The Causes of Hysteria from the Salem Witch Trials
How it works
This is an essay on causes of the Salem Witch Trials hysteria that hopes to reveal the root causes and explain the actions of so many during a time of strict religious beliefs. During the time period of 1692 to 1693, the small town of Salem, within the Massachusetts Bay colony, was struck by mass hysteria from a series of trials notoriously known as the Salem Witch Trials. By the end, over 200 people would be accused of witchcraft, and 19 people were executed by hanging after their conviction. Due to the fear of being convicted, many people made false accusations as to who was a witch, and each week, more and more people were being accused and arrested. A belief and fear of the supernatural led to the idea that some humans, “witches,” were given the power to harm others through it. A smallpox outbreak, and the fear of being attacked by Native American tribes, all fueled the hysteria in the Salem community. Historians have pointed to different changes through economic, political, and social means in Salem during this time in order to establish the main causes of fear.
One explanation can be found by looking at the way the people of Salem viewed and practiced religion. Puritanism, the established religion, was very important to the town of Salem; the colony incorporated scriptures found in the Bible into the laws and institutions of government for the town. Because of the close-knit relationship between law and religion, anything against scripture could be punishable by law. Being disobedient towards religion without repentance was seen as a sin, and those people were believed to be followers of Satan as their actions reflected the Devil’s will. Puritans believed that the Devil and God are equally present in this world, meaning those who commit sins are likely to be witches since they are acting out the Devil’s will. Therefore, under Puritan law, witchcraft was seen as a crime that was punishable by death since they were colluding with the Devil, and that is what caused the Salem Witch Trials.
How it works
The paranoia that anyone could be accused of working with the Devil caused accusations to spread like wildfire. People everywhere were admitting to witchcraft to prevent themselves from being hanged or tortured. However, it was not the actual presence of Satan that caused this colony to spiral out of control, but instead, the unnecessary fear of him and the fear of being accused. In February 1692, Elizabeth Parris, aged nine, and Abigail Williams, aged eleven, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris, became ill. After their health failed to improve, and the girls were constantly having fits, someone needed to be called in for a diagnosis. A doctor named William Griggs was called in, and he diagnosed them with being bewitched. With panic spreading throughout the town, they needed someone to blame.
An Indian slave named Tituba lived in Reverend Parris’ house and was accused of causing the young girls to act in such an odd way. Soon, other young women began to exhibit similar behaviors, and a wave of hysteria spread throughout Massachusetts. After more and more people began displaying the same behavior as the girls, the hunt for these alleged witches began to get more serious. By the end of February, three witches had been named in the town, Tituba, Sarah Goode, and Sarah Osborne. To control some of the chaos caused by these accusations, a special court assembled in Salem to hear the cases of those accused of witchcraft.
There are a few ways the court could prove that the accused was a witch. One form is called spectral evidence, a form of evidence-based upon visions and dreams that the accuser sees. During the trials, the accuser would give testimony that the accused witch’s spirit had appeared to the witness, in a dream or vision, in the form of a shadow or animal in most cases. Another form is known as a tough test. If the victim was having a fit and then the fit stopped after being touched by the accused witch, then they were the person who plagued the victim. One more common method for testing if someone is a witch is by looking for a witch mark or devil’s mark. Any swelling or discoloration of the skin, such as birthmarks, warts, moles, or any other distinguishing mark, was thought as being a witch’s mark.
After being accused of witchcraft, the person could either plead guilty or not guilty. Both options were very grim, with those pleading guilty being sent to jail and those pleading not guilty undergoing several witch tests. If the accused is convicted, then there are several different penalties they may undergo, many of them leading to death. One of the most common penalties would be being hanged at Gallows Hill. However, contrary to popular belief, none of the condemned were actually burned at stake. Those who pleaded guilty, and were jailed, were billed for their own imprisonment.
The cells were rat-infested and filthy, and the accused witches were seen as dangerous, so were often bound with cords and irons as a form of punishment. They were also subjected to horrible, painstaking examinations, as well as being excommunicated from the church. The panic surrounding the fits the first victims displayed could be tied to other, more plausible causes. One theory states that the girls might have been suffering from a kind of psychological disorder or that they were only faking their symptoms. Another more modern theory is that the girls suffered from ergot poisoning. Fungus Ergot is found in rye, wheat, and other cereal grasses, which was consumed often during this time. Some of the symptoms a person may get from ingesting this is muscle spasm, vomiting, delusions, and hallucinations. These symptoms may serve as an explanation for the girls’ strange behavior and convulsions they experienced.
According to Baker (2016), “It’s hard to make a diagnosis 300 years in the past without the person right in front of you.” This adds to the possibility that the girls may have had a combination of psychological and physical elements that played into the girls’ behavior. Lewis (2018) explained, “Samuel Parris, Betty’s father, began exhibiting strange behavior, making strange noises, and complaining of headaches.” This behavior led some people to believe that the fungus was to blame, but we may never find a true answer. By September 1692, hysteria had died down, and people began to turn away from the trials, with the last one ending in early 1693. Over the years, things would slowly begin to change after a few judges even began to apologize for their roles in the trials but would never truly feel guilty for their actions. For all those accused and sent to jail, they were pardoned after the final trial.
Some who were pardoned were forced to remain in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay the bill that was owed for their imprisonment, which included everything from room and board to the price of their shackles. For those who had actually been convicted, it was even worse. Although they were free, they were still considered dead in the eyes of the law, meaning they had no rights or ability to claim any property they may have previously owned. In January 1697, the court deemed the trials unlawful and publicly apologized for the grief and pain that these trials had caused for the families involved. There were many contributing factors to the fear surrounding the trials, such as hostility and religious aspects. As they went on, the panic only increased with the fear of being accused, as it was not uncommon for friends and families to go against one another. The lives of the townspeople were permanently changed as this delirium swept through the town. Not only did the strict religious intolerance fuel the accusations and trial, but also the possibility of being accused caused symptoms leading to hysteria.
The main causes of the Salem witch trials were hysteria, fear, and religious zealotry.
The cessation of the Salem witch trials was due to the efforts of various significant persons. Firstly, Governor Phips played a vital role in appointing a special court to oversee the trials and finally brought an end to them. Secondly, Cotton Mather’s vocal opposition and efforts against the trials were crucial in ending them.
Providing an exact answer to this question is challenging since it depends on how “witch” is defined. If one considers those who were executed for practicing witchcraft as witches, then the number would be nineteen. However, if one includes those who were put to death based only on accusations of witchcraft, then the number could be as high as fifty-six.