Hundreds of years ago, many people in diverse cultures firmly believed in the existence of witchcraft and witches--people who made a pact with the Devil and who willingly did his evil bidding. These witches ( mostly women) could cast spells, make their victims sick, cause objects to fly about a room and even fly themselves. This belief was held by "simple" people as well as educated ones: judges, doctors and ministers believed in the existence of witches and were afraid the Devil had the power to do harm. Evil forces were a reality-there was no such thing as simple bad luck. If a person had a series of misfortunes or if a child became sick and the cause could not be determined, most people would blame wichchraft and seek out individuals who were in league with the Devil.
Witchcraft outbreaks and executions often occured in Europe from the 1300 hundreds to the end of the 16th century. Thousands were executed-mostly women- who could not convince judges that they were innocent. They were either burned at the stake or hanged.
The settlers of early New England were highly religious, mostly Puritans who were instructed to be aware of the temptations the Devil would use to cause them to sin. They were also litigious people who were often in court-mostly over property matters. This led to hard feelings and these negative emotions would come into play during the Salem witchcraft outbreak. In addition, the Village farmers believed that the people of Salem town ( who were not as religious) would change the pious nature of the Village. Many settlers in the Village were in a constant state of stress and worry about their souls. Were they among the saved? Would they suffer the torments of hell? What would happen to them after they died? These fears were passed on to their children. Everyday life was difficult. The work was hard, there was always the danger of Native American attack, the forest itself was a source of dread. Who knew what happened at night in the deep, dark woods? Were neighbors consorting with the Devil in the dead of night?
The witchcraft outbreak in Salem village started in the winter of 1692. The villagers were concerned about attacks from Indians . This was happening in southern Maine. In order to escape the danger, settlers from Maine travelled south to Salem village and other surrounding towns. This put a strain on local resources and let to quarreling and bad feelings. Many saw the unrest and ill feeling as the work of the Devil. In January of 1692. Reverend Parris's daughter, age 9 and another girl, age 11 started to act strangely. Parris was a complex man who demanded a great deal from his flock--a comfortable home, free firewood and financial support. The children in his home would scream, throw things and contort themselves. The doctor could not find anything physically wrong, so he blamed evil, supernatural forces. All agreed--there was no other explanation. Parris, who strongly believed in the Devil, encouraged this sentiment. Perhaps he did so to silence his critics. Not all the Village people liked him. Be that as it may, under pressure from magistrates, the girls blamed three women for their afflictions:Tituba, the minister's slave, Sarah Good, a homeless person, and Sarah Osborne, an old, poor woman. Good and Osborne insisted they were innocent of witchcraft, but Tituba confessed. Her testimony was vivd. She said the Devil appeared to her. She signed his book. She described images of black dogs, red cats, birds and a huge black man. Her vivid testimony was convincing and led to mass paranoia. The three women were put in jail.
More accusations followed. Charges were made against Martha Corey, a very loyal member of the church in the Village. If she were a witch, then anyone could be. Things went downhill quickly. In May, 1692, Governor Phipps ordered the establishment of a Special Court to decide cases. The first case was against Bridget Bishop, an old woman who was disliked for her gossipy nature She denied any wrong doing, insisting that she was completely innocent. The court was not convinced and she became the first person to be hanged on what was later called Gallows Hill. During the next few months, 13 people were hanged. One man, 72 years old, bravely defied the court and would not admit any guilt. He was pressed to death-a slow, painful way to die. Brave to the end, all he said while he was being crushed was "more weight." Two well respected ministers, Cotton Mather and his father cast doubt on the trials and accusations. However the trials did not end until Governor Phipps's own wife was questioned for witchcraft. He prohibited additional arrests and dissolved the special court. By May, 1693, Governor Phipps pardoned all who were in prison. The panic burnt itself out, but not until 19 had been hanged on Gallows Hill and one old man pressed to death. Seven people died in jail--overall nearly 200 had been accused of being in league with the Devil.
What caused the outbreak? Historians have been debating this for years. Cetainly social and political tensions played roles. Personal anomosity over land had a hand in it. In 1976 a psychologist suggested that the consumption of a fungus which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses could be the source of the abnormal behavior of the children and others. Some have argued that sexual repression was partly to blame. Whatever the cause--and there was probably no one determining factor- the Salem Witch Trials will always be studied and remain a fascinating chapter in early New England history.