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Now that you’re done with Halloween, here’s some boring information on the Salem witch trials

by Jen Burd

November 2, 2013

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Donate Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible, is an American classic. The Crucible is one of the major sources of most people’s information on the Salem witch trials. As a work of art and a political allegory, The Crucible is a masterpiece. Not so much as a historical narrative. Miller’s intention was to draw a parallel between witchcraft accusations and the Second Red Scare, not to convey the events of the Salem witch trials with historical accuracy.

Witch trials were uncommon in the New England, but not unheard of. A very roughly estimated 35,000-60,000 executions for witchcraft occurred in Europe between 1450 and 1750. From 1620, when the Puritans arrived in America, to 1725, there were 334 recorded witchcraft accusations in New England. Trials and convictions dwindled almost to zero after 1693. Of the 334 accused, approximately 78% were female. Half of the men accused of witchcraft were related to accused females, and therefore “suspect by association.” Women were far more vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. One man who confessed to witchcraft in 1652 was whipped “for telling a lie.”

A total of twenty-three people were executed for witchcraft in New England. Nineteen of those executions occurred during the Salem outbreak (fourteen women and five men), and the other four in Hartford from 1662 to 1663 (three women and one man). In Puritan New England, women could only inherit property in the absence of a male heir or if the will specified otherwise. When a woman was widowed, however, she was entitled to a third of her husband’s property. A significant portion of the accused women were in line to inherit property, and many of the accusers stood to benefit financially.

Most of the accusers were males who could legally purchase or inherit unused land. The amount of people who accused their widowed neighbors of witchcraft suggests that economic motivations explain at least some of the accusations. The Puritan thing to do if you liked your widowed neighbor’s farm was, apparently, to accuse her of witchcraft before she could remarry.

The possessed accusers, like Winona Ryder’s character in The Crucible, eleven-year-old Abigail Williams, were mostly unmarried women. There are a variety of theories on possession during the Salem witchcraft trials, such as ergot poisoning from rye bread, epilepsy, and sleep paralysis, but we’ll never know for sure what caused it. Some scholars attribute possession to the extreme psychological pressure that young women experienced in Puritan culture. It’s important to understand that people are far more likely to experience possession in cultures that officially accept possession as a reality.

Most of the accounts of possession that have survived were written by members of the clergy, and many of those are second-hand anecdotes. Religious officials, unsurprisingly, were far more likely to mention Satan in association with suspected witchcraft, while common people talked about “maleficium,” or supernatural mischief. Ministers often had to suggest themselves that Satan was involved to obtain a conviction. Many of the possessed accused two or three complete strangers, often under duress from an authority figure. In 1693, Mary Watkins accused herself of witchcraft after a threat from her mistress.

Miller isn’t the only culprit. Many of the cruel practices commonly attributed to Puritans during the Salem witch trials were actually European methods that the Puritans never adopted. “Ducking” is a well-known test for witchcraft in which the suspect was bound and submerged in a body of water. If the suspect floated, she was a witch. If she drowned, she was innocent, but usually dead. The Puritans never practiced ducking in an official capacity. One suspected witch, Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford, Connecticut, requested trial by water in an attempt to clear her name. The court indulged her request. Clawson floated, but was ultimately found innocent.

In seventeenth century New England, science and religion were not mutually exclusive domains. The magistrates, well aware of the latest research from England, strove to ensure that admissible evidence was sound both scripturally and scientifically (keep in mind, scientific for 1693). Ducking had no scientific or scriptural basis, and was therefore inadmissible. The famous “witches teat” [sic] and “devil’s mark” were also considered unreliable evidence. A witches teat is a third nipple, or a blemish that resembled one, hidden somewhere on the witch’s body so she could suckle her familiar. The devil’s mark is any aberrant spot, scar, or blemish, thought to verify the witch’s agreement with Satan.

Evidence was a major problem in obtaining witchcraft convictions. Witch trials presented an insurmountable conflict within Puritan theology. Witchcraft came from the Devil. Puritans depended on the existence of magic to validate the existence of God. All magic came from God, and God’s work was inscrutable to humans. By this logic, there was no admissible evidence of witchcraft because human beings would not be able to understand any such evidence.

There wasn’t a decline in witchcraft beliefs or practice among common people as a result of the Salem trials, but despite what ABC’s series, Sleepy Hollow may lead you to believe, there were no subsequent executions and only one recorded conviction. Individuals continued to file complaints, but officials simply could not legislate the paranormal. Some accusers resorted to “countermagic,” practices such as beating an afflicted cattle in hopes that that whoever had bewitched the animal would experience the pain vicariously.

Puritanism was, for many reasons, already on the decline in the 1690s. By early 18th century, when the next generation was in power, Puritanism was all but a relic of the past. Many of the possessed women from the trials in Salem publically apologized. The Salem witch trials stand out in history as a unique instance of mass-hysteria, superstition, and brutality. Unfortunately, the Salem outbreak was not as unique as we would imagine. That’s what people did before they had television and video games. It was a dark time, indeed.

by Jen Burd

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