Salem Witch Trials: a Crucial Moment in History

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Salem Witch Trials

Thesis: The Salem Witch Trials are still relevant today as they serve as an example both of how mass hysteria arises at times of societal instability, and as a warning against the tendency of society to find a scapegoat for its fears and concerns.

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“Salem Witch Trials: a Crucial Moment in History”

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In the years leading up to the Salem Witch Trials, the Salem community experienced societal instability due to several different factors. Like all of the other colonies, Salem was established in a region where mortality rates were quite high, often due to famine, disease, and frequent wars. While there were multiple wars during the early colonial period, including wars with different Native American tribes, the Dutch, the French, and the Spaniards, it was King William’s War in particular that had the greatest impact on the New England area around the time of the witch trials. During King William’s war, which began in 1688, the English colonists fought against New France and its Native allies. There had already been much tension between English and French colonists leading up to the war, which only increased when England’s King William III joined the League of Augsburg to fight against France (roach intro).

There were also ongoing disagreements over the border between New England and Acadia, a colony of New France that included parts of Maine, after many English colonists from Massachusetts had begun to expand and settle there. Throughout the war, the French and their Native American allies launched multiple attacks on English colonists. For example, at the Battle of Fort Loyal in 1690, in Falmouth, Maine, the French massacred two hundred English settlers, taking all the survivors as prisoners, and burning down what remained of the settlement. In addition, just days after the first girls in Salem became afflicted, the French and Abenaki Indians attacked York, Maine, killing fifty colonists, including women and children, slaughtering cattle, and destroying buildings and farms (roach 9).

Thus, the incredibly close proximity of the battles to Salem worried many of the colonists there, and the fear of sudden attack became a prominent concern, playing into their everyday lives. While Salem, itself, was never the focal point of the attacks, much of the area was open to Indian invasion, and often Natives were seen creeping around the Salem Village, further increasing the anxieties of the colonists. Rumors of the death and destruction coming from other New England colonies also helped to spread panic. Furthermore, many of the colonists who were left homeless after the wars migrated to Salem, putting a strain on Salem’s already stretched resources.
The economic strain of war refugees exacerbated another source of instability in the Salem area: tensions between Salem Village and Salem Town. While the town of Salem originally started out as a singular unit, after a wave of Puritan immigrants came to Massachusetts in 1630 during the Great Migration, the General Court allowed Salem to expand, giving it the legal right to settle its backwoods (B and n 37).

This new land, which would eventually become Salem Village, was much more fertile than the land of Salem town, and thus would become populated by farmers, with an agricultural economy that would supply food to the population. However, similar to many other agricultural regions, as Salem Village expanded, it to hoped to become an independent town, wanting a church, minister, and meetinghouse of its own. Nevertheless, as Salem Village provided both food and tax money to the inhabitants of the town, Salem Town fought to maintain its authority over the village, which began the long-lasting conflict between Salem Town and Salem Village. After years of conflict, in March 1672, the General Court finally permitted Salem Village to build a meetinghouse and hire their own minister, promising to exempt the Villagers from paying the Town’s church taxes (b and n 41).

While this was a big step for the Villagers, they were still far from the independence they craved, as they still lacked autonomy and their own government. Furthermore, while they no longer had to walk several miles to attend the Town’s church, their own minister could not be officially ordained, and thus could not “administer communion or admit candidates candidates to formal church membership” (tulane web). Thus, Salem’s church lacked any real authority. Due to the to the lack of power that Salem Village’s own institutions held, disagreements amongst villagers tended to escalate rapidly, affecting the entire community, as there was no governing body to settle them ( b and n 52). Often, villagers would turn to the Salem Town Church and other powerful Town institutions to settle their disputes, however, the town often ignored the cries of the villagers, and often attempted “to shame the Villagers into accepting personal moral responsibility for their troubles” (b and n 52). Thus, not only did Salem Villagers feel both exploited and neglected by the Town, but they suffered much societal instability due to the refusal of the Town to give them full autonomy.

Not only did Salem Village and Salem Town have dissension over autonomy of the village, but they also experienced tensions due to their differing economic practices. While Salem Village, which lay in the hinterlands, relied mainly on agriculture, due to its harbor, Salem Town thrived as a center of trade and commerce (b and n 39). In 1683, the General Court declared Salem’s port one of the colony’s “ports of entry”, through which all imports and exports were required to pass (too plagiarized). This not only emphasized Salem’s commercial importance, but it also opened up Salem’s access to the trading market with London, and it began exporting fish, furs, horses, grain, and a multitude of other good to colonies, the West Indies, and England (b and n 86).

