SOCIAL PRESSURE AND WITCHCRAFT

Puritan society began breaking down with the adulteration of the colony's religious structures. Migration to New England stalled with the English Civil War and this, in turn, created a recession in the Massachusetts economy. When the war began, the Puritans awaited their invitation back to England. When the war ended and the Protectorate began, Oliver Cromwell ignored them. When England enacted The Act of Toleration and restored the monarchy, the Puritans knew their dream had ended. They finally began to think in terms of permanency.

Waning commitment and decreasing church influence created other problems for New England. This material reveals two other major symptoms of New England disintegration.

I. The Breakdown of the Family

Massachusetts lost its original charter and was rechartered in 1691. The new charter limited the colony's right to grant land. That limitation restrained the colony's growth and economic improvement. Puritans did not practice primogeniture, so all heirs shared equally in an estate. Over successive generations, families found their landholdings gradually reduced. Puritan fathers established their sons on land but kept strict control of it according to the "law of relatives." Younger generations resented this familial pressure and believed their opportunities were severely limited.

At the same time, Boston became increasingly non-Puritan. New immigrants arrived in Boston, settled in and refused to enter covenant although many did not practice alternate religious beliefs. As early as 1640, the colony allowed men to own businesses or land without joining the covenant. Most newcomers who sought business opportunity focused on Boston. In time, good Puritans rejected the city, turned inward and became increasingly rural.

An individual could operate almost any kind of business in Boston. To the chagrin of stolid Puritans, Boston even sheltered a brothel. Opportunity still existed in Boston. Young Puritan men who could not get enough land to operate a profitable farm, or who simply tired of parental authority, moved to Boston. The city became a "safety valve" for the whole colony but good Puritans considered a move to Boston the equivalent of "going to Hell."

With the Act of Toleration in 1689, accompanied by the colony's loss of their charter, Puritans realized they no longer controlled of their own structures. Everything the Puritans held of value -- religious values, moral values, social structure, and the law of relatives -- was compromised. In time non-Puritans even gained control of colonial government.

II. Witchcraft as a symptom of the social crisis

Puritans believed in witches. This belief came from their European heritage. They associated Witchcraft with heresy since it revived old anti-Christian religions, particularly the worship of nature. In Europe, communities charged outsiders with witchcraft in an effort to control them. In the old country, you did not wander from place to place and the people linked those who did to the occult. Puritan tradition held that women were usually witches and their involvement often included gross sexual overtones -- bestiality or intercourse with Satan.

Some things distinguished the Massachusetts' phenomena from what happened in Europe. Back in Europe, churches tried witches. In Massachusetts, the civil government tried witches. Few sexual elements surfaced in Massachusetts. The root of whole crisis rested in the Puritan fear of outsiders and those who professed values alien to Puritanism.

Why did the outbreak occur at Salem? First, you must know that this is Salem Village (now Danvers), not Salem Town. The two communities existed separately. Salem Town, a seaport, was much like Boston but Puritans still controlled it. The Salem Town Puritans, however, were nontraditional. Old style farmers going through a land crisis dominated Salem Village. In other words, you have two distinct cultures.

Influential and prominent families lived in both communities. The Putnam family dominated Salem Village. The English family held sway in Salem Town. The Porters lived in Salem Village but oriented themselves towards Salem Town; they were farmers with town interests. Samuel Parris, an old-style Puritan, ministered to the church in Salem Village. At one time Parris operated a store but his business failed. Perhaps this played a part in his opposition to Salem Town's merchandising spirit.

The witchcraft crisis began in Samuel Parris' home. Early in 1692 three girls, Elizabeth Parris, Anne Putnam, and a ward of the Parris family, experimented with white magic. Elizabeth Parris was 9 and Anne Putnam was only 12 at the time. Both tried a bit of crystal ball gazing to see what kind of men they would marry. Since they lacked a crystal ball, they used the white of a raw egg suspended in a glass of water. Tituba, a black indentured servant from the West Indies living with the Parrises, helped the girls. On one occasion the girls saw "a specter in likeness of a Coffin." Since Anne Putnam made the inquiry, they interpreted the "vision" to indicate that only death lay ahead for her.

Not long after these early experiments, the girls began acting strangely. One account described some of their antics as "getting into Holes, and creeping under Chairs and Stools, [using] sundry Postures and Antick Gestures, uttering foolish and ridiculous Speeches, which neither they themselves nor any others could make sense of."

At first no one suggested witchcraft. When a doctor couldn't find any physiological cause for the girls' behavior some began to suggest something else was involved. Someone then mentioned other girls were similarly affected. When Samuel Parris discovered the kitchen experiments he suspected criminal activity.

The girls admitted their experimentation and then charged Tituba and two others, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, with witchcraft. Sarah Good was a beggar, a malevolent and often drunken woman. Many found it easy to see her as a witch. Sarah Osborne was hardly poor, but she lived with a man for some time without benefit of clergy.

