Hypothesis of the Salem Witch Trials

Between the years of 1692 and early 1693 in the colonial Massachusetts Bay colony of Essex known
as Salem Village great paranoia broke out in the form of witchcraft accusations, neighbor against
neighbor, and as a result much injustice was done. During this time in our nation’s history at this placemore than one hundred and fifty people, residents of Salem Village, were accused of practicing
witchcraft and consorting with the devil. At least twenty were put to death nineteen by hanging and
one man by laying stones on him until his body was crushed under the weight. Eventually the
governing authorities admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those
convicted. Exploration of the possible reasons why these events occurred even now three hundred
years later still beguile the popular imagination as stated in A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials
(Blumberg 1). King William’s War and land greed may have played a great role in effecting the colonist
judgment. Social pressures may have brought about these events. Food poisoning by ergot is also one
of the venues of discussion regarding the behaviors that lead to the trials. In attempting to piece this
puzzle together regarding the conditions, which lead to the Salem Witch trials we seem to find more
questions than solid answers, however in the study of colonial life we may just find some answers to
our own bigotry as well as see a mirror image regarding modern events such as the McCarthy
communism trials of the 1950’s.
Superstition and suspicion were very relevant to the events that took place in Salem 1692. The
witchcraft craze in Europe had lasted from 1300 until the late 1600’s with executions numbered in the
hundreds of thousands, mostly women. The witchcraft craze was based upon the fact that several
centuries ago, practicing Christians as well as other religions taught that the devil could give certain
people known as witches supernatural powers in return for their loyalty. Just as the witchcraft craze in
Europe was winding down the events of the Salem witch trials took place in the colonies. In 1689
English rulers William and Mary started a war with France also known as King William’s War. This war
simply lay to waste the regions of upstate New York sending refugees into Salem Village.
Right away these displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources. This exacerbated the
existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still
depended on agriculture http:wwwsalemwitchtrials.com/biographies.html. In January of 1692 the
Reverend Samuel Parris, because of his rigid ways and greedy nature, became a very controversial and
disliked figure. It seems his daughter Elizabeth age nine, and niece Abigail Williams age eleven and
another girl named Ann Putnam began having convulsive fits. They screamed and began uttering
peculiar sounds it was noted in that during prayer they also broke out in uncontrollable laughter and
contorted their bodies in strange positions The Salem witchcraft papers, Volume 2 (pg13). A local
doctor blamed the girl’s behavior on the supernatural. On February 29, 1692 magistrates John
Hathorn, who was the grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorn the author of some of the greatest
American literature ever written including his novel The House of Seven Gables and John Corwin
questioned the girls. The girls then named three women for first enticing then bewitching and finally
afflicting them Sarah Good a homeless beggar, Sarah Osborn an elderly impoverished women and Tituba
the Parris’ Caribbean slave who later was thought to be a Native American Indian that was sold into
slavery in Barbados and then returned to serve in the Parris’ home. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem
Breslaw (pg3). These three women were brought before the magistrates on March 1, 1692. Sarah Good
and Sarah Osborn both claimed to be innocent; however, Tituba the slave claimed to be guilty and
confessed “The devil came to me and bid me serve him” The Salem witchcraft papers, Volume 2 (pg23).
Tituba said a black man came to her and wanted her to sign his book. She admitted that she had signed
and that there were several others witches looking to destroy the Puritans. All three women were then
put in jail. With the seeds of hysteria and paranoia planted a plethora of accusations followed closely
behind. Martha Corey was then also accused as was her husband Giles Corey. Martha Corey was a
devout member of the church in Salem Village however her husband Giles Corey was a farmer and
frequently missed church services to tend his farm. The magistrates even questioned Dorothy Good
Sarah’s four-year-old daughter the shy girls answers were then twisted into a confession. The
questioning only gained momentum and by April Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and his assistants
had attended dozens of hearings. Villagers from both Salem and surrounding Massachusetts villages
were questioned.
On May 27, 1692 Governor William Phipps ordered that a special court be established to hear and
determine the guilt or innocence of those imprisoned. This court was call the court of Oyer meaning to
hear, and the court of terminer meaning to decide A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials (Blumberg 1).
