Salem Witch Trials

Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials (February to October 1692) comprise the largest witch-hunt in North American history. A keynote of the Salem Witch Trials and the history of their interpretation is conspiracy: secret plots, involving members of groups perceived to be conspiring with the devil, and acting covertly to carry out harmful ends requiring intricate cover-ups.

Background

Of the 150 individuals imprisoned (from 24 towns and villages), 44 individuals confessed, 20 individuals were executed (19 accused witches hanged; one man pressed to death), and 4 individuals died in prison.

The events leading up to the trials center on a small group of girls from Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) who met in the home of Rev. Samuel Parris for stories and fortune-telling with Tituba, the minister’s Caribbean slave. By January 1692 the minister’s daughter and niece (followed by the rest of the group) displayed symptoms of demonic possession.


Pressured to name their tormentors, the girls accused Tituba and two others (Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne). When Tituba confessed to witchcraft, accused Good and Osborne, and claimed the existence of other witches, panic engulfed the Puritan community.

Conspiracy Theories

From the start, the Salem Witch Trials have been seen through the lens of conspiracy theory. Seven-teenth-century witnesses interpreted the events as part of a satanic world takeover. Reflecting this mindset is Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), one of the first histories of the trials.

Salem villagers perceived witches, not as isolated practitioners of the “craft,” but instead as a network of individuals with links to the upper class and the colonial center at Boston. Reflecting in part Puritan millenarian traditions, Salem villagers militarized their concepts of witch covens.

Witches were said to meet secretly to plot the overthrow of the country and to set up a new, diabolical form of government. While this satanic conspiracy theory of Salem was discredited before the close of the seventeenth century, modern research has uncovered evidence for the presence of practicing witches in Salem.

A second conspiracy theory of the Salem Witch Trials centers on the belief that the young girl accusers were deliberately lying, their motives being power, attention, even entertainment. In the nineteenth century, this conspiracy theory became the standard interpretation.

Ranging in ages from nine to twenty, the group of accusers included Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Jr., Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, Mary Warren, Sarah Churchill, Susannah Sheldon, and Elizabeth Hubbard. While the girls were swept along by events they may not have preconceived, once begun, they were committed to continuing and to naming fresh victims to prolong the delusion.

While their first accusations targeted social outcasts, the girls soon began accusing people from higher stations; according to one rumor, the girls were about to accuse the wife of Governor Williams Phips, who abruptly dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer on 29 October 1692.

A third influential conspiracy theory involving the Salem Witch Trials proposes a power acting behind the accusing girls. Proponents of this theory argue that the girls were guided by a small group of adults seeking revenge and political gain. The clearest indicator of adult intervention is the unprecedented support authorities lent the girls.

Ministers and magistrates kept the girls in public view, accepted their word, and—most importantly—allowed spectral evidence (evidence based on the actions of specters of both the living and the dead seen only by the accusing girls).

The belief in a conspiracy of adults guiding the accusing girls relies on competing factions characterizing seventeenth-century Salem, which was divided geographically and politically into Salem Town (the seaport) and Salem Village (a small farming community).

In Salem Village two factions struggled for supremacy, one led by the Porter family advocating close ties with the town, and another group led by the Putnam family fighting for independence. Rev. Parris was aligned with the Putnams, in part because the church at Salem Village symbolized autonomy from Salem Town.

A sinister pattern begins to emerge, with many of the accusers belonging to the Putnam faction, and many of the accused belonging to the Porter faction. In the households of Thomas Putnam and Samuel Parris resided five of the nine accusing girls.

A total of eight members of the Putnam clan helped sentence nearly fifty accused witches. All of the accusing girls had direct links to the household of Rev. Parris, who testified against ten accused witches, and who beat his slave Tituba to confess to witchcraft, a confession instigating a large-scale witchhunt.

While the desire to crush opposition is the motive in this conspiracy theory, personal interests also seem to have played a role, such as the desire for land on the part of Thomas Putnam, and the desire to salvage an unsuccessful ministry on the part of Parris.

Another theory containing conspiratorial elements centers on the inherent misogyny of the trials and their links to the interests of an emerging medical profession. Witch-hunts were part of a larger system of patriarchal control, and the women first accused in Salem were those (like Bridget Bishop, a contentious businesswoman married three times) who deviated from Puritan standards of womanhood.

One problem with this theory concerns the extent to which patriarchy, as a pervasive social system, relies on the intentional collusion of individuals. More in keeping with a traditional conspiracy theory is the thesis that the Salem Witch Trials, like other witch-hunts, were used by a male medical profession to eliminate competition from midwives.

Although it is impossible to provide precise numbers of mid- wives in Salem, in most households women were responsible for healing, and thus competed with the relatively small number of male practitioners.

Sarah Osborne, Ann Pudeator, and Elizabeth Proctor were all accused of witchcraft in relation to midwife practices, and one of the accusing girls (Elizabeth Hubbard) was a niece of Dr. William Griggs, who incidentally made the first diagnosis of witchcraft in Salem, claiming the girls were “under an evil hand.”

The trials have bequeathed to the U.S. lexicon—and the vocabulary of conspiracy theory—a key term, “witch-hunt,” meaning any attempt to expose subversive activity, but which is really an attempt to crush political opposition.