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

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