Possible Causes Of The Salem Witch Hunts

For centuries, people have been fascinated by the phenomenon of the Salem witch hunts and subsequent trials. Much of this fascination comes from not understanding how such a widespread tragedy could occur.

The Salem witch trials were merely one violent tempest in a series of fierce community storms that date back before the 1660s. While less than two dozen alleged witches were slain in Salem, over ten thousand people were executed for witchcraft in Europe during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. Thus statistically, the Salem incident was relatively small scale.

So why has such an intense fascination with the Salem Witch trials persisted over so many decades? Perhaps because no one has come up with an undeniably concrete rationalization for the incident, which leads many people to fear that a similar incident might occur again. Nonetheless there are a variety of viable explanations that, though they cannot be construed as fact, are quite significant.

The Salem witch trials were essentially symptoms of the emblematic social tensions that permeated provincial towns in this particular period in history. Salem villagers were therefore, simply acting out their economic, political and social frustrations by blaming an intangible force. In fact, the kindling of community tension and conflict had actually been building for decades before the bonfire finally erupted into a full-blown war against "evil".

Historians have frequently begun their "hunt" for the truth by dissecting the complex web of relationships weaved between the rising mercantile class and those individuals focused on the subsistence-based economy of Salem. By reconstructing the socio-economic conditions that helped to erect the extreme partitions between the residents, this seventeenth-century phenomenon can be examined from a more commonsensical perspective. One rationalization for the extreme segregation that existed in Salem examines the effect that the lofty social status of some individuals had on other individuals in that it caused them to accuse and attack people who they felt embodied evil. In other words, the anger was not directed so much at the individuals, but at what they perceived to be corruption of "the system."

The community was as geographically divided as it was politically and socially split. The land was separated into Salem Town, which was a port town to the southeast, and Salem Village, bordering the town, was a farming community located to the west. Founded in the 1630s, by 1672 the two communities were socially and economically diverse, but politically they were considered to be a single unit. To worship, the villagers had to travel to the town, as the village had no meetinghouse of its own. For many years the village had been talking of a move towards independence. The town, however, which collected taxes from the village, relentlessly and perpetually prevented it. By 1672, a compromise was finally reached: the village could have its own meetinghouse and pastor, but it was still politically connected to the town. This situation spawned extreme tension, which would erupt with a vengeance twenty years later in 1692 when accusations of witchcraft became as common as chopping wood.

When the first three witches were accused in February 1692, no one could have predicted the mammoth proportions to which the accusations would spread. The relentless accusations, of course, invoked a backlash from the accused, who began pointing their fingers at others to take the conjecture off of them. Moreover, if a person were to withdraw their accusation, they were more likely than ever to be accused of practicing witchcraft themselves. Consequently, the magistrates who presided over the trials encouraged solidarity among the afflicted, which ultimately fueled the rapid expansion of accusations of witchcraft from outlying areas. Add to this a general willingness of the people to believe any accusation, and it becomes evident that Salem was a community primed for mass hysteria.

Of course it is important to keep in mind that these elements alone are not enough to explain the phenomenon of the Salem witch-hunts. The residents of Salem were after all, Puritans, which means they viewed their community not just as a group of individuals, but as a single entity united under God. In such a cohesive organism, any part that "malfunctions" or strays from the norm, such as in the case of witchcraft, must be hunted down and destroyed. Thus when images of a tightly knit community were gradually being replaced by a society in which individual achievement was emphasized above collectivity, the commercial outlook of Salem Town represented a ominous moral threat. By identifying these conflicts and recognizing the changes in values that was occurring during this time, it becomes somewhat easier to accept certain explanations of a tragedy that has haunted Americans for centuries.

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