What caused the witch trials in Salem?

Part the last of our Truth v. Myth series on the 1692 witch scare in Salem. Here we try to figure out what led rational, if religious, people to fear that multiple witches were at work in their community.

As I’ve pointed out earlier, while the Puritans did believe in the Devil and evil spirits and witches, they very rarely believed they were in the presence of real witches, and most of the time that someone was accused of being a witch it was simply a way to hurry the resolution of a problem (you encroach repeatedly on my land, you won’t stop, you laugh at my complaints, so I go to the court and tell everyone you’re a witch; this sobers you up and gets you to agree to mediation). When people were seriously accused of witch craft, they were usually outsiders who made no secret of their disdain for the group. They were not pillars of respectable society, church members, and magistrates, and children were never allowed to make public accusations of witch craft, or to appear in court.

Yet these things happened at Salem. That’s what makes it such an anomaly in New England Puritan history. Deep beliefs about adults having complete power over children were overturned, the universal sign of respect that was church membership was overthrown, and the accusation was not against one person but against an ever-growing number of citizens.

We’ve looked at varying theories about why this happened. In the end, it’s one of those problems that is very hard to resolve because we lack sufficient primary resources. All we can really do is throw our two cents in. Mine is that it was a combination of factors; that, as usual, there was no single cause.

The rye crop may have been infected with ergot poisoning, giving two girls weird physical symptoms. One of those girls happened to be the daughter of the Reverend  Parris, the divisive minister of Salem Village. Worried that his daughter should be manifesting signs of demonic possession–he, a minister, and one trying to keep the people of Salem Town within the sphere of the Salem Village church–Parris was panicked enough to accept a verdict of witch craft rather than sickness, which was the original verdict of the midwife.

Once word got out that the minister’s daughter might be possessed, fears of demonic attack echoed the longstanding fear of American and French attack. Salem has already been in physical danger from American war parties, and now it is in spiritual danger from Satan’s minions. Maybe God is actually punishing or “harrowing” Salem to remind them that their safety is in God’s hands alone, and that He can destroy them by Indians or by demons.

At this point, a few other women are infected by the rye, so accusations break out afresh. Because of the new symptoms, the fact that symptoms are only striking Salem Village citizens, and the need of Parris and his supporters to maintain their power base against Salem Town, some of Parris supporters, notably Putnam (whose daughter was also stricken) decide to shift the focus from “Why is Salem Village so vulnerable to the devil?” to “Why is Salem Town not affected?” Accusations by Villagers against Townies proliferate. Salem Town residents are the witches, attacking Villagers in order to undermine SV’s religious centrality (remember, the Church in Salem Village is the oldest, the original and most prestigious Congregational church in North America, and Town residents wanted to split it by forming their own church).

Now it is a political battle between Village and Town, and a bit of hysteria and panic set in amongst the average people when their leaders don’t contain and defuse the situation as was usually the case. This causes wilder accusations because it is now consequence-free to denounce someone as a witch. Problems that might have caused only consternation before now seem to be the devil’s work. People who might have been grudgingly tolerated before were now denounced. The arrival of outside officials to investigate only seems to lend credence to the idea that real witchcraft is at work.

Once people are actually executed, real fear sets in. No one wants to protest the procedings lest they be denounced themselves. Plus, the average person believes that their usually rational system of government would not wrongly sentence someone to death, so the accused must be real witches. A self-perpetuating system is set up that is only stopped when the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony calls a halt to the trials, implying that criminal proceedings will be held against those who make any further accusations.

It was this reassertion of rational government that put an end to the trials. Why? Because the Puritans were rational people who loved good government, and they were used to their governing bodies keeping a tight rein on people’s behavior. When the Salem government abandoned this responsibility, for its own reasons, and did not make it clear that the second wave of accusations were not permissable, order was destroyed and society became lawless. When the MBC government stepped in to reinforce precedent, the scare ended as quickly as it began.

So although we will never know for sure why the scare in Salem became what it became, I do think that a combination of factors, most importantly the reluctance and then refusal of the Salem governing body to follow precedent and defuse witch craft accusations (sternly warning the accuser to accept the court’s decision in their case and not to hazard a second accusation), led to the frenzy of the witch hunt. In a politically dangerous time, a time of guerrilla war and internal division, a frontier town became unmoored from the legal and religious traditions it was part of, and chaos ensued.

