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