Imagine yourself in a community with severe conflict, in addition to being different from others. Or worse yet, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or saying the wrong things. During the 1690’s, people in Salem had to watch their every move and word as Corey Giles soon found out. Giles was not an admirable man, especially where John Procter stood (they had a long standing quarrel which had ended up in court). In addition, he was a violent person. However, Giles wanted to attend the Salem witch trials, when he told his wife, Martha, she took his saddle and hid it hoping to discourage his attendance. This only aggravated Giles more and he walked to the trials. When he got there he told some friends what Martha had done. When his friends started asking if she had done any other strange things, Giles replied that she talked to herself before going to bed at night. Eventually Martha was accused of witchcraft. When Giles realized what he had done, he recanted his story and stated that she had only been praying out loud. People in Salem felt Martha put a spell on him and he too was a witch. However, when Giles was indicted in court he simply stood there silent. You see, under New England law a man who refused to answer could not be tried for the alleged crime, but he could be tortured until he confessed to the act. The torture chosen for Giles was being placed on the ground and gradually adding weight on top of him. Every time he was asked to confess, he replied with ‘more weight’. If Giles had confessed, his abundant amount of land would have gone to the state. Some speculate this is the reason Giles refused to confess he was saving the land for his children (Hansen, 1969).
I hope to show that the Salem witch trials were a result of extreme conflict during this period. A strong religious belief in the devil, rivalries between townspeople, a small pox epidemic all played a part in the events that led to the Salem witch trials. Although the number of people accused and imprisoned were in the hundreds, in total, nineteen were executed—eighteen by hanging and one by being pressed to death. Out of these nineteen, sixteen were women. Those who were most likely to be accused were women whose behavior or economic circumstances were somehow disturbing to the social order and conventions of the time. Some of the accused had previous records of criminal activity, including witchcraft, but others were faithful churchgoers and people of high standing in the community (Starkey, 1949).
What is perceived as deviance also changes from culture to culture, from social class to social class, and from year to year. According to Erikson (1966), in Wayward Puritans, he defines deviance as "conduct which the people of a group consider so dangerous or embarrassing or irritating that they bring special sanctions to bear against the person who exhibits it" (Erikson, 1966, p. 6). In addition, Erikson (1966) also declares the only way to tell if a behavior is deviant is to learn about the standards or morals of the audience that is responding to the deviant act. There are several factors that are taken into consideration when judging whether a person is deviant or not: offender’s past record; their social class; and, if they show remorse for their actions. For example, some who drink heavily are considered alcoholics, while others aren’t (they may just be relieving stress). Whether or not a person is viewed as deviant depends on how the community views the actions. Just because an action is considered deviant by society, does not mean it is harmful to the group (Erikson, 1966).
Deviance is needed to give the group boundaries to their behavior. Deviance will be found in every society due to the limits it sets. It should also be noted that if you fear something, you would become more obvious to that fear. For example, those who are jealous of material objects will come across thieves. Likewise, the Puritans in New England feared witches, and soon they were surrounded by so called witches (Erikson, 1966).
With this sociological background in mind, let me explain about the Puritan’s in Massachusetts. The new governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, accompanied the first Puritan settlers across the Atlantic Ocean in the early 1630’s. All felt it was their duty to cleanse the world by returning them to the purity known during the days of Christ. In a sense, this revival would change the world into a better place and make history while doing so (Erikson, 1966).
In January 1636, John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley, prominent political figures in Massachusetts, had opposing view points on how to handle the court system. Winthrop urged leniency in matters before the court, while Dudley wanted harsh Biblical justice. Henry Vane, acting as a mediator, called a community meeting. In the end, the people of Salem Village sided with Dudley which set a precedent for the years to come—law should be a permanent set of standards (Erikson, 1966).
The magistrates of Massachusetts Bay were known for their cruel forms of punishment, which could range from expelling a person to the wilderness, to public hangings. In actuality, Massachusetts was less severe in their punishment. However, the difference was the Massachusetts community did not pay much attention to the motives of the offender, grief of the victim, and were void of any human emotion. Rather, their whole judicial process was based on the laws of nature (Erickson, 1966).
According to Puritan religion, only two classes of people were important: those chosen for everlasting life, and those condemned to hell forever. Furthermore, these decisions were made prior to their birth and as a result were called the Doctrine of Predestination. Even though a person’s actions throughout their life did not have any outcome on the decision, eventually people would exhibit behavior that indicated what their destiny was heaven or hell. Those who were destined for everlasting life would eventually move into a leadership position, those who were in doubt remained in the middle, and those bound for hell occupied the lowest echelon of society and were vulnerable to deviant behavior. Therefore, the Puritans didn’t feel it mattered how severe the punishment was, because those people were already condemned to an eternity in hell. The punishment from the court was a method for protecting society, but also was an act issued directly from Christ (Erikson, 1966).