It is part of the fascination of Salem that it was the only witch scare in North American history. If there had been three or four witch hunts in the 1690s, I think none of them would be as famous and hypnotic to later generations as Salem. There’s something about the singular incident that grabs the imagination. If Titanic and two of its sister ships had all gone down in 1912, it would be a case for shipbuilding engineers to ponder rather than the subject of dozens of movies and hundreds of books. If two women rather than just Amelia Earhart had disappeared on a flight it would be noted briefly in the history of aviation rather than the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation.

But the fact that Salem stands alone makes it less illustrative of Puritan society, not more. The Puritans believed in devils and witch craft, but they lived by rule of law, and they did not suffer witch scares and witch hunts to become part of the fabric of life. Study Salem all you like, but do so in the context of witch mania in Reformation-era Christendom, or how a breakdown in law and order leads to chaos, or any other context than New England Puritanism per se.

Why did a witch scare break out in Salem? some theories

It’s part 4 of our Truth v. Myth series on the 1692 witch scare in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony.

We’ve so far looked at reasons for Salem to be very much on edge by spring 1692, political and religious reasons that make this incident a little more comprehensible, but we’ve also tried to establish that the witch scare was an anomaly, not a regular occurrence or a likely outcome of Puritan religious beliefs.

Now let’s go over scholarly theories about Salem. For most of the 18th century, this incident went unmentioned, probably for shame’s sake. For the 19th century, the “Puritan religion was bound to lead to this sort of awful crime” theory ruled the day. In the 20th century, particularly after WWII, when humanity was focused on how a lawful society can morph into a grotesque culture of killing, new scholarship arose. I take these examples from an excellent book called The Salem Witch Trials by David K. Goss:

First, in 1949, Marion Starkey published The Devil in Massachusetts, in which she pointed out, at last, that a belief in the spirit world was not enough to overturn the Puritans’ hyper-rational understanding of the world, the social order, and the need for a calm and productive society. Starkey posits that the fear of imminent attack by Americans (from King Phillip’s War in 1675 to King William’s War from 1689-1697) led to violent attempts to purge the community, and that the witch scare victims were scapegoats for the French and Americans.

Samuel Eliot Morrison, the famous Puritan scholar, published The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England in 1956. In it he proposes that the writings of esteemed minister Cotton Mather, particularly his Memorable Providences Related to Witchcraft and Possessions of 1689, were practically a do-it-yourself kit for would-be witches and witch-hunters, and that the girls of Salem were faking their possessions and had to keep faking them for fear of being found out. While this view is common today, think about it: could you fake demonic possesssion? Can you vomit on cue? Can you do so for 8 weeks straight? Can you scream and writhe on cue so violently that you pass out? Can you do so for weeks on end? It’s not, in the end, a convincing argument.

Chadwick Hansen’s Witchcraft at Salem comes next; Hansen suggests that colonial MBC was much like other voodoo societies which exist to this day. People really believe in the power of voodoo, and the Puritans truly believed witch craft was in their midst. To Hansen, the people of Salem were not fraudulent but pathological. This idea, again, uses the belief in the spirit world to support itself, but does not take into account a) the physical demands of maintaining the symptoms the girls displayed, or b)  the Puritans’ basic sense of practicality. And again, it’s clear there were many, many skeptics in Salem at the time. Not everyone believed the voodoo in Salem. Also complicating Hansen’s theory is the fact that he claims that there were real witches practicing in Salem, including the first woman to die, Bridget Bishop.

In 1982, John Putnam Demos published Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, in which he documents not just Salem but all cases of witchcraft that reached New England courts from 1630 on, and discovered that witchcraft belonged to “the regular business of life in the seventeenth century.” Most were the result of arguments over land, bartering, trespassing animals, or mysterious accidents, and most accused witches were eccentrics, usually women, who continually started arguments. The common pattern, followed at Salem, was: “(1) witch and victim contend over some matter of mutual concern; (2) victim perceives anger in witch and fears harm; (3) victim suffers hurt of one sort or another and accuses witch.” In many cases “victims” exhibited fits and convulsions, and claimed spectral visitations, just as the girls in Salem did. To explain why the Salem cases did not get resolved peacefully, as the majority of witchcraft accusations did, Demos, like many scholars, points to the American Indian attacks and political turmoil surrounding Salem, and sees the frenzy as “a culmination of many years of chronic factionalism and discord.”

