What drove the unstoppable hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials?
by Abigail Averill (08'-09')


Causes of the Salem Witch Trials:

In early 1962, the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, Betty, and her friend, the Reverend’s niece, Abigail Williams were told vivid stories by the his slave, Tituba. These stories were unacceptable in the Puritan community, and thus made all the more exciting to the young girls. When they suddenly came down with a mysterious illness filled with odd symptoms such as staring into space, the lack of the ability to focus, and the tendency to cry out like wild animals, the witchcraft hysteria began.

There are many theories as to why the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials was able to take hold of so many people, and it is most likely that it was a combination of all of them that drove an entire area of the new country to go mad. First, the Puritans, who interpreted the Bible literally, (including the phrase in Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” held a strong belief that Satan acted on the world to cause of the disasters, diseases, and general bad fortune. During the years previous to the Trials, bad fortune had plagued Salem, with many outbreaks of Smallpox, frontier wars with the Indians, and disagreement among members of the Salem Village Congregation. Highly superstitious, the members of Salem believed, just as did many Europeans at the time, that Satan recruited witches and wizards to do his work, and turned to those around them as possible servants of the devil.
Second, the young girls who were the principle accusers lived the boring lives of Puritan children with very strict households, and very little freedom or fun in their lives. This may have caused the girls to seek attention through their antics, and, once that attention was given to them, they did not want to stop receiving it. Third, old disputes between accusers and the accused may have spurred charges of witchcraft, which were only upheld through spectral evidence which the magistrates and judges of the time accepted as valid. Finally, a more radical theory states that the girls who were supposedly “bewitched” may have been hallucinating due to the ingestion of infected and spoiled rye.

You are a Witch Because:

Taking into account that very few of the accused witches confessed, most pleaded not guilty, there were a few who did, such as Tituba, and Abigail Hobbs. These few only helped to solidify the fear and hysteria, and their words were used as evidence against other accused, adding credibility to the whole ordeal. However, there were certain trends that showed up in the lifestyles or personalities of the accused, especially near the start of the trials. The first three witches to be accused, Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne, were all outsiders in the community—Tituba was a slave, Sarah Osborne was wealthy, but had, after the death of her husband, lived with another man before marrying him and did not attend church (two very unsuitable characteristics), and Sarah Good was a widow and appeared much older than she actually was, lending her the appearance of the classical witch or hag.
As less popular members of the community, it was much easier to convict these first witches, than to convict Rebecca Nurse, a 71 year old, pious member of the community, although she too was convicted. Most of the witches who were convicted and killed were women, although there were a few wizards, such as John Proctor, who ran a tavern (not the most respectable job), and Giles Corey, who was pressed to death at the age of 81. A large number of the accused women were widows, and thus owned their own property and were less involved in society, and even in many cases looked upon with disdain, making them an easy target. However, a defining characteristic in the accused witches, was their personality which most often did not fit in with the pure, submissive, ideal wife of Puritan New England. Sarah Wildes, for example, who was accused, convicted, and hanged for being a witch, was an enemy to many of the influential townspeople because of her outspoken manner. In trial, her anger at the families of the accusers was recalled as evidence that she had cursed them, and was thus a witch. However, it seems more likely, that the families whom she had yelled at so vehemently, were just out for revenge, and had the power to get it through accusing her of being a witch. Also used as evidence against Sarah Averill Wildes in trial, was one particular scarf which she enjoyed wearing, that differed greatly from the normal Puritan atire because of its bright colors. Thus, many of the “witches” were simply dissenters to the normal Puritan lifestyle, and thus easy targets.


The Trials:

One of the main problems of the Witch Trials, was the lack of an actual democratic “trial”, despite the fact that the accused witches were brought before a jury. At these trials, the accused witch would be questioned by a judge or magistrate, the leading two being Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, while a jury looked on and finally decided the verdict. The primary accusers, the young girls whose fits had begun the whole hysteria, were also present at all of the trials, and would present large amounts of spectral evidence and put on huge shows of pain and torture at the supposed hands of which ever witch was being tried. Other witnesses would also be called up, either in the defense of the “witch” or to accuse her of her misdeeds. In the case of Sarah Averill Wildes, she was primarily accused by Ann Putnam, one of the ringleaders of the young girls, who, after the end of the trials, made a formal apology about her part in them. In chorus with Putnam, Nathaniel Ingersoll, another primary accuser, Elizabeth Symonds, and John Gould, all accused Sarah of witchcraft towards either themselves, or a family member, and claimed to have seen her part in it first hand. In the defense of Sarah, her son and father came to her aid with logical testimonies that were rendered powerless by the show of Ann Putnam and the other accusers. In accusing a witch, the notorious Hopkins method, which consisted of observing and searching the accused witch for twenty-four hours to discover the appearance of any marks or spots left by a visit of the Devil or one of his emissaries such as a child, an insect or an animal. Thus, logic had completely fled the courtroom, allowing the trials to proceed unchecked, while innocent people were hanged.cotton_mather's_ideas.jpg

The Causes of the End of the Trials:

After about a year of accusations nearly every day, doubts began to grow when respected citizens began to be accused, and even convicted and executed. Rebecca Nurse, one of the most respected, wealthy, and pious members of the community, was first acquitted by a jury, but then, after the girls accusing her fell into fits, convicted and later hanged, despite her good standing and old age. George Burroughs, another very pious member of the community, recided the entire Lord’s Prayer from memory at his hanging, while Giles Cory, who refused to go to trial, was pressed to death at the age of 81. Some of the accused who were not convicted, such as the governor’s wife, were even more well off. Hearing of these accusations, the wealthier elite of Salem and the nearby settlements, such as Boston, pressured the Governor, Governor Phips, into excluding the use of spectral evidence in trial. Even Increase Mather, a prominent minister in Boston, worked hard to end the trials claiming, “It were better that 10 suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned.” Because of all of this pressure, Governor Phips barred the use of spectral evidence in late November of 1962, the same year as the beginning of the Trials, and then, in May of 1963, disbanded the Court of Oyer and Terminer and pardoned all of the remaining accused


This map gives a general idea of the distribution of accused witches, their defenders, and their accusers

These maps show the distribution of "witches" in various categories such as Pro-Parris and Anti-Parris
This final map shows the distribution of accused witches, their defenders, and their accusors in relation to the elite members of the population. It proves that very few "witches" were members of this elite, while many of the accusors were.