The Salem Witch Trials were the most famous, most deadly, and most studied witch trials in the British colonies according to author Brian Pavlac.(138) What started out as innocent child’s play ended with 19 deaths and one killed by being pressed to death with stones. The events were gruesome, tragic, and filled with irrational behavior. The people of Salem, who were mostly of a puritan background, were driven by fear, to stop those who were consorting with the devil, and cleanse their town of all evil. This however, remains to be seen as the true intention of all of those involved with the witch hunts. These trials, which took place over the course of the winter of 1691 through the summer of 1693 were a time of uncertainty, paranoia, and deceit. The question remains however, were these proclaimed “witches” actually consorting with the devil, or was this just a ploy to dissolve feuds among neighbors and families and to preserve the good name of the families with witch this all originated?
The events began in the winter of 1691. “In order to cure their boredom, the young Paris children entertained the idea of Satan in the house of the Lord.” (Rice 17) These two girls were related to the pastor of the town. “One, nine year old Betty Parris, was the daughter of the pastor and the other, eleven year old Abigail Williams was the niece of the pastor.” (Rice 15) They were under care of a slave named Tituba. She would entertain the girls during cold winter nights with stories from her former life. Now these two girls were very different in personalities. Marion L. Starkey, from Rice’s book, describes the two:
Nine year old Betty Parris was a sweet, biddable little girl,ready to obey anyone who spoke with conviction, including to her misfortune, her playmate Abigail” – feared God – and worse, the devil and eternal damnation…
Eleven-year-old Abigail Williams was another matter. She was of a robuster sort, and though as relentlessly catechized as her small cousin, instinctively took damnation, death , and most other unpleasant things as something scheduled to happen to someone else, particularly to people she didn’t like. (Rice 20)
These two were completely opposite in character one, it seems, desiring a deeper look into witchcraft so she could curse those whom she did not like. The other was seemingly forced into “consorting with evil spirits,” and simply was a victim. These stories continued night after night, allowing the girls to delve deeper and deeper into a seemingly innocent endeavor, A picture show Tituba weaving stories into the air with the children watching her every move. Notice the details of the picture. First and foremost Tituba was not as old as she seemed in the picture according to Earle Rice.(21) Those stories could have routed into one of two paths. The first allowed for what would have been a psychological idea to develop in the girl’s heads. They took a fantasy that they wanted to be true and eventually their minds just interpreted it as reality. The other path that could have been taken was that the girls were actually beginning to develop a connection to a form of witchcraft, which in Puritan society was looked upon as an extreme evil.
This begs the question as to whether witchcraft is real or not. Puritans and many cultures do believe in witchcraft. As devout puritans though, the girls soon felt angst against these meetings and stories with Tituba. Once more according the Marion Starkey in Rice’s book “One cannot pursue forbidden pleasures without suffering the consequences.”(Rice 22) why did they pursue something that was forbidden? “Puritans were taught to be pious and serene as adults, and children were expected to behave like small adults. Play was not allowed. In fact it was looked upon as a form of laziness.” (MacBian 10) Children were meant to act as adults with the utmost respect for society. However in any society, children aren’t meant to act like adults, to be trained like animals. The young are full of ideas, have a huge imagination, and the developing brains to believe in almost anything. Perhaps that is why they wanted to listen to these stories, as a way to escape reality and experience something fun. This “game” soon expanded to neighboring girls. “Tituba’s circle had rapidly expanded to encompass nine girls.” (rice 23)
That is when the fits began. So it is known that Tituba’s stories did not cause the witch trails to begin but it was the girls choice to participate in fortune telling and future seeing that started the epidemic. “One February night in 1692, Betty Parris saw a picture of a coffin, and suddenly her body began to contort into odd shapes and she started screaming.” (Macbian 12) Did she really see a coffin? Was this an illusion or was she actually being shown the future? Once more the theory that her psychological status had changed could be the cause, and yet again it could be the result of demons. Either of those coupled with fear of her father could have caused those symptoms and in turn caused her to blame others and not her family. According to Stuart Kallen, “ … it was a disgrace for the devil to have a foothold in his house. Betty and the others would have to cry out and accuse those who were harming them. So they did. In February of 1692 Betty blamed three individuals for her illness, a beggar, an invalid and a slave.” (Fremon 53)
Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba were all of the first accused. Two of these three women were seemingly random, but delving deeper into their lives reveals more. Sarah Good had not always lived a good life. In a summary Earle Rice says that “she was poorly treated after her father committed suicide and was cheated out of most of the land she was supposed to inherit. She married a poor indentured servant who soon after passed away, whereupon she Married William Good, was sued and lost all of her land. She became a sour homeless thirty nine year old women, that did not attend church.”(32-33) Sarah Osborne was much older Than Good. She was by all means the most illogical choice for a witch out of the three. Still according to Rice she wasn’t the nicest person. “After the death of her first husband, she remarried, and fought a will that said that the land was to go to the children when they came of age. This was robbing land from the Putnam’s simply because they were extended family of the deceased husband. She had not been going to church but was to old to attend the meeting of the accused.” (36-37) Tituba was also put on trial with the other two. Now similar patterns do obviously appear in the brief description.
Both women were low in social status, thought to be heathen’s and had some appeal and gain for others if they were convicted. These women were victims of their own choices, but were they really guilty. According to their answers, no they were not. Both women denied all accusations that were pinned to them. First in court was Sarah Good. Testifying against her was Ann Putman Jr. one of the daughters of the accusers, and also a “victim” of the accused. This is when spectral evidence was introduced into the court. Spectral Evidence is “testimony given that an accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to the witness in a dream at the time the accused person’s physical body was at another location.” (Salem Witch Trials 1) In a court of law today spectral evidence would be deemed unfair evidence or and might even been seen as ridiculous and would be thrown out. However it was accepted during the time. Ann Putman Jr’s statement is as follows.
I saw the apparition of Sarah good, which did torture me most grievously. But I did not know her name until the 27th of February, and then she told me her name was Sarah Good, and then she did prick me and pinch me most Grievously, and also since, several times urging me vehemently to write in her book. (rice 33)
As seen this evidence is absurd. Word of mouth is not enough to convict a person of torture. These women were not given a fair chance in the court of law, not just by testimonies of the girls that were “bewitched,” but also by those that were trying them. Also, the arguments that were used were begging the question, that is to say that they were trying to prove was used as a truth instead of an assumption. Take for Example Hathorne’s interrogation of Sarah Good. He asked her the following questions. “Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?”, “have you made no contact with the devil?”, “why do you hurt these children?” and “who do you employ then to do it?”(Nardo 46 -47)
Questions of that manner were used to question all three of the accused that way. The first two Good and Osborne, denied all allegations against them, but then Tituba came to the stand. “At first she claimed that she had done no harm to the children. But then her testimony took a decidedly different turn, as she increasingly admitted her involvement in supernatural affairs.” (Nardo 48) Why would Tituba accept such heinous charges? It would most certainly result in death. Could it be that Parris or Putman had paid her to convict herself and the other accused? They could only gain from those women being tried and killed.
“Thomas Putman’s household became the center for witchcraft accusations. And, as some historians believe, Thomas became, if not the driving force behind the witch hunts, at least one of its chief instigators.” Rice also goes on to say that Putman also lead the campaign to appoint Samuel Parris as Pastor of Salem village. (Rice 58) So the two adults whose children were among the “afflicted” were also the first to jump in at whoever the girls accused? It would seem that neither would want a mark on their families name or that Putman would not want to be seen as voting for a bad pastor. Both had stakes in what I now believe to be a game. The girls were simply pawns in the the adults game, and although it goes unsaid, it would seem that they were coaxed into choosing those that they did.