1974 saw Salem Possessed by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. They posited that the problem was all about land and quarrels over land ownership. It was an economic battle fought with dirty tactics. Some of the anti-Parris people in Salem Village (Parris was the minister) wanted closer ties with the commercial life of Salem Town. They were pitted against people who supported the conservative minister who wanted to remain farm-based and resented ST’s success. The accusers were all SV people on the decline, lashing out at the victims who were all successful ST people on the rise. This is an interesting theory, though one that does not explain the violent physical symptoms people exhibited.

In 1976 Lisa Caporeal published an article called “Ergotism: The Satan loosed in Salem?” in which she presented the very interesting idea that ergot mold poisoning in the rye crop led to the symptoms of possession. Caporeal accepted that it was beyond the ability of the SV girls to act or to scheme so well for so long, or to maintain the physical symptoms of possession. She also discounts the idea, popular in the 19th century, that the girls and women were simply all “hysterical.” How did all the girls get the sickness at the same time? What about adult women who showed symptoms? Ergot poisoning somehow affects women more than men. If the rye crop in SV was infected in places, maybe just at and around the farm of Ann Putnam’s family (Putnam being the first girl to show signs of possession) some people would show symptoms—vomiting, convulsions, hallucinations, the shakes—while others would not. This is an interesting theory, and would explain the real physical fits experienced by the girls, but also the limited number of people accusing in Salem.

In 1984, James Kences’ “Some Unexplored Relationships of Essex County Witchcraft to the Indian Wars of 1675 and 1687” pointed out again that the longstanding threat of American attacks created the “extreme tension of anticipating an attack that does not materialize.” Many of the girls of SV who manifested possession symptoms were refugees from Maine, where the most terrible American attacks took place; Susannah Sheldon’s brother had been killed at York, Maine. Mary Walcott and Ann Putnam both accused men they thought were involved in helping the Americans of witchcraft. Walcott accused John Alden of “selling powder and shot to the Indians and French,” and Putnam accused the Rev. George Burroughs because he had miraculously escaped two American raids in Maine. And other spectral events had taken place shortly before the witch scare, including a hallucination of “two Frenchmen” appearing in a swamp and being fired on by terrified Salemites.

Carol Karlen’s 1987 book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman basically says it was all misogyny—“perhaps the strongest link between witchcraft in England and New England was the special association of this crime with women and womanhood.” The fact that three-quarters of accused witches were women “is illustrative of a tendency on the part of New England’s male Puritan hierarchy to use the threat of witchcraft as a means of enforcing female conformity to a subservient and subordinate role in society.” But Puritan New England actually offered women more political liberty than women enjoyed in England, and while misogyny was part of life in New England in 1692,  the witch hunt was limited to Salem. Witch hunts are also dramatic, expensive, tiring, risky events: witchcraft accusations in Europe usually followed an epidemic disease outbreak, war, or visit from the Inquisition, and were definitely ways to scapegoat women, but they were not commonly used. There were many other easy, simple, common ways to keep women down that were used on a daily basis. Patriarchy is primarily maintained and established in daily law, custom, and religion, not unusual and dramatic events like witch hunts. In colonial New England, there was only one witch scare in 150 years, while patriarchy was exercised on a daily basis, so persecuting women as witches was clearly not the standard way to keep men in power. (Karlsen also offers no explanation of the girls’ symptoms.)

Finally, in 1991 Enders Robinson published The Devil Discovered. Here he claimed that it was a conspiracy, that Thomas Putnam, father of Anne, and the Rev. Parris, whose daughter was also an accuser, decided to take advantage of the girls’ accusations to destroy their enemies in Salem Town. A small circle of SV men appeared in court frequently, made lots of accusations, and had their names on many depositions and complaints.

Most of these theories are sound in their own way; next time, we’ll start wrapping up which seem most likely to have caused the scare.

Next time: The heart of the problem in Salem

Did the Puritans believe in witchcraft?

Part 3 of our Truth v. Myth series on the Salem Witch trials asks this question: did the Puritans believe in witchcraft?

I will go out on a limb with an absolute statement to say that every discussion of Salem, no matter how scholarly, includes at some point the assertion that the Puritans believed in witches, witchcraft, the devil, the spirit world, etc. To them, say the articles, the spiritual world was as real as the flesh-and-blood world around them, and their deep belief in Satan and his power over the earth made it easy as pie for the Puritans to believe in witchcraft and persecute innocent people as witches.

