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Salem Witch Hysteria

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1 Salem Witch Hysteria on Mon Jan 25, 2016 7:34 pm

One of the last outbreaks of Witchcraft Hysteria, and certainly one of the biggest in the New World, occurred in Salem, Massachusetts from 1692 to 1693. During the course of the trials, 141 people were arrested as suspects, 19 were hanged and one was pressed to death. Those afflicted by the witches were mostly young girls, yet their “Child’s Play” led not only to the deaths of innocent people, but also total upheaval in the Colonial Puritan Church.
Scores of studies have examined the causes of the Salem Witchcraft Trials: some dealing with the political and social problems of Salem Village, others with repressed sexual, generational or racial hostility; revolt by the disenfranchised; repression of women, regional feuds brought over from England; or ergotism, a food poisoning in the bread flour that may have led to hallucinations. Some studies have concentrated solely on the overly zealous nature of the parishioners. Whatever the cause, there is little doubt that all those who were involved believed totally that Witchcraft posed a serious threat to the health and spiritual well-being of the colony.
For years, after coming to the New World, Salem Village had chafed under the administration of neighboring Salem Town. Salem Town held legal, church and taxing authority over the more rural village. Villagers were required to attend services in the town, although the distance for some residents was more than 10 miles. As early as 1666, village residents petitioned town and the colony’s general court for permission to build a meetinghouse and hire a minister, which they accomplished in 1672. That permission alone did not make them a full-fledged community, however, but more a parish within the jurisdiction of Salem Town. The 17th century Puritan “Church” was not the building, minister or attendees, but an “elect”— those select few who had been filled divine grace, given testimony to God’s power and were allowed to receive communion.
Continued discontent among Salem villagers about their situation, coupled with disputes over who in the village had the power to select ministers, was described as a “restless frame of spirit”— a moral defect in the villagers’ characters— instead of a legal issue. By the time Samuel Parris arrived to be the fourth minister in Salem village in 1689, the community was irreparably split between those who believed the village was best served by autonomy Parris who vocally supported the separatist interests. Eventually, the village divided between those who stood behind Parris and those who did not. In some ways, Rev. Parris caused the Witch Hysteria, however unknowingly.
Before becoming a minister, Parris had worked as a merchant in Barbados; when he returned to Massachusetts, he brought back a slave couple, John and Tituba. Tituba cared for Parris’ nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, called Betty, and his 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams. Especially in winter, when bad weather kept the girls indoors, Tituba most likely regaled the girls with stories about her native Barbados, including tales of Voodoo. The girls, beginning with Betty Parris in January 1692, began having fits, crawling into holes, making strange noises and contorting their bodies.
It is impossible to know whether the girls feigned Witchcraft to hide their involvement in Tituba’s magic or whether they actually believed they were possessed. In any case, Rev. Parris consulted with the previous Salem village minister, Rev. Deodat Lawson, and with Rev. John Hale of nearby Beverly. In February, he brought in Dr. William Griggs the village physician and employer of the now-afflicted Elizabeth Hubbard. Griggs had no medical precedent for the girls’ condition, so he diagnosed bewitchment. After much prayer and exhortation, the frightened girls, unable or unwilling to admit their own complicity, began naming names.
Rev. Parris furiously accused Mary Sibley of “going to the Devil for help against the Devil”, and lectured her on her sins and publically humiliated her in church. The first accused, or “cried out against” were Tituba herself, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Warrants for their arrest were issued, and all three appeared in the ordinary, or public house, of Nathaniel Ingersoll before Salem town magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin on March 1.
The girls, present at all of the interrogations, fell into fits and convulsions as each woman’s specter was roaming the room, biting them, pinching them and often appearing as a bird or other animal someplace in the room, usually on a particular beam of the ceiling. Hathorne and Corvin angrily demanded why the women were tormenting the girls, but both Sarahs denied any wrongdoing. Most damningly for Salem, Tituba revealed that the Witchcraft in Salem was not limited to herself and the two Sarahs.
Tituba explained that there was a coven of witches in Massachusetts, about six in number, led by a tall, white-haired man dressed in all black, and that d seen him. During the next day’s questioning, Tituba claimed that the tall man had come to her many times, forcing her to sign his Devil’s book in blood, and that she had seen nine names already there. Hathorne, Corwin and Rev. Parris were pushed to begin an all-out hunt for the perpetrators of such crimes.
