The Salem Witchcraft Trials: Its Origins And Development

A look into the origins of the Salem Witchcraft Trials and the factors that contributed to its scale and intensity.
    The origins of the hysteria of the Salem Witchcraft trials are rooted in a number of factors present in the Puritan society, foremost of which was the strong, fervent belief that America used to be the land of the devil. In addition, a recent smallpox epidemic had affected the area around Salem, the threat of aggression from Indian tribes was always present, and the uptight lifestyle of the Puritans contributed to creating the horror known as the Salem Witch Trials. As a result of these “trials”, twenty innocent people were put to death, including one being pressed with stones until dead.

     The nature of the Puritan beliefs intensified the rising conflict. As the Puritans had vowed to create a theocracy in this new land, religious fervor added tension to the mix. Loss of crops, livestock, and children, as well as earthquakes and bad weather, were typically attributed to the wrath of God. As soon as the village got hold of the idea of witchcraft tainting their village, many people were immediately turned to religious fervor in purifying their land of the devil. This in turn increased, in the eyes of the clergy, the importance of making sure every last witch was dead. As part of the lifestyle based on Puritan values, children had to be kept uptight and families were expected to attend church at least five hours a week. This may have resulted in the girls of Salem village trying to find a diversion from Puritanism. This diversion took place in the form of dancing and “brewing” love potions with the aid of Tituba, a slave from Barbados.

     Of course, dancing and “brewing” love potions were probably seen by the inhabitants of Salem as the characteristics of being a witch. The girls soon realized that they had to admit to being witches, or else they would have had to face death at the gallows if they were ever accused. In addition, the village had invited a proffesional witch-hunter, Reverend John Hale, to root out any possible witches. The Salem girls, fearing for their lives, acted in desperation by confessing to have been in league with the devil. This however, required that the girls accuse other inhabitants of Salem of being “witches”. This in turn, led to panic because it seemed there was proof that the devil was taking hold of the village. Many of the Puritan God-fearing inhabitants were shocked by the “reversal of their fortunes” and were swept up in a type of “latter-day crusade”. As more and more people were accused and the villagers came to strongly believe in the accusations made by the girls, the girls realized that they had created more than a diversion of the strict moral principles which bound every Puritan. The girls realized that they could use their new-found power for their own purposes.

The Trial of Giles Corey, a man who was crushed to death for not admitting his guilt - Image Source

     This led to the breakdown of the prevalence of all rational thought in the village. What had started as a diversion turned into consecutive, brutal executions. In addition, the growth of the population fueled disputes over land between neighbors and within families, especially on the frontier where the economy was agriculturally based. People soon realized that by accusing someone of being a witch, they could receive that person’s land. Thus, old disputes and arguments were horribly but effectively solved. This contributed to more people being accused of witchcraft, a charge against which one cannot dispute, and this led to mass hysteria in the village. Thus, the Puritan beliefs, unexplainable events, and sheer greediness contributed to the deaths of twenty people in an unjustified witchcraft craze.

     As always, when humans do not understand certain phenomena, they develop a gripping fear which bids them to find a scapegoat. An event similar to the Salem Witchcraft Trial is only possible when the following factors occupy the same “plane”: the occurrence of unexplainable events, prejudices against neighbors, and a prevalence of blinding and restricting religious beliefs among the population.

© 2010 Gregory Markov

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