As usual, the reality is not so clear-cut. The Puritans of 17th-century New England did indeed believe there was a devil who roamed the earth creating sin. Interesting work has been done showing how the Puritans who left England defined salvation as the presence of God, but over time, their New England descendants saw it more as the absence of Satan. In the difficult world of New England, where people who had never farmed suddenly had to feed their families by farming poor land, hardship and danger must have made Satan a more palpable presence than God much of the time.

Since the devil roamed the earth, looking for people to betray, there were minor evil spirits who roamed with him.  The idea that angels might be sent by God to protect people was far less popular–almost non-existent–than it would become much later in the 19th century. People had to pray for God’s strength to protect them. The Puritans saw events in their lives as evidence of success or failure to follow God’s way. In their official documents, such tragedies as losing a child, a bad harvest, fire, or epidemic were seen as God’s punishment or, as they might put it, “correction.”

But these are the official documents. We don’t have many private journals written by Puritans, but from the few we have, and from the gravestones they left, we can see that in their hearts, Puritans suffered and understood personal tragedies more or less as “the way of the world.” I don’t think there’s a lot of proof that they thought God was punishing them for specific sins when their children died. Children, sadly, were very vulnerable to disease in the time of the Puritans; no family was immune to bereavement, and it seems that when most Puritan people grieved they comforted themselves that God had called their beloved children home to Heaven so that those children would never have to suffer on Earth. There is no fire-and-brimstone lesson to be learned. It just happens.

This is the point I’m working toward: that while the Puritans did believe God intervened in human affairs, and that Satan was always present to betray people, they were also immensely practical people who understood that life was full of the real pitfalls of disease, accident, and financial disaster. They lived in the real world. These were very shrewd and practical business people whose legislative records focus exclusively on real people, their conflicts, and the intellectual solutions to problems.

Thus, when witchcraft comes up, we have to consider that while the Puritans believed in Satan and his power, they rarely felt completely sure that a human being was sharing in that power. There are many judicial records of an aggravated party accusing someone of being a witch; there is usually a pro-forma inquiry and then a logical settlement of the problem. Calling someone a witch in Puritan New England may have been like calling someone an s.o.b today—a way to insult someone, blow off steam, express your anger, and invite remediation.

That’s what makes Salem so unusual. There, in 1692, accusations of witchcraft did not wither away with the application of legal solutions. And there the whole social order was turned upside-down as children held power over adults. Young girls called adult women who were full members of their churches witches and those women were put in jail and tried. This goes against everything the Puritans believed in. To them, God gave complete authority over children to adults, and no child was allowed to make any statements in a court, or even be present. You might believe in witchcraft as a Puritan, but you were not going to let some children decide who was a witch.

Also unusual was the fact that it was fully integrated members of society who were accused and tried and executed. There were always one or two people in a town or village who separated themselves from the group, casting scorn on church-going and on the General Court, laughing at the customs of their fellows and refusing to help out in times of trouble. These people were grudgingly endured by the rest, and open to accusations of witchcraft because of their alarming ways. But even these troublemakers were rarely persecuted as witches. So to have respectable, church-going, child-raising, fully integrated, fully employed adults on trial for witchcraft was very, very unusual.  

The upshot is that while the Puritans did believe in witchcraft and evil spirits, they rarely associated any real person with those beliefs, and even more rarely persecuted people as witches. And they put a lot more stock generally in real-world problems and solutions than spectral ones. And, finally, no belief in spirits would usually lead Puritan New Englanders to overturn their entire social order to let children persecute adults. Salem cannot be explained away as just another consequence of the Puritans’ terrible and ignorant religion. It was an anomaly, it was seen as one at the time, and should be seen as one now.

Next time: a roundup of theories on the witch scare

The 1692 witch scare: why Salem?

Welcome to part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem witch scare of 1692. Here we take a look at Salem before the scare to see what was happening, and why Salem ended up as the site of this tragedy.

Salem was not just any old town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Salem was the site of first settlement for the New England Puritans. When John Winthrop and his famous band of Puritan settlers arrived in 1630, they first sheltered in Salem before heading south to found Boston. (Remember, as we show in Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?, those people who landed in 1620 were not Puritans but Separatists.) A small group of unfunded Puritans had left England in 1626 and founded Salem. Therefore it was the first Puritan settlement in New England, and as such had planted the first Reformed Anglican (Congregational) church in the New World.

