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Why were the Salem witch trials so significant?

Religious fanaticism, power-hungry individuals, local disputes, misogyny, anxiety, political turmoil, psychological distress, and mass hysteria all contributed to the atmosphere surrounding the infamous Salem Witch Trials. These factors converged in 1692 to “produce what was by far the largest and most lethal outbreak of witchcraft in American history …  threaten[ing] to bring down the newly formed Massachusetts Bay government of Sir William Phips.” The witch trials left a lasting impression on the early American colonists, and subsequently provided citizens of the American republic with a cautionary tale about the dangers of persecution, intolerance, and bigotry.

Many of the issues that plagued colonial Salem persist in America today. The playwright Arthur Miller captured the American popular imagination with his play The Crucible, which presents the Salem witch trials as an allegory for Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against communism in the 1950s. Today, thousands of people travel to Salem every year to learn more about the community’s unique place in American history. To illustrate what makes the Salem witch trials so significant, we’ve compiled some interesting facts:

1. Poor and marginalized members of society tended to be the victims of witchcraft accusations, but in 1692 many leading members of the colony were accused. A total of 172 people are known to have been formally charged or informally cried out upon for witchcraft in 1692.
Two Salem Village church members, Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse, five ministers, and four ministers’ wives stood accused, as well as other leading members of the colony. Even the governor’s wife, Lady Mary Phips, was called out as a witch.

2. The judges of the Salem witch trials appointed by the governor were well-educated.
The nine judges on the trials’ panel were among the wealthiest merchants in the colony. Most had extensive experience as judges. Five had spent at least some time at Harvard, and one attended Oxford.

3. Today, the court system in the United States assumes innocence until proven otherwise; the courts in Salem appear to have assumed the opposite. Historians’ close readings of the proceedings suggest that the judges believed a significant witch conspiracy threatened the colony, and that it was crucial to round up any guilty members to end the crisis.
“The order of the prosecutions reveals the judges’ intentions. Rather than try people in the order they were arrested, the court started with the accused with the strongest cases against them. On June 2, the first trial began, that of Bridget Bishop. She was just the sort of person who was typically accused of witchcraft. The twice-widowed Bishop lived with her third husband, Edward, near the courthouse in Salem Town. The family had modest means and was known for frequent arguments and even swapping blows with each other on the Sabbath. Suspicion easily fell on such women, especially given that Bridget had been first accused of witchcraft in 1679. A total of ten witnesses testified about strange actions that surrounded her, some dating back to her earlier accusation. The strong case against her included not just spectral evidence but complaints by neighbors of more traditional harms, ranging from the disappearance of money to mysterious deaths and her ability to change into an animal’s appearance. There was even physical evidence of a sort, including the discovery of a witch’s teat—an unnatural protrusion where Satan or a witch’s familiar sucked blood and thus received sustenance—during a physical examination of Bishop by a physician and a panel of midwives. Perhaps most damning, a carpenter testified that a few years earlier he has been repairing her stone cellar and found poppets—dolls used to harm people through image magic. Add to this the active participation of the afflicted in the trials, where their screaming and writhing reinforced all the evidence, and Bishop’s fate may have been sealed not just in Salem but in any English court. Convicted and sentenced to death, she was hanged in Salem on June 10, 1692.”

Examination of a witch
“Examination of a Witch,” by T. H. Matteson, 1853. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Historically, witchcraft tended to be a female crime; about three-quarters of the accused were women. However, even the men of the highest-status in Salem, such as ministers, were cried out to be witches.
The Harvard-educated Puritan minister Reverend George Burroughs; John Willard, a kinsman of Reverend Samuel Willard of Boston’s South Church; and John Proctor, the respected farmer and tavern keeper made famous in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible, were all hanged together during the trials.

5. Those who pleaded “not guilty” were swiftly tried and convicted, and many were executed.
The 28 people who were tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer and who pleaded “not guilty” were all condemned to death by the judges—an unprecedented one-hundred percent conviction rate.

6. With the exception of Samuel Wardwell, who recanted his confession before trial, no one who confessed to being a witch was executed. Only those who refused to confess met death.
“This was a dangerous game to play, as prior to 1692 in Europe or America a confession of witchcraft almost universally resulted in a speedy conviction and execution. So, confessing to witchcraft did not guarantee one’s ultimate survival but at the least it seemed to rule out speedy execution.”

7. Rumors of a vast witchcraft conspiracy quickly spread throughout New England. By the end of August 1692, three confessors had agreed that there were 200 people present at their black Sabbaths. Others reported hearing of more than 300 active witches in the region.
The confessors provided fuel for more accusations. By the middle of September, 42 confessors had named others as witches.

8. As the trials went on, judges seemed to rely increasingly on spectral evidence, but you wouldn’t dare want to challenge their authority. In their treatment of Giles Cory, the judges ordered the 81-year-old man to be pressed to death to attempt to literally press an answer out of him that he was in fact a witch.
“Just two years earlier some of the same judges had participated in a case where a pirate refused to plead, as he felt that Massachusetts lacked jurisdiction. Rather than press him, however, the court just continued with his trial.”

9. The Salem witch trials seriously threatened the new Massachusetts Bay government.
“They signaled the beginning of the end of Puritanism as a potent force in Massachusetts and triggered a distrust of government. No longer would the governor be a trusted partner of the legislature, nor would a minister sit as his top adviser.”

Featured image credit: “Witchcraft at Salem Village” by William A. Crafts. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Why were the Salem witch trials so significant?


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