According to Puritanism, the guilty party should accept their punishment regardless of the pain, and do so with dignity. If the culprit resisted these measures, they were thought to be the demon. In essence, deviance was a form of illness that needed to be corrected—at any cost—by the community. It was thought that by repenting, a person could show the community they really weren’t a bad person; however, by repenting the person was publicly admitting their guilt and understands why they were being punished for their actions. Erikson (1966) sums it up nicely by stating, "that the people of the community . . . were somehow anxious for the condemned man to forgive them" (Erikson, 1966, p. 195).
To sum up the New England thought process regarding deviance, it can be said they saw deviance as a special characteristic of a certain class of people who had no means of escaping the deviant behavior. In their eyes, the best way to handle these problems is to secure these people into a fairly everlasting deviant role. Because Puritans believed in predestination for all people, reform of a delinquent was unlikely to happen. It should be noted, that not all delinquents were considered ‘lost’ forever. Imposing a fine against a delinquent was meant to bring the person to their senses, whereas by branding them on the forehead was publicly showing the community that this person was a deviant and of the lower social class. Also, by expelling the person from the community it would become part of the legal records, but at the same time the person would have another chance at a fresh start in a new community. In a way, executions served the same purpose (Erikson, 1966).
As previously mentioned, once a person was categorized as a deviant they were classified as part of this lower class permanently. Part of the reason for this continuous status was because it was hard to convince others you had changed if branded on the forehead. Erickson (1966) states, to characterize a person as deviant was to describe his spiritual condition, his calling, his vocation, his state of grace" (Erikson, 1966, p. 198).
In 1689, the people of Salem Village won the right to establish their own church and chose Reverend Samuel Parris as their minister. His stern ways was one source of conflict within the community, along with his demands for monetary or material compensation. Many of the people in the community vowed they would drive Parris out of the community and church. It all started one day, late in February 1692 when Parris’ nine-year-old daughter, Betty, and her cousin, Abigail Williams, were bored and sought entertainment through the tales told by Tituba, a slave of Parris’ from Barbados. Soon, Betty and Abigail invited several of their friends to have their future told by Tituba. A common question the girls wanted to know was what was the man like that they were to marry. This seemed an innocent enough question for the young girls. It wasn’t long before Betty became ill and started acting strangely. What really urged the witchcraft label were the convulsive fits Betty started having. Regardless of what the cause was, Reverend Parris felt the illness was a judgment placed on him and the village (Hoffer, 1996). Soon the other girls were displaying similar ‘fits’, in addition to temporary loss of hearing, speech, sight, and memory. Probably more frightening for the people of Salem Village was the hallucinations they saw and felt being pinched and bitten (Hansen, 1969).
At first Parris and other members of the community tried prayer. When this didn’t work, they turned to the supernatural for an explanation. The girls were bewitched. However, during this era young girls did not have any way to reduce tension, like the boys did. Children are aware of conflicts that are going on around them—as Betty did. In addition, Betty’s condition was diagnosed by men, not women. Even doctors confirmed this witchcraft affliction. Although these symptoms were common in hysteria cases, they were also recognized as characteristics of witchcraft (Hoffer, 1996).
Using Satan as an explanation for mental disorders during the seventeenth century was common for both doctors and ministers. However, panic often accompanies hysteria. In addition, some girls said they were choking, which is common in asthma patients. This choking sensation could have been brought on by a number of things: stress combined with physical exertion; sudden changes in room temperatures; and, pollution by mold spores or other viruses. However, these conditions were often unseen and not obvious. Another possibility was epilepsy. In Betty’s case, after she was moved from her home and sent away (to avoid being contaminated again), her seizures seized. Some felt the children were lying to get attention (Hansen, 1969), while others came up with stress and trauma (Hoffer, 1996). Remember, during this time the Puritan’s were in a fight with the ‘red demon’ (Native Americans). Several of the afflicted were orphans as a result of the Indian raids. All they had to do to relive the horrible slaughter was close their eyes. It is probable that these accounts of the raid were told to the children, which also affected them (Hoffer, 1996).
