The Salem Witch Trials are the infamous sessions in court hearings of people who had been accused of practicing witchcraft. The witch trials resulted in loss of lives of young women and men who had been charged with witchcraft. Hundreds of other locals in Salem had been jailed for short and long periods during the trial processes as they were also accused. Different scholars have examined the history of the Puritans to expound the origin of witchcraft claims that left a destabilized society. Hallucinations and imaginations of young minds, economic misunderstandings, and persona rivalries are some of the underlying causes that triggered the belief and practice in witchcraft to spread among the locals. The Puritan literature reveals that in early 1692, Betty Parris became ill, and locals found her behavior strange. For instance, it is believed that she started running and pushing furniture around, as she complained of high fevers. At the time young Betty was getting sick, Cotton Mather, a Puritan author had popularized his book, Memorable Providences, which indicated witchcraft instances in Boston. The locals were quick to connect Betty's behavior to the witch description by Mather. The talk about Betty being a witch escalated and people started believing that she had been witched. Additionally, other young girls in the community started depicting a similar behavior as Betty. A doctor diagnosed the conditions of the girls as being triggered by supernatural origins. The diagnosis fueled the belief in witchcraft in the locality. Different religious beliefs among members of the society and misdiagnoses from the medical experts were the main triggers of the Salem witch trials that led to subsequent trials and deaths of young men and women.
- What triggered the Salem witch trials that led to the death of innocent young men and women?
- What cultural beliefs drove the locals to believe in witchcraft?
People that had been known to have deep religious beliefs were also key suspects in the witch trial. For instance, Bridget Bishop had been accused of practicing witchcraft before the trials began taking place in 1692 and the locals were relieved when the trail started gaining popularity in Salem. Bridget Bishop was accused by her former husband Thomas Oliver before his death and stated that she preferred staying up all night to converse with the devil. She was arrested and sentenced in 1680. The courtroom records reveal that once Bridget Bishop entered the room, some of the accused young women fell and started having unexplainable fits. The judge asked the girls whether they had been afflicted by Bridget to which they affirmed that they have interacted with her. In addition, the young women stated that Bridget had urged them to sign a book as confirmation of their membership to witchcraft. It was hard to define or determine why the young women behaved as if they were tortured when Bridget was in the courtroom. In addition, the evidence leveled against her pinned her down to being a witch who recruited young women and controlled their behavior.
Following Bridget Bishop's accusations and sentencing, more cases were evident, and they followed a similar pattern. Young women who were believed to be afflicted and tormented accused an individual, and were backed up by witnesses who were members of the public willing to testify against the accused. This meant that presiding judges had little or no choice but to sentence the accused to hanging. The incriminating evidence against the accused and the number of people attending the courtroom sessions to know the actions the presiding judges would take against the growing belief on some members of the society practicing witchcraft put some form of pressure on juries and panel-judges to give-in to the demands of the community. This was despite the young women, who accused specific members of the community to engage in witchcraft, refusing to seek medical attention. Bridget Bishop was the first victim to be hanged after the Salem witchcraft trails and trials started.
Lessons from the Documents in Historical Context
Male chauvinism in the colonial New England might have been one of the reasons why females were accused to practice witchcraft. The Puritan society's perception of women might have also encouraged the accusations geared against females in the community. Most of the women accused to be practicing witchcraft were individuals who stood a chance to inherit a large amount of wealth after their husbands or fathers died. The patriarchal society practiced the culture of inheriting women after the death of their partners. Further, men spearheaded the false accusation claims against women they believed were on the verge of winning the battle against negotiations on the validity of female's anger and discontent. For instance, women who advocated their husbands should leave the family property in their hands as opposed to the cultural practices of sons inheriting their father's lands, were often thought to question the moral authority of men. Therefore, as a revenge, men started spreading hate rumors against such females by accusing them of practicing witchcraft.
Religious leaders in top positions in the community have a high probability of bringing each other down. For instance, Cotton Mather, a minister in church and believer in witchcraft started accusing his colleagues of engaging in wayward ways against the Christian teachings. For instance, he spearheaded the investigation of some children and concluded that they had been bewitched. He published his works, meaning that readers of his research on witchcraft increased. Due to his influential position in the society, Mather was able to convince many people that some people in the society were practicing witchcraft. A court was set up to try people accused of practicing witchcraft, with some of the judges being close to Mather. Mather's plan to spearhead the eradication process of getting rid of witches in the society seems like a pre-planned strategy to punish those he considered personal enemies. For instance, Mather encouraged the judges to arrest and persecute George Burroughs, his colleague in the church ministry.
