The Truth Behind the Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials took place in colonial Massachusetts. The trials occurred between 1692 and 1693. More than two-hundred people were accused of practicing witchcraft, or as they called it “The Devil’s Magic.” Twenty lives were lost through the execution of “witches.” Nineteen executions were hangings, and one person was burned at stake. Still, to this day, the real cause of the Salem witch trials is unknown. The reasons behind the trials themselves are complex and multifaceted. Economics, religious constraints, socioeconomic class issues, tainted food supply, property disputes, congregational feuds and immature girls lacking attention all stand in the middle of the Salem Witch Trials The real cause of the Salem witch trials is unknown, but there is some speculation as to what could’ve led to the trials. One theory is epilepsies. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes seizures or unusual sensations and behaviors. Epilepsy could explain the unusual symptoms that nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams experienced on January 1692. Both young girls began having fits “including violent contortions and uncontrollable outburst of screaming.” These symptoms not only resemble epilepsies, but they are also alike to ergot poisoning. Ergotism is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. It affects rye, wheat, and other grains.

Eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a compulsive disorder. This disorder causes violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin and a variety of other symptoms. These symptoms are alike to those described in John Hale’s journal, “A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witch Craft.” John Hale was the Puritan pastor of Beverly, Massachusetts. As John Hale describes, “These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way and returned back again.” He also noted that “sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choaked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move a heart of stone.” Ergot is also tied in with economic hardships. Ergot is present in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers. The same conditions were present in 1691 when the accusations began. Almost all the accusers lived in the western section of the Salem Village, a region of swampy meadows that would have been a breeding ground for fungus. The rye crop was consumed in the winter of 1691 through 1692 when the first symptoms were reported. The rye could have been easily contaminated by ergot. During the summer of 1692, it became dry. This could explain the sudden ending to the accusations and ‘bewitchments.’ The Salem witch trials began after a group of young girls had claimed they were possessed by the devil. They then proceeded to falsely accuse several local women of witchcraft. The accusations began by Abigail Williams and Betty Parris.

They begin having fits and pointing fingers at alleged witches. In “A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft” John Hale notes that the afflicted girls “cried out of the Indian woman named Tituba, that she did pinch, prick, and grievously torment them, and that they saw her here and there, where nobody else could.” For that reason Tituba was the first to be accused of witchcraft. Tituba belonged to Samuel Parris. He was the father of Betty Parris and Uncle of Abigail Williams. After another person was “molested by Satan” and cried out Tituba’s name, magistrates at Salem came to examine the accused. The result was the confession of Tituba. “Tituba confessed she was a witch, and that she with two others accused did torment and bewitch the complainers.” The other two that were accused were Sarah Good and Sarah Osburne. Sarah Good and her family were homeless. They’d rent rooms from other people’s houses. Sarah Good denied the accusations, but when her family was called to testify, her own daughter seemed afraid to testify against her. Her husband did not call her a witch, but he said he had reason to believe she was close to becoming one. Sarah Good never confessed to the accusations. She denied the accusations saying she was falsely accused. Although she did not confess, Sarah Good did accuse Sarah Osburne. On July 19, 1692, Sarah Good died by execution. Sarah Osburne also denied the accusations of witchcraft and afflicting the children. The afflicted girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, accused Sarah Osburne face to face. They said that Sarah Osborne had come to them and hurt them, but Sarah Osburne still denied the accusations. Sarah Osburne was imprisoned and died May 10, 1692.

Both these women never confessed or were proven guilty of being witches. They were both executed with little evidence, portraying how the Salem Witch Trials were conducted unfairly. There were many ways that the accused were identified as witches. One example of an identification was the swimming test. During the swimming test, “The accused witches would be dragged to the nearest body of water and be thrown into it” because it was believed that witches couldn’t swim. Another identification of a witch was the presence of witch marks. It was believed that if people had moles, scars, or extra nipples they were a witch. These marks were known as “Marks of the Devil”, and if they were pricked with a blade and it didn’t bleed or hurt, it was reason enough to believe someone was a witch. Witch cakes were another way of identifying witches. To make a witch cake “you take the urine of the people who are thought to be under the spell of the witch in question, mix it with rye meal, and make a little patty. Then you feed the patty to a dog. Because some the powers the witch used to cast a spell on the afflicted people were in the urine, when the dog eats the cake it will hurt the witch, and she’ll cry out in agony.” Throughout the Salem Witch Trials, the tortures for accused witches were numerous and varied. Many of the punishments were very cruel and brutal. These brutal tortures were done to get a confession out of the accused. After withstanding many of these brutal punishments, it’s no surprise that so many people would confess just to end the agony.

The main punishment used for accused witches was hangings. “The victim was put into a sack and tied upside down from a tree, where the accusers would proceed to swing them back and forth.” At times the witch’s cradle would cause hallucinations, but it was used as even more evidence against the accused. Another example of a punishment for an accused witch was the ducking stool. The ducking stool was like the set-up of a teeter-totter “the accused was on one end which would hang above the local pond, whereas the other end was occupied by the accusers. They would dunk their victims under water. If they floated, they were a witch using magic to stay afloat. If they drowned, they were innocent.” As well as the witch’s cradle, the Strappado was also used as a form of punishment on said witches. In the Strappado, the victim’s hands would be tied behind their back and suspended by a rope attached to their wrists. This typically resulted in dislocated shoulders. All these unusual punishments were cruel and unfair. They were all used to cause agony and to draw a voluntary confession out of the accused. Many of these tortures often led to death, and some people were lucky to make it out alive. As a result, a total of more than two-hundred people were accused of practicing witchcraft. A total of twenty people confessed to being witches. Nineteen were hung, and one was burned at stake.

In 1697, Justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the trials. This did not make up for the many families that were torn apart, and the many family members that were falsely accused. Some families of those falsely accused were compensated when “colony passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and providing financial restitution to their heirs in 1711.” Earlier, in 1702, the General Court declared the 1692 trials illegal. In conclusion, many innocent lives were taken throughout the Salem witch trials, and many people were falsely accused. Massachusetts has apologized and deemed the trials a mistake. The impact of the Salem witch trials will always remain in the families affected and throughout history. The Salem witch trials are present as a reminder that we, as a country, should make sure a mistake like this does not occur again. Although some questions about the trials still linger, like what led to the trials and what caused the confession of Tituba, the trials serve as a reminder that human error is inevitable.

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