Sept. 19th Question: The Salem Witch Trials

A woodcut from Cotton Mather's 1692 account of witchcraft

Here is the review sheet for Wednesday’s quiz.

For this week’s web question, we’re going to jump forward on the calendar and pretend it’s closer to Halloween (we are starting to feel the fall chill in the air) and address a favorite topic of historians : witchcraft.

Since the events transpired in the 1600s, scholars have puzzled over the causes of the witchcraft mania not only in Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but also across the Atlantic back in Europe. To get an idea of what some of the debates are about its causes in New England, make sure to read the “Debating the Past: The Witchcraft Trials” in the textbook on pp. 80-81.

Now you have your chance to make a contribution to the debate. The complete transcripts of the 1692 Salem trials are available at this link here. Click on and read through a few of the “examinations” and “indictments” and try to get a sense of what people were being accused of and what counted as evidence against them.  I don’t expect you to understand fully what is going on, but try to struggle with these short texts and glean whatever meaning you can out of them. Make sure to use one or two quotes from the sources to support your idea. Maybe you can come up with a new angle on an old debate!

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Published in: on September 16, 2011 at 2:54 pm  Comments (17)  

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  1. I think that during these times it was awful,whoever they acused of being a witch,they directly indicted them.

  2. After reading a couple of the old English indictments of those accused of practicing witchcraft i have come to the conclusion that people in the past were completely ridiculous. I believe that people accused their fellow residents just to scapegoat them; blame innocent people for something that was out of their control. I can also believe that accusers may have had a grudge of some sort against the accused.( For instance widowed and unmarried women.) I find death to be a drastic way to solve an issue over social/economic problems. (This leads me to speculate that a person in a lower class believed that if someone in a higher class was killed based on the belief that his/her neighbor was an agent for Satan that it would help their status. This just doesn’t make sense no matter how i think it out.) I also cannot understand the legal system that was followed in the past. There was no actual proof of the accusations but word of mouth (unless i didn’t read properly which i’m sure i didn’t). So to carry out sentences like hanging and burning without proof just proves people were crazy back then. I’m starting to believe that people in the past may have been paranoid schizophrenics or suffer from some type of mental disorder to suspect being “afflicted” by their fellow colonists. I also question religious beliefs of those back then. Besides the main targets (widows and/or unmarried women) were those accused also people with different religious beliefs than the rest of the colonist?

    • I see and understand what you mean. I think that the colonies consisted of many different religions and they all had different believes. So I can see how people would be considered to do witchcraft. Very nice ideas.

  3. What I get out from the case “Warrant of John Alden” is that it was not an easy period to live in because you had to remain alert at the authorities and make sure you are not accused for being a Witchcraft. In the text “Complaint hath been made unto us..” I personally doubt if it was the people that lived around the area did not like Witchcraft and told officers who were dealing with that or probably was officials making it up. Also in the text “Cap’t John Alden of Boston Marrin’r [that he] is guilty of Witchcraft in cruelty tortureing and afflicting several of their children and others..” makes me think that a lot of people were caught but how about all the innocent people that were probably arrested at that time for Witchcraft.

    Jenniffer Bonilla

  4. This is a very interesting time during the development of the New England colonies. I also believe that many ideas and events could have led to many people being convicted of witchcraft for some type of gain. One of the articles I read was in regards to James Kettle v. Sarah Bishop, where Sarah Bishop was convicted of witchcraft for saying negative or bad statements during her fits, even though she was not heard by many. These allegations were made by one individual. Here is a quote which may help you see point of view. “she told me that she saw my two Childdren Laying before her & that thay cry’d for vengance & that Sarah Bishop bid her Look on them & said that she kiled them”. I peronaly think that as humans we all tend to say things that we really don’t mean to but we do due to the anger we feel. Here is another single person making allegations in which she says “she told me that Sarah bishop told her that I was going to burn akiln of potts & that she would break them if she Could”. This may be a he said she said case. Maybe they did not like Sarah or wanted out the picture. But looking at some of the articles I see a lot of these types of allegations.