Surprising Facts about the Sources
One of the surprising facts about the sources is that they give the accurate courtroom recordings in verbatim. They allow the public to know what exactly happened in the court proceedings, giving them a chance to make the right judgment. Reading the court proceedings triggers the critical thinking skills of readers who examine the evidence against the accused. Judges made unfair judgments against the accused based on the evidence brought in court, without ordering further investigations to be conducted since conspirators or personal enemies of the accused could have spearheaded the accusations. The cases also make it easier to understand the current societal perception towards witchcraft, based on the way innocent people were accused of practicing black magic. For instance, a renowned minister, George Burroughs was accused to be the leader of the witches in the society and on his way to be hanged, he started reciting the Lord's Prayer, to which Cotton Mather, stated that even demons and witches are known to recite religious words before the persecution.
Another surprising fact of the Salem Witch trail trials is that the aftereffect of the court cases had negative impacts on the religious, social, and economic stability of the society. Anyone found to be a strong believer in religion was accused to have a connection with the devil, and would be persecuted. For instance, Bridget Bishop, a strict Christian was accused of being a witch because she woke up at night to pray and engage her Creator. Documentaries filmed to illustrate the Salem society reveal that the locals' differences in religious beliefs and views might have triggered the accusations against each other to engage in witchcraft activities. Lack of tolerance is depicted amongst religious leaders who are on the lookout for more followers at the expense of encouraging a peaceful coexistence. The social relationships among people were also destroyed as friends would gang up against one person and accuse him or her of being a member of the witch community. For instance, the afflicted young women were pressured by adults and judges to name specific individuals in the community that had introduced them to witchcraft. Some historic authors claim that the afflicted women were considered of no value to the social-economic status of the Salem community. In addition, the accused persons were people who were believed to come from lower social-economic houses who would add little or no value to the society. However, with time, the afflicted women started mentioning influential people in the society that belong to the upper social class like Increase Mather. Mather's social status triggered his social circle to initiate protests against the courtroom trials.
The Salem Witch trials deepen the understanding of the American history as it records events that took place in the 17th Century. The trials reflect the activities that took place in the courtroom proceedings and in the society. After the trials ended, the judges were quick to reflect the events that had led to the trails in the society, and were quick to note that they had punished innocent people that had been accused by a few people in the community. The trials also depict the danger of hysteria among the public as it can destabilize the societal fabric. Religious differences also affect the way people reason and perceive the belief in a superior power. Intolerance and false accusations have a high probability of triggering social inconsistencies. The Salem witchcraft trials built the foundation for fair trials and investigations on claims against individuals in a courtroom. Relying on hearsay without subjecting the accused to an investigative team of experts may lead to disparities in the society.
In conclusion, the Salem Witch trail has shaped the American history and displayed the negative effects of mass hysteria. Victims lost their lives unfairly as they were accused by renowned members of the society to practice witchcraft. Women were targeted for the witch hunting activities, and were also used to bring others down. Religious differences among church ministers might have been the trigger for the witch trail hunting. Ignorance also fueled the negative hysteria on witchcraft as the locals failed to question the medical personnel why the afflicted young women behaved in strange ways.
Boyer, Paul S., and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds. The Salem witchcraft papers: Verbatim transcripts of the legal documents of the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692. Vol. 3. Da Capo Press, 1977.
Ellis, Lacey. "Salem Witch Trials." PhD diss., Eastern Idaho Technical College, 2001.
Hill, Frances. A delusion of Satan: The full story of the Salem witch trials. Tantor eBooks, 2014.
Karlsen, Carol. "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman." PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2001. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/karlsenrev.html.
King, Lester S. "Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft." JAMA 228, no. 7 (1974): 910-910.
Kirk, Devan "Witch City Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature." PhD diss., 2001.
Starkey, Marion Lena, and Aldous Huxley. The devil in Massachusetts: a modern inquiry into the Salem witch trials. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1949.
Tomasic, D. A. "Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft." The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 421, no. 1 (1975): 176-176.
Walsh, Sarah-Nell. "Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature." PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2001. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/bishop_court.html.
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