The people of Massachusetts were looking forward to the witch trials, hoping to put the runaway upsurge in witchcraft under control. Three months lapsed from the time the fist witch was executed and the trials. This time period created additional havoc and hardship in the community. During a time when farmers needed to focus on their fields, they neglected them. Everyone—even the witches—anxiously awaited the trials. Some felt the court would disregard precedent and go lenient on those who repented. On the other hand, those who claimed to be innocent were apprehensive to have a fair trial. The majority felt the best and most intelligent men would conduct the trials. Surely, they would stop the madness. In order to aid the court better, John Proctor collected evidence on how these "confessions" were collected. Such evidence included a form of torture—being chained heel to neck in order to obtain the confession. In addition to the vulgar jail cells, the witches were chained continually and frequently searched for ‘witch marks’. Although prisoners were allowed visitors, they were also a type of freak exhibition (Starkey, 1949).
Only one of the seven original judges appointed to the Court of Oyer and Terminer was from Salem, Bartholomew Gedney. Those from Boston were Samuel Sewall, John Richards, William Sergeant, and Wait Winthrop. Nathaniel Saltstill was from Havenhill, and Deputy Governor Stoughton was from Dorchester. Not only were these judges somewhat impartial in regards to the trials, but they all had legal experience. I emphasized somewhat because Stoughton, Sewall, and Gedney played some part in the initial examinations (Starkey, 1969).
Deciding what evidence would be heard in the trials was a difficult feat. Due to the unusual type of trial, the court had to come up with different guidelines. One scriptural rule that was modified was having two eye-witnesses needed for a conviction. The altered order stated you needed two witnesses, however, they could be twenty years apart. In addition, they allowed spectral evidence because Satan could not assume the shape of an innocent person. All together, there were five separate tests allowed by the court. First were trials by test, which included repeating the Lord’s Prayer (it was believed witches wouldn’t be able to do this). Second, people who connected their ill fortunes to the sorcery of the accused person were allowed to testify. Third, physical evidence such as moles, warts, scars, or any other visible imperfections where the devil was thought to have sucked some blood from, leaving his mark. Fourth, was the spectral evidence mentioned earlier. Finally, the accused confessions—regardless of the torture involved—were also used as evidence admitted to court (Starkey, 1949).
When the witch trials convened in June, 1692 they were conducted contrary to the belief of many, the trials were conducted along the same lines as the examinations. According to the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the prior examinations were the trials. The only thing they had to do was review new evidence that came about since the examinations. For example, take Bridge Bishop’s case. Bridget was an ostentatious dresser and had a ‘smooth and flattering way’ with men. Furthermore, she owned two taverns which further implicated her as a witch. On the way to the court from the jail, Bridget gave the meeting house the evil eye. After an investigation, people confirmed she had transported a board strongly fastened with several nails to another part of the house. It was assumed Bridget had sent her devil to show what she was capable of (Hoffer, 1996).
Opinions shifted toward the end of the summer of 1692 for a couple of reasons. First, there were protests against the Court of Oyer and Terminer and how they handled the cases. Second, the court’s procedures seemed to be provoking—not prohibiting—the witchcraft troubles. And finally and most important, as the accusations continued, people of high and prominent social class were accused of witchcraft. Included in the latter was Nathaniel Saltonstall, the judge who recently retired from the Court of Oyer & Terminer. When accusations started affecting those of the upper class, things changed. At this point, Cotton Mather felt the court should be stopped because of the error in procedures based on spectral evidence and the accusations of obviously innocent people. Mather feared innocent people would be put to death in the future. However, he did not feel there was any innocent blood shed prior to this (Hansen, 1969).
It would not be fair to blame any one person for the Salem witch trials because this can occur when the majority of a community feels itself so troubled by malice—whether real or imagined—that it loses the ability to distinguish between the innocent or guilty. During this time, the Puritans were fighting Native Americans for land. The warfare and witchcraft fed each other. Another point to ponder is the small pox epidemic, which further enhanced the frenzy state of Massachusetts. Some speculated that the seizures of the afflicted were a result of mold on rye bread. Considering the storage of bread in damp cellars, this is an excellent point to consider. However, even more importantly were the views of women during this period. Many of those executed were from lower classes or misfits of the community. Reflecting back, one could see them as independent women who dressed and acted the way they felt—not how the community expected them to behave. Furthermore, women had a limited role in society—she was the homemaker and was expected to care for children. However, during these trying times females didn’t have the outlet to relieve tension like males did. The Salem witch hunt was a sad time, but reviewing all this material one should remember it can happen at any time or place.
Erikson, K. (1966). Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Hansen, C. (1969). Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, Inc.
Hoffer, P. C. (1996). The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Starkey, M. (1949). The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
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