Exodus states, “Thou shalt not let a witch to live.” And for more than four centuries, many people followed this directive, obediently believing in the reality of wicked spirits that served the devil and needed to be tracked down and put to death. A mindless slaughter that lasted more than four centuries and covered both the Old and New Continents involved thousands of women (as well as men and animals) being accused of serving the Evil One and being immolated in the name of God. Possessing a mole or a certain birthmark, keeping expired milk or butter in the house, being an adulterer or beggar, or just being socially awkward were all enough to raise suspicion. Witchcraft quickly proved to be the most effective method for getting rid of undesirable women who dared to question the socioeconomic system by breaking the “natural” laws of marriage and their community.
However, it wasn’t until the Church equated witchcraft to heresy in 1300 that the idea that those who practiced it were a menace to the world and should be eliminated at all costs became widely accepted. Spells and curses were already illegal in ancient Rome as well as in medieval communes.The Malleus Maleficarum, a comprehensive guide on how to identify, prosecute, and execute a witch, which was based on the belief that women were naturally inferior and naturally evil, making them much more susceptible to the devil’s temptations, and the letter Summis Desiderantes Affectibus, written by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484, gave the movement its final impetus. With its focus on misogyny and homophobia, the book by Dominican preachers Heinrich Institor Kramer and Jacob Sprenger was used as a reference by Catholic and Protestant courts throughout witch hunts, including the infamous Salem witch trials.
A potential bomb in a powder keg
In Salem, Massachusetts, more than 200 persons were charged with witchcraft in 1692. A surprisingly high amount for a tiny New England community. But how did this widespread frenzy start? The socio-historical setting contains the causes. Salem was a little rural settlement that had only been in New England for a little over a century, but the locals still saw it as an invasion, which led to frequent fighting between the two sides. In addition, they had to contend with the fallout from a British-French war in the American colonies in 1689, a recent smallpox outbreak, and a long-standing rivalry with the more affluent Salem Town neighborhood. You have a powder keg waiting to blow when you combine widespread xenophobia with Puritanism’s preoccupation with Satan’s presence on earth. The strange behavior of Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, respectively the daughter and granddaughter of Pastor Samuel Parris, provided the final spark in January 1692. The two girls, who were 9 and 11, started having seizures when they were younger. During these episodes, they would spasm, writhe, make odd noises, and scream violently. The local physician diagnosed it as diabolical possession, and the manhunt for the perpetrator began. Tituba, a slave from the Caribbean owned by Parris himself, Sarah Osborne, an elderly and disabled woman, and Sarah Good, a destitute beggar who spoke to herself, were implicated by Elizabeth and Abigail (along with other senior members of the town).
The three women were questioned for several days by local magistrates beginning in March. Osborne and Good both asserted their innocence despite coercion and torture. But Tituba came clean. The devil approached me and requested that I serve him. She described in great detail a “tall man with white hair and a dark cloak” who asked her to sign his book and threatened to kill her if she didn’t hurt the girls. The slave girl said, in an effort to gain forgiveness, that Osborne and Good were her collaborators and that numerous other witches were attempting to destroy the Puritans. It became chaotic immediately after that. Massachusetts experienced a paranoia epidemic, and in Salem, people kept getting arrested for allegedly worshiping the devil. Not just those on the margins who are labeled “difficult,” but also members of the church and neighborhood like Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, or Sarah Good’s 4-year-old kid. Governor William Phips commanded the creation of a unique Court of Oyer and Terminer for the counties of Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex on May 27, 1692. Bridget Bishop, a senior citizen with a reputation for gossip and promiscuity, was the first person accused of witchcraft to be hauled before the special court. She was the first person to be hanged on what was became known as Gallows Hill, although testifying that she was “as innocent as an unborn child.” In addition to those who died in jail, five people were hung in July, five in August, and eight in September. More than 200 persons were accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials between early 1692 and mid-1693, and 20 of them were put to death.
Summary and legacy
Interest in and support for witch hunts declined after the use of evidence based on dreams or visions was discontinued. Trials were stopped, and those who were still in prison received pardons in May 1693. The Massachusetts General Court proclaimed a day of fasting in January 1697 in memory of the tragedy of the Salem witch trials, but the harm to the neighborhood had already done irreparable damage. Family members of the persecuted petitioned the colonial government for their good reputations to be restored starting in 1700 and continuing over the following ten years, but it took more than 250 years for Massachusetts to formally apologize for the events of 1692 in 1957.With the help of numerous books and movies, including the TV series Salem, the cult hit Hocus Pocus, and Sabrina Spellman’s black cat, the Salem Trials and the purging of alleged witches have fascinated many artists over the years, including Arthur Miller, who was inspired to write the play The Crucible. Even historians and scientists are still baffled as to how such a widespread delusion could have started. Many theories exist. Some argue that the colonists were poisoned by Claviceps purpurea’s alkaloids, which made them hallucinate; others contend that it was an effort to restrain and control female sexuality; still others contend that it was the product of specific political, theological, and social tensions.