Salem Witch Trials

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Date: 2009
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,079 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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One year in the early 1690s, a group of girls gathered around a bowl in a house in Salem, Massachusetts. Among them was the daughter of the house, nine-year-old Elizabeth (Betty) Parris, whose father was a Puritan minister, and her cousin, eleven-year-old Abigail. Most of the other girls worked as servants in the village of Salem. The girls had secretly convened a few times, to try out some of the magic rites the Parris girls had picked up from their West Indian slave, Tituba. One girl cracked an egg into the bowl, and they all leaned forward to see the egg white. Gradually and to their horror, the albuminous white took on the shape of a coffin, a sure sign of death approaching. The girls began having hallucinations and strange physical ailments, some of them babbling incoherently. Doctors were called in and diagnosed witchcraft.

Many people consider their behavior to be the kickoff of the infamous events known as the Salem witch trials. But the atmosphere necessary for a doctor to diagnose witchcraft as a serious cause of illness began forming long before the Parris girls and their friends met for their secret magic ceremonies.

The Cultural Backdrop of the Trials

As many cultures have done, the colonists tended to attribute anything they could not readily explain to supernatural phenomena, especially to beneficent or malevolent forces. Their strong religiosity fed their belief in magic, as it has done in many cultures, including the Native Americans and Africans brought into slavery in their homes. Beliefs in evil spirits and in the ability to inhabit animals or use talismans for healing were widespread and considered the norm. Research has shown that these beliefs generally help people feel some measure of control over phenomena that affect them. These beliefs are held especially by spiritual people, such as shamans or ministers, who might even have special powers of healing.

Thus, to the colonists, witchcraft was very real and a very real threat. They believed that witches could control peoples' thoughts and force them to behave in evil ways. An old woman, probably childless and living alone, usually fit the typical profile of the European witch, and these women were thought to fly through the air, engage in orgies with the devil, and cause any number of terrible things to happen, including a child's death, crop failure, or birth defects. In short, witches and their evil intent and activities explained what otherwise was inexplicable.

With witchery all around them, people devised ways to determine whether or not someone was a witch or had been affected by a witch's spell. One way to pinpoint a witch was to bake into a cake of grain something from a victim's body, such as urine. When the victims consumed the cake, they would then utter the name of the sorceress. Among colonists, people suspected of being witches had the opportunity to confess their sins and be welcomed back into the religious fold after repenting. The outcome of the Salem witch trials was an exception to this practice.

Accusations Begin

Betty Parris was well aware that her religion forbade her from taking part in witchery, but as a curious young child, she did so anyway. When the doctors diagnosed witchcraft, Betty and her counterparts eventually "confessed" that the perpetrators were Tituba and two other old women from the village.

What followed was a witch hunt in the original sense, as the girls went on a spree of witch identification, even pointing the finger at a former minister. The frenzy spread across the colony as newly identified and confessed witches then turned around and named more witches. By the time the uproar had quieted, 156 people sat in prison, charged as witches.

The Trials

The trials themselves were an infamous circus conducted by men who were not trained lawyers, and who judged suspects who had no legal representation. In addition, the judges decided to allow "spectral evidence" as valid, even though it was evidence from only one witness, the victim. The wisdom held that only victims could see the witches in spirit form committing their evil deeds, so by definition, spectral evidence could be given only by single witnesses, regardless of whether or not others were around at the time of the "crime."

In what amounted to the peak of witchcraft hysteria that had been building in Europe and the New World for more than two centuries, a special court was convened in June 1692 to judge the accused. Increase Mather (1639-1723) and his son, Cotton (1663-1728), had contributed to this backdrop of hysteria that allowed the wild imaginings of young girls to bear fruit. Their writings included a collection of proofs of witchcraft that had helped inflame feelings against witches and created an army of experts. In spite of their belief in witchcraft and their claim to expertise, however, the Mathers decried the conduct of the trials, and Increase Mather called for dissolution of the courts trying the case. He also disapproved of allowing spectral evidence as valid in the court.

Not heeding the Mathers, the authorities continued the trials, which ended in one hundred guilty verdicts and twenty executions, most of them women. Of those sentenced to death, nineteen were hanged, and one accused witch was crushed to death by stones during "questioning." An additional four people died during their imprisonment; some of the prisoners learned about the capital punishment and managed to escape. Many of the accused were offered the chance to confess and repent, but being staunchly pious, they refused to lie in this way to save themselves.

Public Backlash

Even before the trials ended, public distaste for the court conduct and outcome had begun to grow. Feeding this sentiment were the gallows statements of those executed, many of whom refused to confess but still forgave their accusers and judges. Within a year, people began publicly doubting the conduct and results of the trial, and interestingly, the Mathers again led the public sentiment, this time in opposition to the proceedings.

