Witch prosecutions in Massachusetts in the 17th century were dominated by one particular episode- that of the Salem trials of 1692-93. However, witch prosecutions were not uncommon in this period, but the events in Salem were clearly different from incidents of the past.
The events of Salem and its surrounding regions (it is a myth that the prosecutions were solely limited to Salem, but it was the centre of much of the crisis), are remembered for a number of reasons. Accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England were not uncommon, but the usual practice was for these to peter out after a while. This however did not happen in this case. The legal dimension of the case too provided an element of interest. Once the afflicted girls had been diagnosed as having been victims of witchcraft, they were not suffering from disease, but were victims of crime- whose perpetrators then had to be identified and punished appropriately. The crisis was also significant for its geographical spread- the accused came from 22 different places, 15 of them from different parts of Essex County. So it was more an ‘Essex crisis’ rather than one exclusively dominated by Salem, which is contrary to most of the popular literature and folklore on the matter. While in most previous cases a majority of the accusers would be adult men, here key accusers were women and children under the age of 25. This meant that dynamics of gender would play a key role in the crisis. A final critical feature of the episode was the high number of convictions and executions. Judges in Massachusetts had often expressed skepticism in the past about accusations of witchcraft, and had proved reluctant to convict or execute witches. But the Court of Oyer and Terminer convicted every defendant and also oversaw the execution of most of them. This zealousness on behalf of the court too needs explanation.
The traditional explanation of the Salem episode revolves around economic dynamics of Salem Town and Salem Village, as well as being symptomatic of changing economic equations especially between merchants and farmers. It has been pointed out that 12 of the 14 accused came from the eastern part of the village as did those who defended them and expressed skepticism about the trial. On the other hand, 30 out of the 32 accusers who testified lived in the west. This conflict between the eastern and western parts of Salem Village can be understood by examining its relationship with the nearby town.
Early colonial settlements were marked by a high degree of consensus and stability so that local leaders could make decisions with little opposition from others. The cohesion of the early communities was being fragmented by the end of the 17th century. Villagers who had subordinated their welfare to the community became more willing to separate themselves more easily if their needs were not met. As Salem Town was increasingly being mercantilised, disputes with the farmers of the Village over tax revenue and the broader question of control over the hinterland began to raise its head. Early differences gave rise to a score of petitions, resolutions, depositions and bitterness. While some of the causes of dispute might seem petty, the larger issues were never lost sight of. By the 1670s the farmers’ fight for their own autonomy focussed on their desire to build their own meeting house and to support their own minister. This however was not just a source of discord with the Town, but also caused resentment within the Village. The disputes about the church underscored doubts about the legitimacy of the Village and contributed to much internal bickering and disarray. Some villagers wanted to define the religious and political power of the Village more broadly while others continued to identify themselves primarily with Salem Town. The latter tended to be those who had mercantile links with the Town and lived in the west- tying up geographical and religious differences into a complex web. These disputes became destructive because it rendered the organization of the village helpless in coping with a new dispute. Private grievances would escalate quickly until the entire community was drawn into it.
An important source of dispute was the right to appoint and dismiss ministers- and the question of whether this would be restricted to those Villagers who belonged to one of the neighbouring churches or whether it was held by all the householders who regularly attended the Village meetinghouse. By 1672, Salem Village was not any closer to ecclesiastical autonomy. So in 1689, an independent church under Samuel Parris was sought to be proclaimed with the support of about a quarter of the entire community. This creation of a full fledged Village church can be best understood as part of a long range strategy to gain complete independence from Salem Town. The witchcraft episode thus did not generate new divisions within the Village nor did it alter them, but it exposed the intensity of already existing divisions and heightened the vindictiveness with which they were expressed.
A breakdown of the support base for Parris (a key figure in the witchcraft episode as his daughter and niece were the first to be afflicted, and he was one the driving forces behind the trial) shows that a majority of those who supported the independent church remained loyal to its ministers. Moreover, that the wealthy in Salem Village (often equated with those who had links with the Town) opposed Parris in greater numbers than their poorer counterparts.
In the 1660s, Salem Town has seen an expansion of economic and mercantile interests. There was a sharp rise in relative wealth. But this increase in wealth did not benefit all inhabitants and the distribution of wealth propelled the merchants into a clear position of dominance. These economic changes would have been obvious to the farmers of Salem Village. The Village was in contrast, far more unstable with a high population turnover and the diminishing availability of land. Many felt that the Town’s growing commercial orientation made it less responsive to the problems of the farmer.