Increasingly, the petty transgressions and factionalism of the colonists were viewed as sins against the covenant, and an outbreak of Witchcraft seemed the ultimate retribution for the colony’s evil ways. Relying on the spectral visions of the afflicted girls, the magistrates and ministers pressed them to name more witches if they could. Abigail accused Elizabeth Proctor of forcing her maid, Mary Warren, to sign the Devil’s book, a shrewd defense against Mary’s reluctance to testify against her employer. By doing so, the girls named Mary a witch and Abigail gave notice to the other afflicted girls that hesitation or denial would result in their being named witches. During her own interrogation, Mary had no choice but to confirm the girls’ accusations and rejoin their ranks.
Such confessions brought the girls temporary relief. Like Mary Warren, Sarah Churchill had second thoughts about her the girls’ games when Jacobs, her employer, stood accused. But the girls turned on her as well, saying she had signed. She confessed, but later recanted. Haunted by false confession, Churchill complained that everyone believed her when she said someone was innocent. None of this impaired her qualifications as an accuser of others, and Churchill remained in company with the other afflicted girls.
The Question of spectral evidence had dominated the proceedings from the beginning. The problem was not whether the girls saw spectral shenanigans, but whether a righteous God could allow the Devil to afflict the girls in the shape of an innocent person. If the Devil could not assume an innocent’s shape, the spectral evidence was invaluable against the accused. If he could, how else were the Magistrates to tell who was guilty? Turning to the colony’s Clergy, the court asked for an opinion, and on June 15 the Ministers, led by Increase and Cotton Mather, cautioned the judges against placing too much emphasis on spectral evidence alone. Other tests, such as “falling at the sight”, in which victims fell at the look from a witch, or the touch test, in which victims were relieved of their torments by touching the Witch, were considerably more reliable. Nevertheless, the Ministers thanked the Court for its diligence and pushed for “the vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious.”
July 19 Rev. Noyes, present as a Witch-Hunter from the beginning, urged Sarah Good to confess, but she defiantly cursed him, saying “I am no more a Witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” Noyes dies on his own blood on August 19.
Before Burroughs died, he shocked the crowd by reciting the “Lord’s Prayer” perfectly, creating uproar. Demands for Burroughs’ freedom were countered by afflicted girls, who cried out that “the black man” had prompted Burroughs through he recital of the prayer. It was generally believed that even the Devil could not recite “the Lord’s Prayer,” and the crowd’s mood grew darker. A riot was thwarted by Rev. Cotton Mather, who told the crowd that Burroughs was not an ordained minister and that the Devil was known to change himself often.
Giles Corey was pressed to death on September 19 for refusing to acknowledge the court’s right to try him. A landowner, Corey knew that as a convicted witch his property would be confiscated by the Crown. He reasoned that if he did not acknowledge the right of trial, he could not be tried and convicted, and without conviction his property remained his. In frustration, the court sentenced Corey to a “punishment hard and severe.” He was taken to a Salem field, staked to the ground and covered with a large wooden plank. Stones were piled on the plank one at a time. Corey’s only response to the questions put to him was to ask for more weight. More stones were piled atop him, until finally he was crushed lifeless.
The colony’s Ministers, long skeptical of the spectral evidence, finally took a stand against such proof, casting doubt on the decisions of the Court. And the afflicted girls, giddy with power, had gone so far as to accuse Lady Phips, wife of the Royal Governor. That was the last straw; on October 29 Governor Phips dissolved the Court. The Superior Court again sat on April 25 and for the last time on May 9. All who were tried were acquitted, and Massachusetts’ Witchcraft nightmare was over.
Tituba was released from jail in May and was sold as a slave to cover her prison expenses. Those who had participated in the proceedings— Cotton and Increase Mather, the other Clergy, the Magistrates, and the accusers— suffered illness and personal setbacks in the years following the hysteria. Samuel Parris was forced to leave his Ministry in Salem, while Ann Putnam Jr. publically begged before the village in 1706.
By 1703 the Massachusetts Colonial Legislature began granting retroactive amnesties to the convicted and executed. Even more amazing, they authorized financial restitution to the victims and their families. In 1711 Massachusetts became one of the first Governments ever to voluntarily compensate those victimized by its own mistakes.
Summing up Rev. John Hale, an early supporter of the Witch-hunt, wrote in his “modest enquiry into the nature of Witchcraft” (1697): “I have a deep sense of the sad consequences of mistakes in Capitol matters; and their impossibility of recovering when completed.” He went on to say that the “people involved meant well, but such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations off the afflicted, and the power of precedents, that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way.”


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