The first case heard in this special court was that of Bridget Bishop an older women who was known to be
promiscuous as well as a gossip. When Bishop was ask if she was guilty of the crime of witchcraft she
stated “I am as innocent as the child unborn” The Salem witchcraft papers, Volume 2 (pg30). After the
intense question and scrutiny of the court she was found guilty of being a witch and was the first person
to be executed by hanging on June 1, 1692 on what was later known as Gallows Hill. Five days later a
letter was written to the court by Cotton Mather a well-respected minister pleading with the court not to
allow spectral evidence to be allowed in the court proceedings. Evidence like this might include visions
and dreams. The court ignored the letter and as a result, five people were hanged in July 1692. The
convictions continued and Five more of the convicted were hanged in August as well as eight in
September. Increase Mather at this time was president of Harvard University. Denouncing the use of
spectral evidence and acknowledging and respecting the letter of his son Cotton Mather he stated “It
were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned” The
Salem witchcraft papers, Volume 2 (pg43).Governor Phipps own wife was questioned about her possible
involvement in witchcraft so he quickly responded to Mather’s plea and prohibited further arrest, he also
released many that were accused of being witches and dissolved the court of hearing (oyer) and
determination (terminer) on October 29 1692. The replacement for that type of proceeding was replaced
by The Superior Court of Judicature. This court disallowed all spectral evidence and only convicted 3 out
of 56 defendants A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials (Blumberg 2). All convicted defendants of
witchcraft who were imprisoned were pardoned by May 1693 however, by that time the damage caused
by prejudice and hysteria had wreaked its havoc on the community of Salem. In all, twenty people
were executed, most but not all were residents of Salem Village some were from Andover as well as
Ipswich. Hanged on June 10 Bridget Bishop, hanged on July 19 Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse,
Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How, Sarah Wilds, hanged on August 19 George Burroughs, John Proctor,
John Willard, George Jacobs, Sr., Martha Carrier, September 19, Giles Corey pressed to death, hanged
on September 22 Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeater, Margaret Scott, Wilmott Reed,
Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker. Other accused witches that were not hanged died in prison: Sarah
Osborne, Roger Toothaker, Lyndia Dustin, and finally Ann Foster. Thirteen others may have also died in
prison but sources disagree on the exact number. The Salem witchcraft papers, Volume 2 (pg53). All
these historical events have lead us to some interesting evaluations concerning what the actual and
presumed causes may have been.
One of the most comprehensive and compelling studies regarding the underlying causes of the
hysteria of 1692 was Introduced by Linnda Caporael. She stated “Scientist now know that eating food
contaminated by Ergot fungus can lead to a disorder characterized by symptoms including violent muscle
spasms, vomiting, delusions, and hallucinations. All of which are noted and present in the court
documents of the Salem witchcraft trials” Science Magazine 1976 Caporael (1). Ergot fungus thrives in
warm, damp climates and in rainy times of the year mostly springs and summers. While in the process of
examining the diaries of Salem residents, Caporeal found that those exact conditions had been present in
1691. She also took note that nearly all of the accusers lived in the western section of Salem village.
This region of Salem’s swampy valleys would have been a prime breeding ground for the Ergot fungus.
In Salem at this time, rye was the staple grain. The rye crop that would have been consumed in the
winter of 1691-1692 may have been harboring the Ergot fungus. When the first behavioral changes
were reported Salem Village could have easily have been contaminated by large quantities of Ergot.
The summer of 1692, however, was dry, which could explain the quick end to the mental, physical and
emotional episodes the accusers experienced. This and other evidence build into a strong circumstantial
case against Ergot that Caporael found impossible to ignore this was reported in PBS “Secrets of the
Dead II” Witches Curse.
Even now in the current year scientist artist and writers are fascinated with this period in colonial
history In 1953 Playwright Arthur Miller wrote the play The Crucible he resurrected the Salem witch trials
to use as an allegory for the McCarthyism paranoia Communism Trials of the 1950’s. During which time
many well-known and loved popular figures were being accused of being communist. This time was also
called the “Red Scare”. Millers play depicted the accused witches of being burned at the stake an event
that you now know was inaccurate. All of the evidence simply leads us to one conclusion a village can
very easily become a mob if the right conditions are present to precipitate hatred, bigotry, and
intolerance.This can occur at any place in the time line of our history. One of the most famous quotes
from the playThe Crucible is “Cleave to no faith when faith brings blood.” This describes the answer to
the question of intolerance and is so simple and clear Arthur Miller The Crucible.
In studying the Salem witch trials and executions, we find that many people involved such as Judge
Samuel Sewall publicly confessed guilt and excepted blame. The General Court declared the Day of
January 14, 1697 a day of fasting and soul searching for the tragedy of Salem. The court in 1702
Declared the trials unlawful. The names of those accused as well as their rights were restored in 1711
along with a very small restitution being paid to their heirs. It was not until two hundred and fifty years
later in 1957, that Massachusetts formally apologized for the trials of 1692. Marking the three
hundredth Anniversary of the trials in 1992 was quite a special event and a memorial at that time was
dedicated to the travesty of the Salem witch trials by Nobel Laureate Elie Weasel . As a result of its
infamous and blood stained past the area of Gallows Hill and the western section of Salem Village
eventually broke away and established their own township. This is modern day Danvers Massachusetts.
The accused and executed memorial stones are located in the city of Danvers The Peabody Essex
Museum now house the original court documents and many visitors to the site in Danvers
Massachusetts enjoys reliving and questioning this important event in Colonial America. This study has
lead me to several thoughts on the testimonies of the women and the trials themselves. The first would
be regarding Bridget Bishop could she have been pregnant and was her execution staged to cover that
fact. The second would be was Tituba angry and thus contrived a confession to have her revenge on
Reverend Parris regarding her slave status. Lastly would be the jealousy over Giles Corey’s farm to port
and shipping connection and the fact that with Giles Corey and his wife out of the way who would
inherit the farm, and the interest of his estate. As first stated many, more questions than answers to
the enigma that was the Salem witch trials.