However, this was not a simple Town versus Village divide. Within the Town dominant merchant groups were challenged on a number of occasions and similarly to some Villagers the urbanization and commercial growth of the Town seemed like a promising and exciting development. It has been argued that the intensity of the witchcraft prosecutions can be understood by studying these divisions between the Town and the Village and by examining the economic dynamics of politics and change within the Village. Such an explanation though has a few obvious flaws. It tends to see the crisis as being largely determined by economic factors and marginally by religious ones. It tends to ignore the fluid political situation of the period, the role of Puritanical thought, the crucial role played by officialdom in encouraging the accusers and most importantly ignores gender dimensions.
In order to analyse the events of 1692, it is important to begin by looking at religious beliefs about witchcraft. For Puritan ministers, belief in witchcraft was anchored upon a belief in Satan. Satan was the opponent of God- the ‘Adversary and the Enemy’. Ministers always described the desperate battle that must be fought against this foe. Witchcraft was a confirmation of Satan’s existence and a manifestation of the powers he possessed. Moreover, there was a close link between witchcraft and magic. Malefic witches were often considered to be practitioners of magic. At least seven of those charged with witchcraft in Salem prior to the trials had engaged in magical healing activities that earned them both the respect and apprehension of their neighbours.
It is worthwhile to see the events of Salem in religious context. In Massachusetts Bay in 1692 it seemed as if the Puritan mission was in jeopardy. A charter of 1691 had included within the political boundaries various religious groups who had been previously disenfranchised. This opened a window of political power to groups such as the Quakers and the Anglicans. Massachusetts Bay faced another challenge to its existence in the form of the intensification of the French and Indian wars between 1689 and 1697. Thus, the Salem trials coincided with a moment of grave uncertainty about the future of New England. In a context of social upheaval, the discovery of witchcraft could offer an explanation for the impending collapse of the old order as well as a final vindication of the Puritan mission in New England.
The role of the court, the magistrates and the officials who presided over the Court of Oyer and Terminer have also been the focus of enquiries. It is interesting to note that in the early days of the accusations, the administration was largely paralysed and could only react in 1692 when Sir William Phips arrived with a new charter and the determination to set matters straight. The court took much of the legal initiative, and it has been argued, gradually took over from the clergy as being the sponsors of the afflicted girls. Over time, the magistrates threw off ecclesiastical control and helped to define the shape of events. The number of accusers steadily increased as judicial policy provided solidarity to the original cohort of accusers. The court has also been increased for the manner in which it tried to collect evidence and the manner in which the trial has been conducted. It has been argued that the public nature of the trials, especially the first depositions, served to increase panic and gossip in the Village. The practice was of interrogating the accused in the presence of not just the afflicted, but the entire community was going to have wide ranging repercussions. Further, the use of questionable evidence, especially ‘spectral evidence’ was later cited as a factor in invalidating the convictions of the court. It is not surprising that the first wave of confessions followed the first mass hangings. Perhaps the judiciary felt that given the sensitive nature of the issue, not taking decisive actions would invite censure. But in doing so, they took upon themselves a number of prerogatives and methods of proving guilt that had not been sanctioned in the first place.
It is also worth noting that judicial enthusiasm waned once the accused began to target people with link to the magistrates themselves. It shoes that the afflicted could define the shape of events so long as their formulations did not conflict with those who were now their official sponsors. After all, it was the magistrates who would pronounce judgement upon the identity of the afflicted (usual methods of diagnosis had been dispensed with) and the validity of their testimony.
The role of the court and the men who presided over it can be understood more completely if we look at the military history of the period. This was a period of great political flux. The Second Indian War had left the landscape scarred and many of the New England settlers were anxious about what lay in store for them. It is possible to see some of the tales of tortures that the afflicted girls reported being linked to similar tales told by English settlers about Indians. It is particularly striking in the reminiscences of Mercy Lewis, who as a child had been witness to a horrific Indian ambush resulting in many deaths. Some of her terrors could have resonated from her memories of that attack rather than being the result of bewitchment by Martha Corey, as she claimed.