“…A Pattern was emerging. Ann PUTMAN, Jr., was usually the first afflicted person to cry out on someone. Then, she was joined by the others… Ann Putman, Sr., who some believed showed signs of mental instability even before the girls’ illness, sometimes cried out with the afflicted girls.” (Fremon 66) Putman was almost always the first to speak up against those deemed witches. Once more think of those accused and who they were. Marion Starkey points out in her book “the power of suggestion. In summary she says that almost all of the accused were suggested by the village elders, and they only asked about those strongly dislike in the community. Only after the village elders had mentioned them did the girls say they were the ones torturing them.” (Starkey 47-48) These events would suggest that there was no such thing as witchcraft in Salem merely a town trying to clean itself up of all the lower class citizens it had held. Economics suggest the reason that they would have wanted to try and rid the town of these people would be for the purpose of attracting new individuals to their town.
Another theory still resides. The theory that these girls were actually being tormented by an invisible, evil force. According to one of the girls “ a Prominent businessman John Alden bewitched her, even though she had never seen him before.” (Fremon 70) This begs the question had she actually never seen this man before? If so and if the documents words are true, then it would be safe to assume that something was actually attacking her and it may have been that same person who she claimed. However, according to other authors theories it would be safe to assume that the elders may have actually phrased the question in a manner as to already have blamed him.
Were these girl really being tormented? were they a product of their own fantasies and then manipulated by family member for their own gain? Or were they simply suffering from some sort of illness brought on by stress? Science would suggest the last of the three to be the truest. The science of their time limited doctors from properly diagnosing the girls with the theory of hysteria.
The fits and convulsion of the afflicted girls would today be diagnosed as symptoms of hysteria. Hysteria is a clinical psychological condition whose victims may suffer from amnesia, hallucination, sleepwalking, and paralysis without apparent cause. Symptoms way also include convulsive movements, distorted postures, and loss of hearing, sight and speech. The condition is sometimes caused by extreme anxiety. (Fremon 26)
So modern science may have unveiled the question that was the Salem Witch trials. These girls were listening to stories and were bored, their fantasies turning into innocent games and from there, guilt took over and anxiety ensued. The girls were tormented by the fact that they were dabbling in a forbidden practice, and did not want to get caught. This would result in fear, which would lead to extreme anxiety of being caught. However, one cannot dismiss the first two theories, one being that the parents did find out after the girls had entered this state of hysteria, and they may have even believed that the girls were actually being tortured. However they may have also used this to their advantage to address social issues among the community, by casting the blame on those who they saw fit, those who were social nuisances. Maybe there was someone or something that was disturbing the peaceful town of Salem, inflicting its wrath among its people, taking its chance when Tituba was telling those girls of witchcraft and another culture.
There will probably never be a way to tell the true events of the Salem Witch Trials, although modern science has come up with a legitimate theory that would explain the events that occurred. The human mind likes to explain things logically, but there is always something new that is appearing in science, and we cannot dismiss the paranormal. In total 20 men and women were killed with one of those being pressed to death, and an infant of one of the accused died while in jail. (Kallen 78) These gruesome murders were all based on word of mouth, showing the power a society can have on its individuals.
Fremon, David K. The Salem Witchcraft Trials in American History. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1999. Print. April 2011.
Kallen, Stuart A. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1999. Print. April 2011.
MacBain, Jenny. The Salem Witch Trials: a Primary Source History of the Witchcraft Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2003. Print. April 2011.
Nardo, Don. The Salem Witch Trials. Detroit: Lucent, 2007. Print. April 2011.
Pavlac, Brian Alexander. Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009. Print. April 2011.
Rice Jr., Earle. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, Ca: Lucent, 1997. Print. April 2011.
“Salem Witch Trials FAQs.” Salem Witch Trials Page – History of the 1692 Witch Trials in Salem. Web. 02 May 2011. . April 2011.
Starkey, Marion Lena. The Devil in Massachusetts: a Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Anchor, 1989. Print. April 2011.