We look back on the Salem Witch Trials as one of the most evil moments in our history. We look down our noses at those who came before us and judge them by the standards of today. For as awful as they were, the Salem Witch trials need to be judged in a historical context. Before we vilify the Puritans, we need to understand their times. There is no question looking back that what happened was wrong, but we need to have a broader context when we judge those involved.
Witch-hunts were nothing new when the one’s in Salem arose. From the 1640s through the time of the Salem trials in 1692, many in New England were accused of witchcraft. Europe had an even longer and more deadly tradition of witch-hunts. All over Europe, but especially in Central Europe, tens of thousands faced an accusation of witch-craft. Europe’s witch-hunts seemed to coincide with Church reformations and with outbreaks of the plague.
The primary accusations during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 were brought by “afflicted children.” It was these children who provided the spectral evidence in the trials. Children were defined in this situation as below the age of 20. All but two of the group making the allegations were under 20 at the outset of the trials. The first two children were the daughters of a Reverend Parris. In the end, many more children would be counted among the afflicted. All would claim to be tortured by the spells and invisible specters of citizens of the Salem community.
In English tradition (Salem was part of an English colony) there was a long-standing tradition of using children gifted with “spectral sight” as witch-finders. Many of the “sighted” children in England actually made a name for themselves through their gifts. There were other cases of child-accusers in New England between 1640 and 1692, most famously during the witch trials of Hartford, Connecticut in the 1660s. Again, it is important to remember that the witch-trials of Salem though heinous were hardly unique.
The “afflicted children” of Salem accused over two hundred people. Most of the accused were eventually found innocent of the charges. This is a very different outcome than those accused in Europe would have expected. Nearly 50 of the accused ended up confessing to the crime of witchcraft and begging for forgiveness. They were then asked to turn states evidence and point out more witches. Nineteen of the accused were hanged using the “short drop” which allowed them to remain suspended and die of gradual strangulation over several minutes. Giles Corey was killed by being pressed under heavy rocks. There is no record in Salem, or in any other part of New England, of anyone being burned-at-the-stake.
In our modern western culture, we find it hard to understand why any belief system could be considered worthy of death. We look at the various Muslim sects and wonder why they cannot get along with each other much less with those who are not Muslims. We forget the prejudice which is part of our history.
America was, in part, founded by those who sought to escape persecution for their mode of worship. In the 1500s and 1600s, the norm was that the subjects of a monarch worshiped as the monarch worshiped. Thus when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the people of England were expected to become worshipers in the Church of England. English law, prior to 1688, actually prohibited all other forms of worship except that of the state church.
Of course, England did have some religious diversity. It did have communities of Jews and of Roman Catholics. Not belonging to the Church of England, however, made members of those communities second class citizens. They were suspect. The King was the head of the Church. Disloyalty to the Church was a disloyalty to him. The Jews had actually been put out of England during the time of King Edward under “Edicts of Expulsion” in 1290. Though they had never been readmitted, there is a written record of a small community in London in the mid 1600s. The history of massacres in England involving Catholics and Anglicans depending on who was ruling is as any period of the Reformation in Europe.
The crime of witchcraft was committed by persons who deliberately attempted to communicate with the devil in exchange for supernatural powers. This seeking a power outside the church made practitioners religiously treasonous. Practitioners of witchcraft were a threat because they agreed to perform acts at the request of Satan. Beyond the danger these people posed to society, they also demonstrated themselves as disloyal to the monarch. After all, betraying the church was betraying the leadership behind the church. For this reason, witch trials which dealt with “the invisible world” were not handled as part of an ecclesiastical court, but as part of a state court.
Many talk about women who practiced herbal medicine or who acted as midwives as being the primary target of witch trials. This may have been the case in Europe where nearly three-fourths of those accused were women. The Salem Witch Trials involved accusations against both men and women. Both young and old found themselves accused. Both citizens and slaves found themselves accused in the trial. While the trials took place in Salem, the accused came from many of the surrounding communities. Midwives and those who practiced herbal medicine may have been more at risk in Europe, but that was not the case in Salem.
The Puritans of Salem were not some sadistic group who looked to condemn all who were accused. Of the 200 accused, only 23 convictions were handed down. Only 20 were actually executed. Still a huge number, it was a small percentage compared to other places that had their own witch-trials. The methods of execution – hanging and death by torture of forte peine et dure (pressing) were punishments included in English Common Law. The Puritans did not make up some new form of torture. Unlike in Europe where accusations of witchcraft usually resulted in conviction, in the colonies (and in Salem), accusations usually resulted in verdicts of innocence. While we find the convictions hateful, it is worth noting that the Puritans were more tolerant than many others.
While we look back with modern sensibilities and shudder at what happened in Salem, it is worth putting the witch trials in the context of their time. Reprehensible as we find these events, they were more liberal and forgiving than many others in the same age. We can only hope that future generations will remember us with more kindness.
The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide, K. David Goss, Greenwood Press, 1997
A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials, Frances Hill, Da Capo Press, 2002
Salem-Village Witchcraft, Paul Boyer and Steven Nissenbaum, Northeastern UP, 1997.