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.