsen argued, "most accused witches were women who symbolized the obstacles to property and prosperity."
Between the months of June to September of 1692, the infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts resulted in the deaths of twenty men and women as a result of witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations and dozens were jailed for months during the progress of the trials. There are an infinite number of explanations for the hysteria that overtook the Puritan population of Salem. For example, a combination of economics, religious temperaments, personal rivalries, and precocious imaginations added to the furor. Significantly, a book published by Cotton Mathers in 1689, “Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions” also contributed to instigating the events. Many of the accused witches shared unsavory reputations. Some were known for their contentious behavior. During Elizabeth Morse's trial, several witnesses testified to heated confrontations with her. Like Morse, the accused often revealed special healing powers. It had become commonplace by the late seventeenth century for people to suspect spiteful, poor, older women of being witches. A witness of a witch hunt in Chelmsford, England, contended that villagers had come to suspect "every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furred brow, a hairy lip, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, a skull cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, a dog or cat by her side." Superstition and witchcraft resulted in many being hanged or in prison. In the seventeenth century, a belief in witches and witchcraft was almost universal. In Salem Massachusetts where the witch trials took place many people who were suspicious and accused of witchcraft were hanged. The Salem witch trials change many people’s lives and even led to death for some. The power of superstition and hearsay can distort from the truth. During February of 1692, a young Salem woman named Betty Parris became “strangely” ill. Her symptoms included wildly running around, diving under furniture, contorting in pain, and 3
complaining of fever. At this time, the Puritan writer Cotton Mather had already published what was a popular and widely read book, "Memorable Providences.” In the book he describes an incident of witchcraft in Boston, and Betty Parris' behavior was quickly interpreted in the contexts of Mather’s account of the Boston “witch.” The talk of witchcraft escalated when other local girls, including eleven-year-old Ann Putnam, seventeen-year-old Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott, began to demonstrate similar symptoms of unusual behavior. A doctor was called to examine the girls, and he suggested that the girls' problems might have a “supernatural origin.” In many ways, the doctor’s inability to diagnose the medical nature of the problems increased the widespread acceptance that witches were involved. The number of girls affected continued to increase and a local West Indian slave girl, Tituba, was targeted because she had been known for speaking of her native folklore, which involved stories of black magic and witchcraft. The arrest warrants were issued in February 1692 and the trials actually began in June of that same year. When Tituba, one of the first arrested, admitted she was a witch and named other accomplices, any skepticism that may have existed was overwhelmed by the desire to “hunt” for more witches. At this time Cotton Mather was a minister of Boston 's Old North church, and a true believer in witchcraft. He had investigated the strange behavior of four children of a Boston mason named John Goodwin. The children had been complaining of sudden pains and crying out together in chorus. Mather concluded that witchcraft, specifically that practiced by an Irish washerwoman who had yelled at the children Mary Glover, was responsible for the children's problems. Publishing his conclusions in one of the best known of his 382 works, "Memorable Providence." Mather vowed to never use but one grain of patience with any man that shall go to impose upon me a Denial of Devils, or of Witches. 4
His subsequent influence in Salem is significant. A new court was created for trials in the witch-cases and five judges were appointed, three were close friends with him. Additionally, Mather’s own narrative became textual fact for determining the evidence of witches. This played easily into the court’s agenda. Mather himself urged the judges to seek confessions from the accused, accepting claims such as “spectral evidence” as legal testimony. He enabled the townspeople of Salem to interpret any kind of social behavior as potentially that of a witch. It was Mather who urged the judges to consider “spectral evidence,” and to consider the confessions of witches the best evidence of all. As the trials progressed, and growing numbers of people confessed to being witches, Mather became firmly convinced that an Army of Devils had horribly broke in upon the place. On August 4, 1692, Mather delivered a sermon warning that the Last Judgment was near at hand, and portrayed himself among those leading the final charge against the Devil’s legions. Almost as quickly as it started, the Salem trials ended. As Weisman indicates, no execution caused more unease in Salem than that of the village's ex-minister, George Burroughs. Burroughs, was identified by several of his accusers as the ringleader of the witches. When Burroughs found himself on Gallows Hill, where so many had already been hanged, he began to recite the Lord’s Prayer aloud. In attendance was Cotton Mather, who was forced to interrupt the hanging, as he himself had recorded that any witch was incapable of reciting religious prayers. By September of 1692, doubts were developing as to how so many townspeople could possibly be guilty. Reverend John Hale said, " It cannot be imagined that in a place of so much knowledge, so many in so small compass of land should abominably leap into the Devil's lap at once.