While these new developments lead to an increase in the Town’s relative wealth, along with a rise of the merchant class, they also began to affect Salem’s politics. While before 1665, twice as many farmers as merchants had been elected to serve on the Town Board, merchants soon began replacing farmers, eventually outnumbering them six to one (b and n 87). Thus, only a small portion of farmers that had familial ties to merchants were able to maintain their political influence in the Town. In addition to losing political standing, Salem Villager’s farmers also experienced an economic decline during this time. While agricultural wealth represented about forty percent of Salem’s total wealth in the 1650s, by the 1680s, it only represented about nine percent, suggesting that agriculture, the very livelihood of the villagers, had begun to decline as an industry (b and n 88).

Other economic problems also ensued as the population of Salem Village grew, including the loss of available land for farming, leaving many men propertiless by 1690, and the decrease of average property size by nearly half as it became divided up for new families. As the villagers continued to watch Salem Town prosperer, while they themselves suffered economically, the hostility between the two only grew. While Salem Town seemed to be oblivious of the Village’s struggles, Salem Village constantly felt the large presence of the Town and its successes, which they viewed as a hindrance to their own (b and n 88).

In addition to the tension between Salem Town and Salem Village, there was conflict between the inhabitants of Salem Village, itself. While many of the villagers in the west, the area farthest inland from Salem Town, felt both intimidated and discouraged by the Townr’s economic successes, not everyone from the Village felt this way. Some villagers actually saw the urbanization and commercial growth of the town as a promising development (b and n 94). Usually, it were these villagers who lived on the eastern side of the village, along the border of Salem Town. Closer to the Town’s thriving trading center, as well its roads and waterways, the eastern villagers felt less alienated from the Town, and realized their potential to capitalize on the Town’s successes ( b and n 94). Furthermore, the eastern side of Salem Village also had better quality land (b and n 96).

Compared to the marshes and sharp hills that broke up land in the west, the east had mainly broad flat meadows, making it easier to grow crops. Thus, coupled with their closer proximity to the Town, the eastern side was better able to supply Salem Town with the goods it needed, giving it another advantage over the farmers in the west. Due to the west villagers’ resentment towards the east’s success, along with the slowly shifting views of the easterners, the Village soon became divided, with two factions beginning to emerge. While the west farmers hoped “to stay connected to the past habits and values that prized the community” (games 59), the eastern villagers hoped for something else entirely, or “a market oriented economy which tolerated and even accepted individual ambition”. The west valued agriculture, a practice that had been their livelihood for generations. They saw their way of life as beneficial to the community and its greater good, looking down upon the capitalism emerging in Salem Town as an economy based in selfishness and self-interest. Many westerners even began to fear a capitalist society, worrying about the possibility of the easterners destroying their long-held traditions and values by engaging in the practices of Salem Town. Thus, it was no wonder that Jeremiah Watts, a resident of Salem Village, described the community in 1682 as one in which “brother is against brother and neighbors [are] against neighbors, all quarreling and smiting one another” (b and n 45 footnote 12). Furthermore, with both widespread jealousy and fear among the villagers themselves, along with the accumulation of all the other tensions in Salem’s society, the accusations and mass hysteria that soon followed is no unexplained occurrence.

While the first three witchcraft accusations that emerged in 1692 would never have caused such an uproar on their own, it was the mass hysteria that ensued that turned the Salem Witch Trials into such an epidemic. After the “strange fits” that Abigail Williams and Betty Parris experienced in January, fear of witchcraft increased twofold. However, it was really after the confession of Reverend Parris’ Indian slave, Tituba, that accusations began to spread rapidly. By April, 22 more witches had been accused, and by May, 39 more had been added to that list ( b and n 31). In fact, towards the end of the summer, the number of accusations had become so great that accurate records of the official proceedings were no longer kept. By the time the trials had ended in May 1693, just a little over a year after they had started, more than 185 people had been accused of witchcraft and a total of 19 had been hanged: 14 women and 5 men (karlsen, 51).

While 19 people may not sound like such a large number today, the population of Salem at the time of the trials was around 2,000, meaning that almost twenty percent of the villager’s population had been accused of witchcraft, and roughly one out of every hundred of Salem’s residents had been executed. While outbreaks of witchcraft were not uncommon during this time, what distinguishes the Salem Witch Trials from other trials in North America and Europe is the fact that not all of the accused were poor, or of lower status, a common characteristic among those accused of being witches. Rather, many of the accused actually came from more prominent families in Salem (b and n 32). Although the first few “witches” were considered societal outcasts, after the initial accusations, a new pattern among the accused arose. In March, two Church members and well respected wives of wealthy landowners were accused. Similarly, in April, accusations were brought against Philip English, the wealthiest ship owner in Salem, and former Salem Village minister, George Burroughs (b and n 32). Throughout the summer of 1692, many of Massachusetts’ most upstanding women and men had been accused, including wealthy Boston merchant, Hezekiah Usher, Nathaniel Saltonstall, a member of the of the Governor’s Council and a former judge on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and Lady Phips, the governor’s wife (b and n 32). By the end of the summer, the accusations had reached people in such a high level in society, that one of the lawyers who prepared the cases against the accused wrote, “The afflicted spare no person of what quality so ever” (boyer and nissenbaum page 32). The high status of the people accused only demonstrated the extent of the mass hysteria in Salem: the panic and fear had become so widespread that anyone was at risk of being labeled a witch, no matter where they stood in the social hierarchy.

