Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What caused the witch scare in Salem?

Part two of my two-part post on the famous 1692 witch scare in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here we try to figure out what led rational, if religious, people to fear that multiple witches were at work in their community.

As I pointed out in the first post, while the Puritans did believe in the Devil and evil spirits and witches, they very rarely believed they were in the presence of real witches, and most of the time that someone was accused of being a witch it was simply a way to hurry the resolution of a problem (you encroach repeatedly on my land, you won't stop, you laugh at my complaints, so I go to the court and tell everyone you're a witch; this sobers you up and gets you to agree to mediation). When people were accused of witch craft, they were usually outsiders who made no secret of their disdain for the group. They were not pillars of respectable society, church members, and magistrates, and children were never allowed to make public accusations of witch craft, or to appear in court.

Yet these things happened at Salem. That's what makes it such an anomaly in New England Puritan history. Deep beliefs about adults having complete power over children were overturned, the universal sign of respect that was church membership was overthrown, and the accusation was not against one person but against an ever-growing number of citizens.

Scholars over the 20th century have put forward many theories as to why this happened. In the end, it's one of those problems that is very hard to resolve because we lack sufficient primary resources. All we can really do is throw our two cents in. Mine is that it was a combination of factors; that, as usual, there was no single cause.

The rye crop may have been infected with ergot poisoning, giving two girls weird physical symptoms. One of those girls happened to be the daughter of the Reverend Parris, the divisive minister of Salem Village. Worried that his daughter should be manifesting signs of demonic possession--he, a minister, and one trying to keep the people of Salem Town within the sphere of the Salem Village church--Parris was panicked enough to accept a verdict of witchcraft rather than physical illness, which was the original verdict of the midwife.

Once word got out that the minister's daughter might be possessed, fears of demonic attack echoed the longstanding fear of American and French attack. Salem has already been in physical danger from American war parties, and now it is in spiritual danger from Satan's minions. Maybe God is actually punishing or "harrowing" Salem to remind its citizens that their safety is in God's hands alone, and that He can destroy them by Indians or by demons.

At this point, a few other women are infected by the rye, so accusations break out afresh. Because of the new symptoms, the fact that symptoms are only striking Salem Village citizens, and the need of Parris and his supporters to maintain their power base against Salem Town, some of Parris' supporters, notably Putnam (whose daughter Ann was also stricken) decide to shift the focus from "Why is Salem Village so vulnerable to the devil?" to "Why is Salem Town not affected?" Accusations by Villagers against Townies proliferate. Salem Town residents are the witches, attacking Villagers in order to undermine SV's religious centrality (remember, the Church in Salem Village is the oldest, the original and most prestigious Congregational church in North America, and Town residents wanted to split it by forming their own church).

Now it is a political battle between Village and Town, and a bit of hysteria and panic set in amongst the average people when their leaders don't contain and defuse the situation as was usually the case. This causes wilder accusations because it is now consequence-free to denounce someone as a witch. Problems that might have caused only consternation before now seem to be the devil's work. People who might have been grudgingly tolerated before were now denounced. The arrival of outside officials to investigate only seems to lend credence to the idea that real witchcraft is at work.

Once people are actually executed (by hanging, not burning), real fear sets in. No one wants to protest the procedings lest they be denounced themselves. Plus, the average person believes that their usually rational system of government would not wrongly sentence someone to death, so the accused must be real witches. A self-perpetuating system is set up that is only stopped when the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony calls a halt to the trials, implying that criminal proceedings will be held against those who make any further accusations.

It was this reassertion of rational government that put an end to the trials. Why? Because the Puritans were rational people who loved good government, and they were used to their governing bodies keeping a tight rein on people's behavior. When the Salem government abandoned this responsibility, for its own reasons, and did not make it clear that the second wave of accusations were not permissable, order was destroyed and society became lawless. When the MBC government stepped in to reinforce precedent, the scare ended as quickly as it began.

So although we will never know for sure why the scare in Salem became what it became, I do think that a combination of factors, most importantly the reluctance and then refusal of the Salem governing body to follow precedent and defuse witchcraft accusations (sternly warning the accuser to accept the court's decision in their case and not to hazard a second accusation), led to the frenzy of the witch hunt. In a politically dangerous time, a time of guerrilla war and internal division, a frontier town became unmoored from the legal and religious traditions it was part of, and chaos ensued.