So Salem had clout. It was literally the mother of all Puritan churches in the New World, and its community was very proud of its standing. The church in Boston became very powerful, but the Salem congregation was always a kind of Queen Mother to it, and the advice of Salem’s ministers and congregation was always important to Boston.

Salem was always a frontier town. It was closer to southern Maine than to Boston, and southern Maine was a battleground from the 1630s on between France, ever-encroaching southward from Canada, and the English settlers in MBC and Plymouth. The English created settlements and trading posts in this area, notably Agawam, as buffer zones against French expansion. The French, who had a good track record of keeping their hands off (Native) American land in Canada, were easily able to enlist Abenakis, Acadias, and Penobscots to fight the English settlers, who clearly needed and took lots of land in New England. So while the French built forts in the north from which to sweep down into New England, their Native American allies (particularly the Abenakis) would raid English settlements in southern Maine and northern MBC, armed with French weapons and given sanctuary in French-controlled land.

Trouble for Salem, with the French, Native Americans, and England itself, began in 1686, just six years before the witch scare. In that year, King James II of England established the Dominion of New England (read more about that here), which took away MBC’s political independence, its self-rule, and its religion. This grossly unfair and unpopular regime was overthrown by the New Englanders in 1689, when they got word that James II had been deposed in favor of William and Mary. But they were not able to get their independence back; MBC would remain a royal colony with a royal governor who was appointed by the king rather than elected by the legislature.

So just three years before the scare, Salem, along with all the MBC, has had its religion, land rights, and governance challenged and not fully restored. But worse was to come–the new king immediately brought his war with France to New England.

King William’s War (1689-97) was fought by English forces in Europe, but the violence came to New England. Because their home nations were at war, the French in Canada launched new attacks through their Native American allies on English settlements. Native American night raids on small Maine villages were terrifying and unsparing. The worst attack was on York, Maine on January 25, 1692; the first accusations of witchcraft in Salem came weeks later.

Salem, again, was close to Maine, and actually received many refugees from the violence, particularly children. Salem was on constant alert for Native American attack, and sent militia to defend Maine itself.  Salem’s neighboring towns of  Andover, Haverhill, Amesbury, Newbury, and Rowley (now Georgetown) were attacked.

In the midst of this external stress and tension,  Salem was also undergoing internal strife. Salem was made up of Salem Village, the original farming settlement, and Salem Town, a newer development of mostly merchants and business people.  The old Puritan law of “one village, one church” had been upheld in Salem long after it was clear that Salem Town was large enough, and its people far away enough, to have its own congregation. But this was not just any church splitting. This was, remember, the Mother Church of New England; Salem Village did not want to split its historic church and lose the esteem this gave them. There was resentment in the farming Village of the wealth of the merchant Town; all the Village had was its church, and did not want to lose it. Finally, however, it was forced to release Salem Town from its obligations to First Church in Salem, and in 1689, the same year MBC became a permanent royal colony, Salem’s historic church was split.

So we have in Salem, by 1692, very high tensions over Native American attack, royal governance, and internal economic and religious division. On the eve of the scare, Salem was just waiting for a spark to ignite an explosion of violence. In the next segment, we’ll talk about why witchcraft became that spark.

Next time: Did Puritans believe in witchcraft?

Truth v. Myth: The Salem Witch Trials

Welcome to part one of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem Witch Trials and the whole witch scare that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. This is perhaps the most famous Puritan moment in American history, the one thing most people think of when they think of the New England Puritans. Usually, it is seen as shocking proof of the damage the Puritans’ hateful religion could do, and serves as a reminder that church and state must be kept separate if justice is to be done.

As a scholar of the Puritans, particularly the Massachusetts Bay Colony group, I spend a lot of time and ink explaining how they actually lived and governed themselves, and I have some sympathy for their experiences, goals, and achievements. The proto-democracy they established was a direct precursor to the full democracy of the United States. And they actually believed firmly in separation of church and state when it came to daily legislation. So I start by noting that the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no popular reaction in New England at the time. It was not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, or condemned as unjust. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself is set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions. This series does not make any claims to being the final word on what happened. But a good round-up of new theories, along with some satisfying myth-busting of old ones, will be good enough work for us.

Next: Setting the scene at Salem

One Year Anniversary!

March is our one-year anniversary here at the Historic Present. So it’s a little American history of our own!

To celebrate, I’ll let you know that we’re about to start a series on the Salem Witch Trials–still a complicated and confusing episode in our history, but at the same time, not the final word on Puritans that it is often supposed to be. Stay tuned!