As with many cases of mass hysteria brought on from societal tensions, during the Salem Witch Trials, a scapegoat was necessary to explain the conflicts present in society. In Salem, devil worshipping witches made an obvious scapegoat. However, it was really the characteristics of the accused witches that made them them good scapegoats, easier for them to take all the blame. Typically, scapegoats are vulnerable members in society, or those who overall lack power. Thus, 1692 Salem, women perfectly fit the bill. According to Puritan religion, God had placed man above all other creatures, therefore placing men over women, and husbands superior to wives (karlsen 164). In educating their congregants about the nature of womanhood, it was common for ministers to preach about the obligation of female subjugation, warning about the severe consequences should a woman fail to do so (166 karlsen). Thus, in order for a woman to be a devout Puritan, she had to believe that she was created to lend herself to man’s needs, as “women who failed to serve men failed to serve God” (karlsen 166).

In that regard, it is understandable that in Puritan society, the main role of of a woman was seen as that of a wife, her main duties simply domestic ones, such as taking care of both children and home (karlsen 165). Furthermore, the ideal Puritan wife was loyal, an “alter ego” of her husband rather than an “autonomous mate”, and one who acknowledging him as “Lord” (karlsen 165). Just as woman were utterly powerless in marital relationships, having no identity separate from their husbands, so too they were thought of as members in society. This made it incredibly more easy for women to become scapegoats during the Salem Witch Trials, explaining why compared to only 44 males, 141 females were accused of witchcraft. Furthermore, almost all of the accused men were relatives of female witches, oftentimes husbands, brother, and sons. The vulnerability of women also accounted for the fact that while only 7 men were ultimately tried (16%), 52 of the accused women (36%) were brought to trial (karlsen 51). Given no standing in society, Puritan women were unable to protect themselves, completely subjugated by the men who enforced the belief that witches were women and also had the power to decide the fates of the accused.

Aside from being powerless in society, many scapegoats also tend to differ from societal norms. In Puritan New England, there existed many rigid societal norms, including the practice of male heirs receiving and controlling property (games 41). Due to the the little power and social standing given to Puritan women, it was not considered acceptable for women to inherit property from their father or husband. In fact, many people even even feared propertied women, viewing them as a threat to societal order and Puritan gender roles. Furthermore, propertied women also produced much resentment among young men, who often felt that their own mother’s claim to her husband’s property simply delayed their own access to their father’s land (games 41). These fears and resentments made women who had inherited property good scapegoats, accounting for the fact that 61% of accused females owned land (karlsen 102). Similarly, propertied women were also 64% more likely to be prosecuted, 76% more likely to be found guilty, and 89% more likely to be executed than non-propertied women (karlsen 102). For example, Sarah Osborne, one of the first three women accused, broke societal norms after she inherited her late husband’s 150 acre farm and attempted to gain full legal control of the property. Furthermore, soon after, Sarah became married again, this time to her indentured servant (b and n 194). As this too was deemed improper in Puritan culture, the community began to view Sarah as even more a deviant to the norm, and thus as a threat to the natural order of society. Similarly, many other propertied women were accused of witchcraft, such as Martha Carrier, who had inherited her father’s large farm, Elizabeth Howe, in line to inherit a third of her father’s estate, and Ann Pudeator, who had inherited the wealth of her two deceased husbands (b and n 195).

While women and outcasts were never actually responsible for the troubles that plagued Salem, some of the people scapegoated were more directly involved, or at least seen as having played a larger role in Salem’s tensions. For example, after Abigail Hobbs confessed that she had first met the Devil in Falmouth’s woods during a period of Indian attacks in that area, some of the newly accused witches began to have connections to the frontier wars (Games 61). After Hobbs’ confession, the number of accusations rose quickly, and the geographic location of the accused spread. While at first, the accused mostly came from Salem, now, many of the accused lived in Maine, Boston, and parts of the larger New England area, all areas where major French and Indian attacks had previously taken place. Furthermore, many of the newly accused were men, some even wealthy with respectable positions in society. However, what linked all of these accused were their involvement in the frontier wars. Some were men thought responsible for the loss of certain battles, while others had just been fortunate enough to escape even though the rest of their town was destroyed, inciting both suspicion and jealousy in those less fortunate (games 61, ibid).

Meanwhile, many others were wealthy merchants who profited from trade with Indians. No matter the involvement of the accused, society needed someone who they could blame for the suffering that resulted from the wars, as many people lost homes, livelihoods, and even family members. Thus, these men became the scapegoats, held accountable for the damage, simply by living on the frontier or being associated with the Indians, even though many had played little or even no role in the actual war.

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Salem Witch Trials: A Crucial Moment In History. (2019, May 21). Retrieved December 10, 2022 , from

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