It is part of the fascination of Salem that it was the only witch scare in North American history. If there had been three or four witch hunts in the 1690s, I think none of them would be as famous and hypnotic to later generations as Salem. There's something about the singular incident that grabs the imagination. If Titanic and two of its sister ships had all gone down in 1912, it would be a case for shipbuilding engineers to ponder rather than the subject of dozens of movies and hundreds of books. If two women rather than just Amelia Earhart had disappeared on a flight it would be noted briefly in the history of aviation rather than the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation.

But the fact that Salem stands alone makes it less illustrative of Puritan society, not more. The Puritans believed in devils and witch craft, but they lived by rule of law, and they did not suffer witch scares and witch hunts to become part of the fabric of life. Study Salem all you like, but do so in the context of witch mania in Reformation-era Christendom, or how a breakdown in law and order leads to chaos, or any other context than New England Puritanism per se.


J. L. Bell said...

The Salem hysteria was the biggest witch scare in North American history, and the one that caught up government officials the most, but it wasn't the only one.

There were other witchcraft cases in Puritan New England, some killings of witches in the early spread of the Long House religion among the Senecas, and possibly similar events in other cultures.

Lori Stokes said...

Well, individual cases are not a scare; Salem is unique because it was multiple cases, dozens of them, all at once.

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Tom Van Dyke said...

Ms. Stokes---excellent, and thank you. In 2009, we have have our own comfortable narratives, in this case a witch hunt of witchhunters.

I haven't read an analysis like yours anywhere else, only the usual recycling of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."

You go, girl. Keep it up. The same thing happened with the Galileo story, if anyone is interested in looking it up.

J said...

Interesting essay.

The protestant Reformation resulted in a Witchhunt-craze in Europe and Great Britain. The Puritans carried that paranoia about witches and demonism with them to the new world--though Salem is rather unique.

To the hardcore calvinist, anyone not in the Elect is a suspect witch, wizard, or in league with the devil. That continues today: baptists have accused various other sects of occultism or demonism (even catholics).

I prefer history to literature, but Hawthorne had some interesting things to say about Salem and the puritans, and their demonism fetish. (And Hester Prynnes are still around....... ).

fatedplace said...

Thanks for your interesting post on the Salem trials. You are incorrect, however, that it was the only witchcraft scare in our nation's history. During the same period, for instance, there was a series of trials in Connecticut, which have been written about by John Taylor in _The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut 1647-1697 and by John Demos in his work _Entertaining Satan_.

The Connecticut trials, while less famous than the ones in Massachusetts, were no less set upon by either a breakdown of law and order or by a "scare"/hysterical climate.

In general, you may be right that the lesson to be learned is about good order, but I think that the lessons from other accounts have been far more wide-ranging than what we are presented with here. The trials surely had psychological components, but I think you radically underestimate the role of religion in this event. Deferring to conventional readings of Rev. Parris, for instance, who was not the village's only minister during this period, may indicate that you rely far too heavily on later reconstructions of the event rather than its primary source materials (such as the sermons given throughout the trials and leading up to them). These materials offer a wealth of evidence that witches, witchcraft and Satan were taken very, very seriously by these folks. Dismissing such evidence to move to a legalistic reading of the event's importance pretends that law and religion were not deeply intertwined for these Puritans. They surely loved good order, but Satan was the primary manifestation of disorder for them, and his presence in the actions and the events should not be redacted. You can't make these trials "about" something other than religion--these were heresy trials. Surely the events that led to them were influenced by a great many non-religious factors, such as Indian attacks in northern settlements, political fights between the village and town, and geographic disputes over land, but at their heart was a religious battle over whether God was losing the fight for this, as you say, frontier town. Unfortunately, your reading of this spiritual battle as largely based in "logic" or "reason" contradicts what primary source material we do possess about the event.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't think Ms. Stokes is denying that religious [and superstitious beliefs] were the excuse. However, other such mass-hysteria "witch-hunts" occurred throughout human history without religion involved---the Reign of Terror similarly [and far more prolifically] killed those of insufficient "republican fervor," as a similar threat to society.

The preface to John Demos' [thx for the pointer, Fatedplace] collection of colonial-era writings has a lot of good stuff and it's worth a read, as indeed are the source documents which form the body of the book.

Of particular relevance to our own day is a story from John Winthrop, that gave me a chuckle and a raised eyebrow:

"I may upon this occasion report a passage between one of Rowley and his servant. The master, being forced to sell a pair of his oxen to pay his servant his wages, told his servant he could keep him no longer, not knowing how to pay him the next year. The servant answered, he would serve him for more of his cattle. But how shall I do (saith the master) when all my cattle are gone? The servant replied, you shall then serve me, and so you may have your cattle again."