Salem Witch Trials 1692

Taylor Whitsell

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The Puritan Beliefs and Background

The Puritans were a deeply passionate religious group of people inspired by the Protestant Reformation that originally attempted to reform the Church of England before being heavily persecuted and then leaving for America in the early seventeenth century. The Puritans secured a charter to colonize the Massachusetts Bay and were able to quickly establish themselves in that region. John Winthrop, their leader, helped allow Massachusetts Bay Colony to flourish economically through the important industries of fishing, shipbuilding, and fur trading. Following the goal of Winthrop's for the society to become a "city upon a hill", the Puritans began to form a strict and harsh form of governance. Guided by spiritual intensity, the Calvinist concepts of original sin and predestination, and the belief that the devil was always actively attempting to thwart them, ministers and other religious figures, along with the converted and invigorated "Elect", established tight control over the members of society. Several people, such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, attempted to challenge the authority of the "Elect" as well as gender inequality and the treatment of natives, but this antinomianism was strongly discouraged and the rebellious were quickly exiled. Most Puritans wanted to believe that they were destined for Heaven, and thus were spiritually motivated to be non-disruptive and faithful members of society, leading to a unity that held the colony together for many years. However, over time, as populations began dispersing, religious zeal along with the number of conversions began to decline and Puritan leaders scrambled to do whatever they could to preserve their traditional society. After a battle between France and Britain in the colonies in 1689, fear of the smallpox epidemic and of Indian attacks rendered the Puritans paranoid. This growing paranoia then led to the persecution of "witches", who were thought to have been possessed by the devil, and led to a revitalization of religious zeal among the hysterical Puritans who all had a common enemy and scapegoat to victimize.

The Witch Scare and the Trials

In early 1692, the frenzied religious episode of the Salem Witch Trials began. A group of teenage girls began displaying erratic behavior and claimed to be possessed by the devil, accusing local women of bewitching them. This video explores one of the potential explanations for this strange behavior, an extreme case of food poisoning. Regardless, following these accusations, women had to undergo examinations in which they would have to recite the Lord's Prayer, be subjected to witness testimony, and glanced over for physical deformities. However, during these trials, young girls were known to scream and writhe around on the ground, making it very hard for any "witch" to be proven innocent. The exact motivation for the girls' actions has not been determined, but it could be due to a variety of factors from the smallpox epidemic, to mental illness, to boredom. By 1693, the insanity began to die down as people lost the desperate fervor to locate and execute these "witches." The Governor, upon hearing that his wife had been accused of witchcraft, then formally ended the trials. However, an estimate total of twenty innocent people (mostly women, but a few men) had been hanged before the trials had ended.

The Aftermath

As public support for the witchcraft trials declined, Governor Phips finally decided to dissolve the courts and the trial process. People felt as though the accusations were getting out of hand, and efforts were made to protect the current prisoners and only make arrests when absolutely necessary. The Salem Witch Trials left a permanent scar on the community in a variety of ways. Many of the "witches" in jail could not afford to get out of jail, and many had their land confiscated, hurting their families economically. Not to mention, some farms and fields were left untended in the duration of the trials which caused crop failures and epidemics throughout Salem. This was another factor in the stopping of the trials, as people felt like God was signaling to them that they were wrong for executing these potentially innocent victims. Samuel Parris, the minister and one of the vocal initiators of the trials, was condemned to leave the community and the Essex County Court replaced its committee with a fresh batch of anti-Parris members. Joseph Green, the new minister of Salem, then successfully attempted to reunite the community through his action of seating the accusers with the accused during his sermons. While Salem and the Puritan community was able to move past the initial detriments of this witch-hunt, the infamous event continues to haunt the memory of the Puritans in the seventeenth century.