  5. The Salem witch trials was very interesting. If you were to think of people making these accusations in modern day it would seem like some form of Dementia. From reading some of these cases and texts such as “The Crucible” ,I have reason to believe the cause of their symptoms may have been some combination of stress, asthma, guilt, boredom, child abuse, epilepsy, and delusional psychosis. Another factor may have been caused by disease. Such as “convulsive ergotism”. It is caused by a fungus and causes violent fits, a crawling sensation on the skin, vomiting, choking, and–most interestingly–hallucinations. The hallucinogenic drug LSD is a dervivative of ergot. That combined with their puritan society would cause mass hysteria. Any sign of something not “pure” is work of the devil, witchcraft. Another thing could have been the addition of practice that the indentured servants may have followed in their homeland. The practice of voodoo and obeah may have given some kind of influence brought over from other countries.

    Khayri Alphonse

  6. After reading some of the Indictments and examinations the Salem Witch Trial was a crazy time in history. When someone was accused of being a witch there wasnt any direct evidence. It was mostly based on hear say or what seemed like false witnessing. For example in the examination of Martha Emerson “Richard Carrier: s’d he see her hurt them both yesterday, but he had never seen her at the witch meeting: but Mary lasey sen’r s’d that she had seen both Martha Emerson & her mother at the witch meeting.” The others when they accused people of being witches some of their stories sound fictional. In the examination of Sarah Cole ” One night being in bed I was sorely afflicted and saw a ball of fire I arose to see w’t was the matter before I got a light it went away — the last thing I saw was a Dog w’ch I went to strike w’th a spade and was beat down my self this was about a week ago The Dog went out at a crack: in the side of the house — .” Sounds like he was still asleep. But overall being sentenced to death for hearsay and false accusations is very unreasonable.

  7. In those days people were to enclosed or blind by their religions that they didn’t have time to think about the logic or philosophy of the real world; and also specially the puritans had a philosophy that the man is the one that rules over the family so if there was a independent woman was characterized witch because didn’t follow the norms of society; i really sure that those two feature gave shape to the witchcraft tradition.

  8. A new wave of witchcraft began in the 1970s. New Englanders really believed in the power of Satan. It was not just a superstition to them but a common feature of puritan religious conviction. Salem witch trials to me just seem like a sick way of accusing others because of differences or a lack of understanding one another. Many middle aged widowed women with few children were accused. Women with substantial property, which was not the norm for this time, were also accused of being witches in whom they acquired their wealth from the devil. After reading through some of the transcripts of legal documents from the trials, I have noticed people were even being tricked into confessions of them being involved in sorcery and witchcraft. “And if you find mercy of God you must confess”. People where accused of acts they did not commit, and then where told if they confess they would gain mercy from God. This was a crazy period which led to the death of many and for what? Beacuse of a few people who were sick in the head or just plain ignorant.

  9. History never fails to amaze me with the, excuse the language, crap our country managed to believe and support once upon a time. The idea of “witch craft” was simply a way to separate society from favored people and the un-favored. It is scientifically proven that peoples memories do change over time, whether long or short periods of time, however it changes only if the person wants to believe it one way over another. Meaning if a person does not want to remember the truth, the persons mind sub-consciously will change the memory into whatever the person wants to believe. Following me on this, religion at the time played a huge role in society. It was either you followed it or you were not included in society. Thus, if one did not seek a religious path, they were considered the devil’s child. Being considered a devil’s child leads society to accused one of doing ludicrous things such as witchcraft. The fact that memory can be changed and people can be a little crazy justifies that witch craft may not of existed it was simply a notion of the devil and corrupt people in society.

  10. From some of these cases that i read i could clearly see that none of these trials was fair nor did any of them have sufficient evidence that any of the suspects were actually witches at all. Most testimonies were from neighbors making claims that they seen something suspicious or have had something done to them which most of the time didnt happen. I believe this was just a way to seperate people based of their social class.