Increase Mather father of Cotton Mather, urged the court to exclude his son’s assertions of spectral evidence. He said that “it was better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned.” Judges and jurors who had participated in the witch trials began issuing apologies for their lack of judgment and, by the end of 1692, all the accused who were still awaiting trials were released ending the witch hunts, the accusations, and any evidence of witches in Salem. It is clear from the historical accounts of this time period that the influence of social hysteria perpetuated the witch trials. However, what remains largely contestable is any certainty as to what started the witch trials and what inspired the confession of Tituba. As with much of Puritan history, it is only in the texts of white male religious rules that information can be gleaned to be truthful. There are no completely satisfactory explanations for the preponderance of women among the accused. They obviously lived in a male-dominated culture. Men held political and religious power, controlled most property, and were the acknowledged heads of households. Such circumstances make it tempting to view the accused as women who challenged "prescribed gender arrangements." This would make them the targets of a misogynist culture unwilling to tolerate females who were assertive, economically independent, or reluctant to defer to men; in short, individuals who had refused to accept their place in the traditional social order. The Salem Witch Trials are one of the saddest pages in the history of America. The immigrants of New England who brought the occult beliefs with them, sought to create a society of closely knit Christian villages with a strong sense of communal responsibility. Inspired by the belief that they were on a mission for God to preserve the true church, these committed immigrants eagerly pursued the task of establishing a Christian utopia. God, they believed, had 6
entered into a covenant with man to save his predestined elect status. One of the possible causes of the massive witch-hunt was the desire of people to establish the true Christian church and emphasize their special place in cosmos destroying those whose behavior was somewhat different from traditional Christian beliefs. As it was mentioned earlier in this paper, some witches had fortunetelling and healing skills. Also, some of them were old and ill and could not attend church, and some women were unfaithful to their husbands. This fact contradicts the normal Christian values set by the church. There are other reasons like the desire of men to preserve their dominant status in the society. As stated earlier, the majority of those accused were women. Women could strengthen their status in society by inheriting property and gaining economic prosperity. The lack of knowledge in the field of medicine was another reason of the witch-hunts. The doctors who were not able to explain the origin of illness could not admit their incompetence and ruin their reputation so they simply stated that witchcraft caused the illness. The Salem farmers suffered from unfavorable weather conditions and could not find scientific factors to explain them so they also blamed it on witchcraft. There are various interpretations of the persecution of witches in the seventeenth century and we can certainly state that these women were innocent victims of an ignorant society.
Works Cited Aronson, Marc. Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials. Atheneum: New York. 2003. Boyer, Paul & Nissenbaum, Stephen. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 1974. Boyer, Paul & Nissenbaum, Stephen, Eds. Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. Northeastern University Press: Boston, MA. 1972. Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. NYU: New York. 1996. Brown, David C. A Guide to the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692. David C. Brown: Washington Crossing, PA. 1984. Demos, John. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Godbeer, Richard. The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Cambridge University Press: New York. 1992. Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: Vintage, 1987. Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Random House, 2002. Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY. 1997. Robinson, Enders A. The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692. Hippocrene: New York. 1991.
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge University Press: New York. 1993. Trask, Richard B. `The Devil hath been raised`: A Documentary History of the Salem Village Witchcraft Outbreak of March 1692. Revised edition. Yeoman Press: Danvers, MA. 1997 Weisman, Richard. Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, MA. 1984.