Throughout history millions of people have been scorned, accused, arrested, tortured, put to trial and, persecuted as witches. One would think that by the time the United States was colonized, these injustices on humanity would have come to an end, but that was not so. In 1692 a major tragedy occurred in America, the Salem witch trials. It all began when a group of girls accused others, generally older women, of consorting with the devil. The witchcraft hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts resulted from the strict Puritan code which aroused the girls interest in superstition and magic and caused strange behavior.
The Salem witch trials were based on the Puritans and their God versus Satan and his followers and their strict codes. Puritans had always thought that they were the new chosen people, abandoning a land of sin and oppression to establish the Promised Land (New England). Puritans beliefs were rooted in contrasts. (1) They believed that if there was something good there was something bad to contradict it, for instance since there was a God, there must be a devil. Since there was good, there must be evil, and since there were saints chosen to do God’s work on earth, there must be witches who were instruments of the Devil. )
So if someone did not believe in witches it was considered heresy in Salem. A witch was regarded as a person who had made an actual, deliberate, formal pact with Satan and would do all in her in power to aid him in his rebellion against God. (3) The Puritans believed that they were living in a world of chaos and crime, and directed their efforts to constantly guard against sin. (4) Life in Salem Village was not easy at the best of times. Gaiety and merrymaking were regarded as irreligious, and the people of the village were somber and severe.
Their lives were spent in hard work and religious observance. Even their relaxation was associated with the meeting house. On the Sabbath there was a long service in the morning and another in the afternoon. Village residents who came from outlying farms were not able to get home before the services, and it gradually became a regular practice for the time before the services to be spent in visiting and conversation. This was the time when gossip and news were spread from one to another. (5) Children would accompany their parents twice a week to listen to Samuel Parris’ three-hour sermons.
Parris would strictly discipline any child who wiggled, fell asleep, or showed any signs of impatience. They routinely enforced their concept of moral discipline to unreasonable degrees. ” (6) Christmas and Easter were not celebrated by Puritans because they believed that they were not truly religious and came from pagan ideas. They occasionally got holidays from school during the harvest time. Toys were forbidden in Salem, they were thought of as frivolous and time-wasting. Dolls were especially harmful because they were supposed to be used for witches to work magic.
Any child caught playing with toys would be taken to Parris for a long “talking-to. ” In the seventeenth century there was never respect for the privacy of any individual. The community as a whole was expected to bring any deviants to the courts’ attention. Each citizen was expected to report even members of his own family who deviated from the strict Puritan code. People were appointed to walk about every Sunday and take note of those backsliders who did not attend church services. (7)
People were familiar with each other’s affairs and willing to interfere at the slightest hint of sin or scandal. 8) Any deviant behavior was criminal. The Puritans did not take into account the myriad of shadings between various forms of misbehavior; everything not white was black. No distinction was made between persons who flatly violated the law and those who infringed on prescribed customs. The court took instant notice of anyone who drank too much, who dressed in inappropriate clothes, or in indulged some other form of scandalous behavior, who let their hair grow too long, who talked too much or played frivolous games.
The word of God governed everything and was to be protected with all the machinery. Punishments were severe: the stocks, banishment, whippings, and executions. (9) All of these strict Puritan codes resulted in deaths of twenty people in the Salem witch trials. The so-called witch hunt started as innocent play in the parsonage of the Reverend Parris. In his household were two slaves whom he had brought from Barbados, John Indian and his wife Tituba. Tituba was familar with magic, fortune-telling, incantation, and necromacy (sprit communication with the dead) from her native West Indies. 10)
Tituba had been converted to Christianity, and was a sincere church goer even thought the Puritans considered where she came from a place of heathen voodoo faith. (11) Tituba’s magic was a fascination to the neighbor children and during the winter of 1691-1692 a small circle of girls got in he habit of meeting with Tituba and pretended to practice the black art. The girls fascination soon turned to enchantment. By February 1692 the girls began acting in strange and bizarre manners. They went into fits in which they seemed to lose touch with the real world.
They frequently did not answer when they were spoken to. They uttered foolish and nonsensical speeches. They made odd gestures and contorted themselves into freakish postures. (12) When the town began to notice what had happened to the girls they got scared and wanted to know who the witches were who were tormenting the girls. To try to discover who he witches were, John Indian made a cake of rye meal with the children’s urine and baked it in ashes. When he gave it to a dog to eat, the afflicted children went into their fits.
They fell into strange positions, appearing convulsed and disordered. The girls now claimed to see the invisible world ruled by the devil. The girls could see who were causing the afflictions. They had spectral sight. (13) They claimed they could see a witch hurting its victim and causing mischief in plain daylight. (14) The girls were really using the spectral sight as a scapegoat because they knew that they were way too far into the mischief and magic to get out ow. Once the girls were accusing people of witchcraft, the Salem Witch trials would begin and so would the executions.
During the Witchcraft trials nearly all those who fell under suspicion of witchcraft were women, evidently regarded by witch-hunters as especially susceptible to the Devil’s blandishments. In the years of the witch hunting mania, people were encouraged to inform against one another. Professional witch-finders identified and tested suspects for evidence of witchcraft and were a paid a fee for each conviction. (15) Not until 1692 did the ever-lurking witchcraft accusations reach the intensity f mass persecution.
More than one hundred seventy people were arrested, mostly women, and every person tried for witchcraft in that year was found guilty. (16) In the Salem witchcraft affair, only six men were executed as wizards. George Jacobs Sr. , John Willard, John Proctor, and the Reverend George Burroughs were hanged on August 19, 1692. Giles Corey was pressed to death. Samuel Wardwell was hanged on September 1692. (17) The mass execution of eight people on September 22, 1692 marked a turning point in the witchcraft affair. The people of the town, the court and even the preacher realized that they had made a huge istake.
After eight months of terror, the Salem witchcraft trials ended, but not until after the loss of twenty innocent people. Those who were different, who did not conform to society’s incredibly strict standards, were declared witches instead of being accepted as individuals. The trials scared people into admitting they were someone they weren’t. The twenty-two people (and two dogs) executed were twenty-two lives too many, and action should have been taken sooner, to stop these injustices. The Salem witch trials were a major tragedy and those killed are still being mourned today.