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The Cause of the Salem Witch Trials and the Role of the Puritan Views and Values in Colonial Massachusetts

Back in colonial Massachusetts, regular people were accused of being involved in witchcraft or linked to the devil. The Salem Witch Trials lasted in the period between 1692 and 1693, where over 200 people were accused. However, only 20 individuals were put to death for this reason. The witch belief began when girls had shown strange or compulsive behavior and women accused others of witchcraft. Such victims were Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Theories have been conjured as to why the Salem Witch Trials were put to action. Some may believe that ergot poisoning to the girls had led to the mass hysteria of witches, but interestingly enough, an isolated community producing rumors of its own could have led to the obsession of witches as well. So, what really caused the Salem Witch Trials?

Linnda R. Caporael, a researcher who created the ergotism theory, believed that ergot poisoning in the rye that was grown in Salem was the cause of the strange behavior in the girls. In 1962, Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and Abigail Williams started having fits and outbursts of screaming. The local doctor had diagnosed them with being cursed from a witch. Nowadays, where statements are supported with evidence, the doctor seems illogical and ridiculous. However, colonial Massachusetts trusted doctors and people was majorly religious to Puritan values. So, when witches became a possible danger in their eyes, people were paranoid. Caporael created a theory where girls suffered from convulsive ergotism. “The symptoms of this poisoning include crawling skin, headaches, vertigo, hallucinations, epileptic-like convulsions, vomiting, and diarrhea.” Yet, according to Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, the girls did not show all symptoms that pointed to ergot poisoning, which begs the question as to why the poisoning did not spread to anyone else in Salem? Another flaw in Caporael’s theory is that convulsive ergotism only occurs when there is a lack of vitamin A in the area, but the village was considered an agriculture based community. “The diets of the population certainly included enough fish and diary to provide sufficient vitamin A to prevent convulsive ergotism.” Convulsive ergotism could not have been the main cause of the girls’ peculiar habits.

An isolated community with Puritan values can believe in witches without evidence or reasoning. The Salem Village could have easily been influenced to think that witches were among them. The term, groupthink, is defined as “a way of thinking characterized by an excessive emphasis on group cohesion and solidarity.” The individuals surrounding each other affect how the group in general understands and thinks in a situation. In this case, the villagers of Salem believed to have seen witchcraft and the devil at work, which could have been hallucinations from groupthink. “This pressure to conform and to limit personal beliefs likely increased significantly once accusations were being made, lest someone turn an accusation on someone who dared to speak [their] mind.”3 Living in an isolated area also influences the way the group thinks because there is no other outside source inputting information. Colonial Salem was filled with people that believed to have witnessed witchcraft, but have only experienced it when another colleague has said the same thing. If they had opposed one another, accusations would be made and one would be either put in jail or executed. Now, no theory has been proven to be the actual reason for the cause of the Salem Witch Trials, but the theory of groupthink is the most possible reason.

The Salem Witch Trials lasted from the February of 1692 to the May of 1693. Fortunately, the trials died down significantly in 1693 and the Massachusetts General Court said the trials were unlawful, which prompted a public apology from Samuel Sewall for his involvement in the trials. The theory that ergot poisoning had caused the belief of witchcraft was disproved by Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb. Convulsive ergotism couldn’t have been the cause since it wasn’t spread to everyone who at the same rye and vitamin A was abundant in the village. The most believable and interesting possibility is that groupthink was at work in Salem. Their minds were triggered into thinking that the devil was around them and as a result, 200 villagers were accused.

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