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.

20 thoughts on “What caused the witch trials in Salem?

  1. Great site this thehistoricpresent.wordpress.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂


  2. Salem does not stand alone. There was another witch trial in Stamford, Connecticut in in 1692. Read: “Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692” by Robert Godbeer.


    1. What a great-looking book! Thanks for the recommendation. But it does still seem that only one young woman in Stamford accused only 2 other women, so it is not on the scale of the Salem scare.


  3. How did the girls who were making the accusations get the names of some of the accused, as the scare grew to include neighboring towns? Was there ever any evidence of pay-offs (to use a modern term) to the judges? What about the families who lost anything not nailed down from their homes and farms once they were carted off to prison to await “trial”? I did read somewhere that women without a husband or male children were often more at risk. Was restitution ever made to any of these people who so suffered in the hideous conditions of the prisons?

    I agree — there’s always a combination of factors at work in strange situations like these.


    1. Hello Lynn! No one can know, I suppose, how the girls chose or fixed on their victims, but in the small worlds of the 17th century it’s not surprising they knew these women. There has been no evidence of payoffs to the judges, who seemed to be caught in a dual vise of real belief that witchcraft might finally be happening and fear for their own safety if they debunked it. I don’t know if those who were imprisoned were victims of looting—I tend to think no one would dare be seen going into the house of an accused witch, and any item they might take from someone’s house would quickly be recognized. That’s just my take on it—stealing may have happened. There was no restitution at all, only an ashamed silence about the incident almost as soon as it was over.


      1. Hey, great post. It really helped me take a new look at the Salem trials especially since I am working on a research paper on the Puritans. I especially found the ergot poisoning issue interesting. However, one question others have brought up concerning it has been why the ergot poisoning wasn’t more wide spread. Any ideas?


      2. Hello Andrew; that’s a good question. I’m sure it may be addressed in the study itself, but why there weren’t mass outbreaks in other places and times is a good question, that casts a little doubt on that particular theory. Until we come up with the answer, of course!


      3. I had read other articles that stated the town sheriff would be sent to confiscate the accused property as if they somehow legally forfeited their belongings by being accused. Not sure if these articles are accurate and it sounds unbelieveable.


      4. We don’t remember ever reading that either–can you share your sources? We’re interested in checking it out.


      5. The following is from “find a grave.com” it mentions liens placed on his body after his death by a person who had property confiscated and that the family feared more would come forward………..
        . He was the High Sheriff of Essex County in the Massachusetts Bay colony during the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria and carried out the arrests of the accused and the executions of the condemned. He also presided at the fatal interrogation, under torture, of accused Giles Cory, who was crushed to death with stones over a period of three days. Only in his mid twenties when he held the post, anecdotal history portrays the sheriff as particularly sadistic and corrupt. But official documents that survive indicate he carried out his duties according to the accepted practices and mores of the time. Reviled after the hysteria, when he died a man who was among the accused successfully put a lien on Corwin’s corpse delaying its burial until his executors recompensed him for property seized by the sheriff. Later, Corwin’s family buried him in the cellar of his house fearing his body might be seized by others seeking revenge or reimbursement. Years later, his remains were exhumed and quietly re-interred in the Corwin family tomb. Surviving evidence shows property seized by Corwin was used to maintain prisoners. Corwin was awarded the High Sheriff’s post by Gov. William Phips after he distinguished himself in Phips’ expedition against French Quebec in 1690.


  4. You keep harping on how the Puritans were rational and how out of character this episode really was, but with all the theories you’ve stated and analyzed, you have left out one obvious possibility:

    That there was something demonic happening in Salem.

    All of the theories you posted and even your own analysis has simply assumed the Puritans were wrong in their belief in a spiritual realm. Is it really rational to believe in a spiritual realm if there really isn’t? If you understand the Puritans and their emphasis on telling the truth, especially under oath, you will have a hard time fitting alterior motives to the testimony of the witnesses. I think it is a smug, elitist bias that assumes they were lying simply because you believe there to be no spiritual realm.

    Do your research again from the perspective that there could be a spiritual realm and you might come to an interesting conclusion.


    1. Hello Massierox; as the post says, no one is sure of the answer to that question, but it does seem likely that ergot poisoning in the rye crop was responsible for the vomiting and seizures. if they ate infected rye and got sick, they would have the fits. They wouldn’t be eating rye bread while they were sick, so eventually the symptoms would die down, and once they felt better, they would eat rye bread again and unwittingly induce the same symptoms. This could well have led them to panic, since they did not understand what was causing the illness, and their minds would have turned to witchcraft. There was at least one doctor who put it down to food poisoning at the time, but her diagnosis was swept aside.


  5. I have read about the rye infections, but what about Anne Putnam’s later confession that they had simply made it up? I would think an accusers confession beats other theories.


    1. Hello Bill; thanks for writing. We go back to the idea that it’s very hard to fake the symptoms they exhibited for weeks on end. Vomiting, falling down so violently they were bruised–these are hard things to do on cue, day after day. Maybe a middle ground is that they had the rye poisoning that made these things actually happen, but lied about the reason, blaming their symptoms on witchcraft when, as Anne Putnam said, they knew it wasn’t.


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