Salem Witch Trials

Jocalyn Carpenter

Are there Unanswered Questions in Relation to the Salem Witch Trails?

Imagine colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. Everywhere you go, people watch you closely for any signs of witchcraft that you may display. There are accusations against young girls and women; there are trials, interrogations, and executions. But why? Did people really believe in "witches", or was the name just a cover-up for something much bigger than an entire town believing that they were living among the supernatural practicers of the "Devil's Magic"?
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The History of the Trials

Before the Salem Witch Trials started, many practicing Christians and many other religions, believed that the Devil could give certain people power to hurt others in return for their loyalty. These people were known as witches. A craze spread through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s that was known as a "witchcraft craze"; tens of thousands of "witches" were executed, most of them women. The Salem Witch Trails came at the end of the European craze, as a result of local circumstances.

People swarmed into Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a result of what was known as King William's War to the colonists. The people that joined the population created a strain between the people who were already struggling to survive in the colony. The villagers were Puritans, and believed that the rivalry and fights between the people were the work of the Devil.

In January of 1692, the Village's first ordained Minister, Reverend Samuel Parris', nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and his eleven-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, started having "fits". The girls screamed, threw things, uttered strange sounds, and shaped themselves into peculiar positions. A local doctor blamed it on the supernatural. Another eleven-year-old had similar episodes. On February 29, the girls were pressured into blaming three women by magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne. The first being the Parris' Caribbean slave, Tituba; a homeless beggar, Sarah Good, and an elderly impoverished woman, Sarah Osborne.

For several days, beginning on March 1st, the three women were interrogated by local magistrates. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn both claimed to innocent, but Tituba confessed, saying "The Devil came to me and bid me to serve him." She described black dogs, red cats, yellow birds, and a "black man" who wanted her to sign his book; she then admitted that she signed the book and said there were a few other witches on a mission to destroy the Puritans. All three women were put in jail.

The seed of paranoia was planted. A stream of accusations followed for the next few months. Charges were brought against Martha Corey, a loyal member of the Church in Salem. This greatly concerned the community; if she could be a witch, then anyone could. The magistrates even questioned Sarah Good's four-year-old daughter, Dorothy, and her answers were twisted into a confession. Dozens of people from from Salem and other Massachusetts villages were questioned and imprisoned.

On May 27, 1692, Governor William Phipps ordered the Special Court of Oyer to be established to hear and the Terminer to decide for the counties. The first case brought against the court was an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity, Bridget Bishop. When asked if she committed witchcraft, she said, "I am as innocent as the child unborn." The courts did not think that this defense was very convincing, as she was found guilty and, on June 10, was the first person to be hanged on what was later called Gallows Hill.

Five days later, a respected minister, named Cotton Mather, wrote a letter, which was ignored, telling the court not to allow spectral evidence such as testimony about dreams and vision. Five people were sentenced and hanged in July, five more in August, and eight more in September. On October 3, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather's father and the president of Harvard, denounced the use of spectral evidence also, saying "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned."

In response to Mather's plea and his own wife being questioned for the use of witchcraft, Governor Phipps prohibited further arrests, released many suspected witches and dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer on October 29. He then replaced it with a Superior Court of Judicature, that disallowed spectral evidence and only condemned three out of fifty-six defendants. Phipps eventually pardoned all who were in prison on witchcraft charges by May 1693.

But the damage was already done: nineteen suspected witches had been hanged on Gallows Hill, a seventy-one-year-old man was pressed to death with heavy stones, several people died in jail and nearly 200 people had been accused of practicing the "Devil's magic".

One of the most concrete hypotheses for the witch trials was published by psychologist Linnda Caporael. She blamed the abnormal habits of the accused on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat, and other cereal grasses. Toxicologists say that eating contaminated foods can lead to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, and hallucinations.

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The Trials are Over, but does the Explanation Explain Everything?

There were roughly twenty people killed in Salem alone, and tens of thousands killed in Europe, just because they were accused of being "witches". Is this explanation enough to satisfy your mind? Or are there still some lingering questions about this period of hysteria? Let your mind wander and think about it. Is this really all there is to the Salem Witch Trials, or are there other theories that we aren't supposed to know about?

Blumberg, Jess. "" Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, 24 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.