The Salem Witch Hunts

The Salem Witch Hunts were a time of hysteria. This article gives some insight on why it happened.

One of the last episodes of witch hysteria in the Western world took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The Salem witch-hunt was the largest witch-hunt in colonial New England. Three hundred and fifty people were accused of witchcraft in New England; one hundred and eighty five of those were in Salem.

The name Salem was taken from the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace. But Salem did not live up to its name, and it was not a peaceful community at all. There were two Salems, Salem Village and Salem Town. Many villagers wanted their community to separate from the town.

Samuel Parris, who became the village's minister in 1689, was a controversial member of the community from the time he arrived. Parris became one of the loudest voices calling for condemnation of accused witches. The outbreak of accusation began in his own home and quickly spread to the home of his allies, Thomas and Ann Putnam. Some historians have accused these two families of being among the chief instigators of the witch-hunts.

The witch accusations began in Salem after a slave by the name of Tituba had told stories of voodoo from her native land of Barbados. The young girls, mainly Betty and Abigail Williams, were caught up in these stories and started dabbling in the unknown. The story goes that the Williams girls, along with their friends, made a makeshift crystal ball by floating an egg in a glass of water, as they had seen Tituba do. One of the girls thought she saw an image of a coffin in the glass of water, and with this they became scared.

Betty and the other girls supposedly started having fits in January. The Reverend John Hale witnessed the fits. The symptoms of the fits also included loss of hearing, speech, and sight, loss of memory, loss of appetite; hallucinations, and sensations of being pinched by invisible hands and bitten by invisible mouths. Doctors could not find a medical reason for the girls' strange behavior. They concluded that Betty and the other girls, who ranged in age from nine to twenty, were bewitched.

The relatives of the afflicted girls tried different alternatives to obtain answers. Mary Sibley, the aunt of one of the afflicted girls, called on Tituba with a plan to allegedly use magic to unmask the witches. Although Mary Sibley had resorted to witchcraft to seek out the witches, she was not accused of any crime. As the craze went on, it became obvious that the authorities were selective. They dismissed some charges as absurd. They seemed to pursue most strongly people with little power or people against whom Parris or the Putnams already had a gripe.

The girls started accusing people of witchcraft in February of 1692, and this resulted in three arrests. The three women accused were Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. One was a slave and the other two social outcasts. Neither of these women attended church, which the community considered to be a sin against God. When the three accused women appeared before the town magistrates, the afflicted girls began twitching and falling into convulsions. The girls claimed that the accused women's specters or spirits were tormenting them by pinching and biting them or by appearing as birds or animals. None but the afflicted could see the specters, but spectral evidence was used as evidence and was as powerful as physical evidence. The girls began to be taken from town to town, to flush out the witches. Before the witch-hunts were over, people from more than twenty other communities had been accused.

Evidence at all the trials of the accused had consisted entirely of the afflicted girls' claims that unseen specters were tormenting them. With the numbers of accused growing tremendously, the reliance of this evidence began to bother some members of the court. The court pressed for confessions or concrete evidence similar to that used in European trials. The court also looked for direct cause and effect evidence that the accused had actually bewitched someone. Other evidence included the accused inability of witches to recite the Lord's prayer properly.

With the prison overflowing and the number of afflicted now near fifty, the ministers in the colony grew more suspicious of spectral evidence. They finally took a stand against it, especially after some of the afflicted accused Lady Phips, the wife of the royal governor. The ministers of the village had mostly been silent throughout the trials and the hangings. But in October one of the ministers, Increase Mather told the court, " It was better that the suspected witches should escape, that that one innocent person should be condemned." The court was soon disbanded and a new court was organized to complete the trials. Most of the accused was now acquitted. Eight were convicted and sentenced to death, but reprieves were granted to all of them. The court met for the last time on May 9, 1693, and all accused were acquitted that day, putting a final end to the accusations and the witch hysteria in and around Salem.

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