There were frequent references to a spectral ‘black man’ trying to communicate with the accused during the trials. It has been argued that this was the Devil who has traditionally been portrayed as being clothed in black. However, this ‘black man’ may have been a representation of the Indians whom children of this time were taught to fear, and who were often colloquially referred to as ‘blacks’. Further, the linkages between Indians, ‘black men’ and the devil was a long established folklore.
It is possible to attempt to tie up the religious with the political and aim to understand the intensity of prosecutions in this period. The foundation of the crisis lay in the Puritan New Englander’s worldview which taught them that they were a chosen people bringing God’s name to a heathen land. God, in that land, spoke to them through events large and small. Thus they believed in an invisible world of spirits that resided along with the palpable world in which they lived. But military events and the witchcraft crisis would blur the distinctions between these two worlds. King Philip’s War and King Wallace’s War wreaked havoc on these prosperous regions of Massachusetts Bay. That their Wabanaki enemies were Catholics or had aligned with the French Catholics, threatened their Protestantism further.
The colonists tended to attribute their defeat and destruction to God’s providence- he was afflicting them for various sins of omission and commission. While some of the fits thus can be linked to a war time context (the first accused, Tituba was an Indian), the role of religion and God cannot be ignored. God was punishing New England doubly- through the Second Indian War on the north-eastern frontier and the through the witchcraft crisis in Essex county. Thus the horrors of the visible and the invisible world became closely entwined. The military defeats of the period contributed to the rapid and extensive spread of the conflict.
This can then be linked to the role of the judges. It was in these abnormal circumstances that the judges gave such credence to the witchcraft accusations. More importantly, the judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer were the very men who led the colony both politically and militarily. They possibly reasoned that if God had unleashed the witchcraft crisis, he must also be responsible for the military defeats, which would then absolve them of all responsibility. They believed in the guilt of the accused women because they needed to concurrently believe that they were not personally responsible for New England’s woes. This link between the visible and the invisible world was underscored by the testimony of Abigail Hobbs who said that the Devil had recruited her in Maine four years earlier. The failed campaigns like the Andros’s winter expedition of 1688-89 were now attributed to bewitchment.
While these factors would explain why the accusations gained so much credence, the earlier economic factors probably contributed to much of the malice behind them. Further, it created fissures within the community which meant that disproportionate interest was now evinced in the proceedings. Local gossip too played a role as people began to articulate long held suspicions about neighbours and friends. Moreover, as confessors encouraged other accused to confess as well, especially in Andover, ‘self interest, deference to authority or age and physical or psychological coercion’ combined to cause many Andover residents to confess a guilt they were later to deny.
Finally, it is imperative that we look at the gendered nature of this crisis. The history of witchcraft remains fundamental to gender history and the treatment and perception of women within society. It can be argued that the events of Essex County only underlined long held prejudices about women, linking them to evil and the actual prosecutions and executions were tantamount to systematic violence against women. It has been argued that the economic condition of many of these women was the reason why they were targetted. Many had long running feuds with neighbours, were disliked by those around them, or fell into the ranks of the ‘unworthy poor’ or those who were able to work but chose not to. A higher proportion of women was economic dependents and hence despised, or had fewer legitimate means to supplement their incomes. But more interesting than this economic explanation is the suggestion that the defiance of these women towards the community, produced a much stronger and more hostile reaction than if they had been male. In most other cases of pre-Salem trials, the punishment meted out to men and women had differed and the pressure put on women to confess was far greater. Men who confessed were treated differently, and were often rebuked for being liars. Since most of the afflicted were women, and since the afflicted open themselves to charges that they were colluding with the Devil, some of the accusations perhaps stemmed from a desire to deflect attention from themselves. Once a woman was accused of witchcraft, she carried the burden of suspicion for ever, even if she had been exonerated by the court. It is also worth noting that when the critics of the trial sought to discredit it, they focussed not on the male magistrates but on the female accusers. Once they were discredited, support for the trial melted away and these young women who had briefly enjoyed the limelight, shaping the events of their community were relegated to their former silent roles as followers and servers.
Beth-Norton, Mary: In the Devil’s Snare: the Salem Witchcraft crisis of 1692
Boyer, Paul and Nissebaum, Stephen: Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
Karlsen, Carol: The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
Weisman Richard: Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in 17th century Massachusetts