Traditions surrounding witchcraft stated that when you touched a witch the afflictions she caused ceased. The girls touched these three women but the symptoms didn't stop. The authorities questioned Tituba and she admitted the possibility of other witches in the area. Accusations poured in, particularly against those of higher status such as John Proctor and his wife. Elizabeth Proctor's grandmother was thought to be a witch in her lifetime. John Proctor scoffed at the whole idea of witchcraft and soon found himself the first "warlock" charged. Charges followed against 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse and many others. Things reached hysterical proportions.

Authorities treated early accusations just as accusations. When hysteria hits, the accusations became proven cases. No trials occurred until June 2, 1692 when the court heard a case against tavern keeper Bridges Bishop. The Puritan court convicted Bishop and hung him eight days later. Proctor attempted to defend himself according to English law but the community seized his property. Rebecca Nurse's minister accused her of witchcraft, then excommunicated her. Angered by the proceedings, Rebecca Nurse's sister stormed out of the church slamming the door behind her. She, too, was accused and arrested for witchcraft. [The photo shows what is said to be the house where the Salem witch trials took place.]

In nearby Andover over 50 people found themselves accused of witchcraft. The Salem Village girls went to Andover and began accusing almost everyone they met. An Andover citizen named Bradstreet met them on the street. At that moment a dog ran out, barked at him then ran away. The girls mused and Bradstreet wheeled his horse and headed for New York on the first available ship.

The courts used two kinds of evidence. First, witches were known to possess certain external marks which indicated their practice. Every witch owned a "familiar animal" through which Satan delivered his messages. Witches nursed this animal through a "witch's teat." The accused witch submitted to a search for this "organ." Woe to the one with a wart, mole or some other skin problem! [The artist's portrayal here portrays an examination for the physical signs of a "familiar animal." This explains the familiar portrayal of a Hallowe'en witch clad in black, with a wart -- witch's teat -- on her nose, a black cat, and a broom.]

Second, the courts used spectral evidence. Spectral evidence consisted of the bodily agitations of the afflicted. The witch's specter supposedly caused these agitations. Puritans believed Satan could not control innocent people. Since young girls are innocent, they could not be his tools. Therefore, if they suffered when someone came close, that individual must be a witch. When the court accepted spectral evidence convictions came easily. Once convicted, English law required a witch be hung.

The scales of justice leaned towards conviction. You can see this in the trials of William Burroughs and Rebecca Nurse.

Burroughs, a former Salem Village minister, moved to Maine but he was brought back after the Putnams named him as a witch. Burroughs defended himself on the basis of English law but the court convicted him. At his execution he perfectly quoted the Lord's Prayer, an act witches (wizards or warlocks) could not do. The people called for Burrough's release, but they hanged him anyway.

Rebecca Nurse's neighbors at first refused to believe her accusers. The jury found her innocent but the judges berated them. They asked Nurse about her guilt but she did not reply. The court considered this a rejection of their authority and condemned her. Rebecca Nurse was deaf!

What's was going on there? Some historians suggest the whole thing was a fake, but the girls involved did not fake their symptoms. Other writers think the girls suffered from a phenomenon called "clinical hysteria." It is not also possible that they were oppressed by demons?

As the hysteria spread, a pattern emerged. First, the issue was not sexual. Accusers charged only one woman with sexual deviation, but she was the community "sex symbol." Second, some accusations resulted from a desire for revenge. Servant girls involved in the hysteria accused their masters. Some think these men abused these girls physically, sexually, mentally or all of the above.

Most obviously the accusers came from Salem Village and the Salem Village church. Most of those accused resided in Salem Town and belonged to the Salem Town church. Salem Village versus Salem Town. Farmers versus merchants. In some respects, it is the conservatives against the moderates. No one accused the Porters although some of their associates were accused. The old social structure struck out at the new.

Was Satan involved? Possibly. It is strange, however, that you find so many social circumstances involved.

Davidson and Lytle remark:

To admit that the factions of Salem Village and the rising commercial ethic of Salem Town played significant roles does not mean we must necessarily discard. . . the villager's sincere belief in witches. The controversy may well have started innocently enough in the kitchen of Samuel Parris. Tituba, Bridget Bishop [another accused witch], and others may well have been practicing magic. Certainly an agrarian faction in the Village did not "get up" the trials to punish their commercial neighbors. But as the girls were led to accuse more and more people and as the controversy grew to engulf the town, it was only natural that the longstanding animosities and suspicions were inexorably drawn into the issue.

Elizabeth Parris lived out a normal life with her father. Anne Putnam applied for church membership at age 21. She admitted the Devil used her and begged for forgiveness. She found the forgiveness she sought. Two years later she died unmarried!

By 1701 Puritanism was totally discredited. Few truly Puritan remnants remained. The "city set on a hill" was gone.

                | Home | Where to Go|

1