The authorities conducted retrials for some of the prisoners, but excluded spectral evidence. The result was that forty-nine of fifty-two accused prisoners were released because of a lack of evidence. By 1697, Massachusetts leaders had realized the terrible error of the trials. The governor ultimately pardoned the condemned, and the legislature eventually designated a special day of atonement for the sin of executing innocent people. Samuel Parris, the father of Elizabeth, lost his salary.

The Causes of the Hysteria

In seeking to identify the causes of this hysteria and the willingness of presumably rational people to believe the outrageous claims of a group of young girls, historians have turned primarily to socioeconomic causes. Many of the accusers were girls from rural Salem, some from the same family, who worked in the town as servant girls. Many of the accused were well-to-do older women who lived in Salem Town. Quite a few of the girls who made the initial accusations also had lost a parent to Indian raids, and the colony itself was in a state of transition and upheaval, awaiting the arrival of a new governor. The ailing current governor, Simon Bradstreet (1603-1697), had done nothing to stop the growing hysteria, even as the accusations began reaching to the town's borders. The new governor, Sir William Phips (c. 1651-c. 1695), tried to address the issue by establishing what he perceived to be proper courts to conduct the trials. Yet his courts, in addition to allowing spectral evidence, also revived an old law that made practicing witchcraft a capital offense, resulting in the death penalty.

Thus, many historians conclude that issues of social upheaval and class standing may have operated under the surface of the hysteria, although that does not explain Elizabeth Parris's involvement. Her participation as an accuser, however, is attributable to her probable fear of having violated the sacred tenets of her religion, in which her father was a recognized leader. One of the trial judges, Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), felt such great regret about his role that he made a public statement in which he took the "blame and shame" of having been associated with the proceedings and asked for God's pardon for "that sin."

Magnalia Christi Americana

Cotton Mather, son of Increase Mather, authored Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) the story of Christ's works in the New World. His book has tormented and fascinated historians ever since, although at its initial publication, it failed to impress some critics.

Mather himself described his writings as a history and a rhapsody, and historians have argued since about whether or not the book is truly a history or more of an extended hosannah. In the conventional sense, it is not a history—it lacks order or chronology and throughout climbs to heights of religious ecstasy and celebration or descends to condemnation as the occasion requires. The book has been criticized for its mercurial tone, and Mather relied heavily throughout the writing on boilerplate quotes and proverbs typically associated with tract writings and sermons of the time. In fact, some scholars have argued that the book is much less history than one long, extended sermon filled with examples of what Mather perceived to be Christ's work.

In spite of these criticisms, Magnalia Christi Americana may be, more than anything else, a serial biographical look at the people of the New World. Two of its seven books focus on biographies—in fact, they are packed with biographies, some extremely sparse, others extensive. In Book II, Mather focused on the lives of the godly New England magistrates, and in Book III, on the lives of ministers in the New World. Even his Book IV, which he intended as a history of Harvard College, devolves primarily into a series of yearbook entries of the school's famous alumni.

His approach to documenting the people and times has, to some historians, come to exemplify a uniquely American form of biography. Even though Mather fell into inaccuracies and lapsed into strange but interesting asides, his intensely personal approach to his historical writing is perceived to be an American invention and to mark a turning point in biographical writing.

He did stick to the conventional, formulaic approach through much of the tome, however, tossing in classical and biblical references aplenty, and also including bizarre but interesting allusions that required some genuine facility with lateral thinking. For example, he quotes Pliny's description of the lantern fish or lucerna fish, "whose Tongue doth shine like a Torch," as an analogy for a minister whose speech was so spectacularly glowing that his tongue appeared also to have been illuminated from within.

As these allusions indicate, Mather litters his text with references to primarily European sources, yet scholars consider his work to be a uniquely New World production. This paradox is not the only confusion that arises over Magnalia Christi Americana. In addition to his extensive list of biographies, Mather tosses in a kitchen sink's worth of other information, including his opinions about the Salem witch trials. Historians have disagreed about the role that Mather played in setting the stage for the hysteria that surfaced during this time and about his and his father's efforts to halt the trials or condemn them.

Before writing Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather expressed disapproval over the conduct of the trials and the treatment of the "witches," yet he also included in his book a spirited defense of the judges who oversaw the proceedings. This latter has left the erroneous impression that he did, in fact, approve of the trials themselves.

Early reviews of his work were not necessarily favorable. One reviewer, William Tudor, who was the first editor of the North American Review, compared Mather's liberal use of quotes from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew to "so many decayed, hideous stumps" that "deform the surface" of the writing. He also dismissed Mather as pedantic and wordy. Some later critics have agreed with this assessment, whereas others have found much that is worthwhile and interesting in Mather's rhapsodic history.

Mather himself had lofty goals for his book. His opening to Magnalia Christi Americana is famous: "I write the Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Depravations of Europe, to the American Strand." His pages begin with a history of the New World as told through his filter, starting with its discovery and covering the founding of Connecticut and New Haven. Perhaps not surprisingly, he dedicated his book to Jesus Christ.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3048500007