How superstitions, lack of scientific knowledge, grudges, fear, and the rule of law led to one of the most well-known events of Colonial America.
In the centuries since the Salem Witch Trials occurred, various ideas and beliefs have been spouted about why exactly it happened. The event seemed to grow and develop as part of the mythological and supernatural myths of America, connected often to stories such as those of Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving, and Arthur Miller. Yet while it was seen as a supernatural marvel in American history, it has also been seen as a ridiculous event that occurred due to crazy and irrational superstitions. The Salem Witch Trials have been a mystery that people have spent their lives trying to understand. Was it really caused by the supernatural beliefs of the early American colonists or is there a truly logical explanation to the event? The books, documents, and documentaries that have been created since seem to give the answer that it was a mix of both. Logical things were occurring that the early American colonists could not explain and so they turned to the most unexplainable and mysterious part of their lives as an explanation: the realm of Satan and his followers.
In a fictional take on the occurrence of witchcraft in America, Elizabeth Speare writes in her book ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’ of how this young girl named Kit moved from Barbados to the Connecticut colony to live with her aunt. Due to the differences that exist between Puritan Connecticut and Catholic Barbados, Kit finds it hard to fit in. She had a different view on learning and on dressing then those who live around her in Connecticut. There is a clear divide between the respectable Puritans in the town and others of different religions and lifestyles as is shown by Kit’s uncle’s anger at the way she dresses and acts. It is also more severely shown in how Hannah Tupper is treated. She is an absolute social pariah who lives outside of town with her cats near the swamp. The townspeople tolerate her presence as she does not often intrude on their lifestyles. But, the moment the children in town begin to feel sick, they immediately turn and blame Hannah as she is the outsider in town. She is not a Puritan and so, in their eyes, is seen as a heathen. This is a time when disease is not truly understood by people and is often seen as a supernatural thing that must have supernatural causes. As the ‘Salem Witch Trial’ documentary said, “…a doctor was called in; this was the traditional thing one did, but if the doctor couldn’t understand what was going on, which was usually the case, the doctor would diagnose witchcraft.” So, when the children in town get sick, the villagers feel desperate for a solution and so they immediately turn to look at Hannah, believing that it is her existence in town that has caused this disease to spread.
The fact that Hannah Tupper lived near the swamp, a place that no one else went near, that she had cats, and also her difference of religion did not help her case. They saw her as someone who conversed with Satan and other witches in the woods and who had familiars in the form of cats and was a complete heathen. As is what happened in the actual witch trials, many were accused due to the fact that they were different from the other colonists, such as with Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Sarah Good is poor and often easily angered while Sarah Osborne does not follow the same morals as the other Puritans in this time. These two women are different and seen as lesser by the Puritans around them, so when Tituba states that they are witches as well, the colonists easily believe it. To them, it is the sinful nature of these women that is bringing Satan into their midst and they must act against it to save the afflicted people of the town. Such views were prevalent all over America and Europe as many women and the occasional man were accused of witchcraft and either burned at the stake or hanged. People believed that witches were real and that they were the very followers and servants of Satan who had gained power from him through their blood.
The idea and belief in witchcraft was written into British law and such incidents had existed in Europe for centuries. Right as witchcraft accusations were starting to decrease in Europe, they were starting to pick up in America. Being a British colony, America inherited these laws over the topic of witchcraft, shown by how they only hung witches as burning at the stake had been outlawed in Britain by the start of the American witchcraft period. Yet, there were still differences between Europe and America in terms of how they legally dealt with witchcraft- as shown by the fact that Europe outlawed the use of Spectral Evidence(a witness declaring that the accused appeared to them as a spirit, separate from their body) in witchcraft trials while America had not, leading to many of the cases in the Salem Witch Trials depending and being sentenced based on Spectral Evidence.
As shown in both the documentary and Speare’s fictional book, many of the accusations made against witches were without any evidence or true proof- if something bad happened, it would be attached to the suspected witch and that person really couldn’t do anything to stop it. This was irrevocably shown in the documentary when George Burroughs recited the Lord’s Prayer before his hanging, something a witch wasn’t supposed to be able to say all the way through, yet with Cotton Mather’s words, “Remember George Burroughs is no ordained minister. The devil has often transformed himself to an angel of light.” With these words, Burroughs is hanged for being a witch, even though he did the one thing that a witch was not supposed to be able to do.
One belief as to why the Salem Witch Trials even happened is the fact that the Putnam family was behind the majority of the witchcraft accusations. “Thomas Putnam and the women in his family- his daughter, wife, niece, and the servant Mercy Lewis -are behind 181 accusations of witchcraft.” It was in fact the Putnam family that were some of the people afflicted by some unknown power. It is also interesting how many of the accused were people that the Putnam’s did not get along with, such as when the documentary says that, “Others may be using witch accusations to even old scores. In Salem Village, there is no shortage of bitter long-standing disputes to be settled…In Salem Village, one name appears as plaintiff in many of the lawsuits: Putnam…a large clan that came close to dominating Salem Village politics for many years.” This is especially seen in how many of the people that want to build a church in Salem are the accusers and the villagers that want to instead walk to Salem town for church are the witches. This really could just be a situation where one family is trying to grab control of a community and beat down their opponents in any way they can and are using religion as a tool to attain that power.
Of course, soon this had to all come to an end. It was during the September Executions that a resistance began to build: people did not want to plead guilty to witchcraft or say that other members of their community were witches just to save themselves. Many also begin to question the court processions as the ones who plead guilty often seem to be coerced to do so and oftentimes their stories did not make sense, yet the Judges would brush that off. Even more, accused witches that had named others as witches began to come forward and remove their statements. Additionally, when Spectral Evidence was finally outlawed in court, the Salem Witch Trials came to a complete halt. In the decades following, much of the evidence used in the court’s sessions were thrown out by the government and many were given reparation for the accusations made against their family members.
This truly was a time of mass hysteria that is still cloaked in mystery as to why exactly these women and the occasional man were being accused of witchcraft. It may have been a combination of various things: their lack of understanding of science that led to many being ‘afflicted with witchcraft’, inconvenient or terrible things occurring in town that led to many accusing supposed witches of the events, people desperately wanting to find someone to blame for what was going on even to the point of coercion, the strong belief in witchcraft as it is literally built into the legal system of laws, or just people trying to settle old scores against their enemies by accusing them of witchcraft. In the end, after 20 deaths(19 by hanging and one by being pressed to death with stones; even more died while awaiting trial in jail), the Salem Witch Trials began to slow to a stop as many began to question the proceedings, others began to recant their accusations, and Spectral Evidence was thrown out of court trials. It truly was an unusual time in American history with a strong connection to the women of the community as many of the afflicted were women and the majority of the accused witches were as well, all such events put into a legal light in an attempt to better understand what was causing the terrible things in their community.
For Additional Reading
Speare, Elizabeth George. The Witch of Blackbird Pond: And Related Readings. Sacramento, CA: Clearinghouse for Specialized Media & Technology, 2003.
The Geographic Channel. “Salem Witch Trial Full Documentary.” History.com, 2015.