  11. One should keep in mind of certain things that are true, during this time:
    There was a strong and strict religious influence
    Towns were isolated from other town/religion
    Culture was based on religion
    People were reserved
    Towns were dark; low light

    Based on all of these points, I believe that prosecution of witch craft was just a prosecution of outliers. If one did not conform to the way of life, as depicted by the church, that person was considered to be against god and of all teachings left for his followers. Also I should point out that since the town was dark at night, i suppose there would of been a fear of imaginative situations – Even in modern times, people’s imagination takes a hold of them when walking alone at night.

    Just as easily as one could suspect a person to be following them into an alley – because of noises – common faulks, at that time, might have suspected an evil presence in their property. Naturally, the blame would go to those who are considered devil worshipers, the people who does not follow common examples.

  12. I believe that based on such things as stated in the witchcraft papers such as “On Condition that Mary Bridges haveing Stood Comitted for
    Suspition of Witchcraft…” they were looking for a reason to accuse people, especially women, of “wrongdoing”, regardless if they were actually guilty of a crime or not, when they no longer fit into the social norm of that area. Society, especially in Massachusetts, had strict social criteria based on religious beliefs. It seems like witchcraft was a way to single out woman that no longer fit this criteria, whether they be widowed and now single and working and raising a family, or mothered a child out of wedlock, or never married at all and supported herself. It seems as if this was a way to accuse someone and never actually having to have solid proof that they were guilty, and could rid them of their society based on word of mouth. This looked like the easiest way out at the time to create their own utopian society based on religion and eliminating those who did not fit.

    If you think about the concept of “casting spells” and “voodoo dolls” and practices that are supposed to be associated with witchcraft, and the results of them being purposely inflicted harm on others, it almost sounds like a way to pin a person with blame for someone else’s misfortune, whether they brought it upon themselves or not. But it seems like another way to blame someone for their problem as a cover up to their unfortunate situation.

  13. I think that in those days, people were afraid that someone else would do better then them so they would finds ways to abuse this witch trail law to get them out of there way from succeeding. Therefore they can be in there merry way to get what they wanted. I also believed that the witch trail law was past for the higher ups in order to take control of the town and make sure they get to be who they are… All of this was to scare people and make them obey

  14. Due to lack of entertainment, the people where probably just very bored. The trials were probably like soap operas to them. That is the only reason I could think of as to why people would engage in something so foolish. Then I thought maybe people would tell scary stories to others and some may get so petrified that they would start believing them and seeing things. For example in the examination of Nehemiah Abbot a lady named Mary Walcot was asked is this the young man that was involved in witchcraft she responded “Ann Putman said, it is the same man, and then was taken with a fit.” When asked again she then said, “He is like him, I cannot say it is he.” Perhaps some people would feed this non sense to those they felt were gullible so that they can get rid of the people they dislike without being greatly involved.If trials could only take place if strong evidence was provided the number of trials would decrease drastically. The fact that none of the people in the court system thought about only taking cases that had strong evidence led me to believe this is just as entertaining to them too.

  15. I have come to the conclusion after reading a couple of the old English comments and indictments of those accused of practicing witchcraft that people in the past were completely outrageous and delusional. Accusers may have had a feeling of bitterness and grudge of some type against the accused and it turn accused them of witchcraft. Individuals were accused by residents in order to have scapegoats, to explain things that they couldn’t make clear at the time. For instance the accused women that was unmarried, widowed, elderly and poor. They tried to use excuses as these women getting help from to devil to explain events. In addition I cannot comprehend what legal system that was allowed these women to be put to death with no real evidence.

  16. Based on few of the whichcraft cases, I believe witchcraft was most likely a method of taking revenge or punishing the ones people hated, didn’t like, or were jealous.

    I read one indiciment in which a white guy of 18 claims a neighbouribg black girl of 14 a witch saying that she was sitting under a tree at evening and she angrily stared at me and feared me with her scary voice.

    She was examined and claimed a witch. Sitting under a tree should not be held against her. I believe white guy must have not liked this neighboring black girl and said she’s a witch to get rid of her. And shite society believed white guy without any solid evidence. It’s more like an act of racism.


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