Nowadays, when someone mentions the word “witch,” what do you think of? Maybe kids dressing up on Halloween, or the Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus? In 1692, the mention of the word “witch” drove fear into people’s hearts and genuinely terrified the Puritans living in Salem, Massachusetts. During what was later known as the Salem Witch Trials, accusations of being a witch were tossed around left and right, neighbor accusing neighbor. These people were so genuinely affected by the belief of witches that they turned on people they had known for years, but why? To what extent did the belief of supernatural beings have an effect on mental health in the 1600’s? The Puritans of Salem were so scared and in their heads that over 200 were accused of practicing witchcraft, which was considered the Devil’s magic, and 20 were executed. The belief in witches during the Salem Witch Trials had an extensive impact on the mental health of the people of Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600’s.
Before being able to understand how and why these people are affected, you have to first understand what was going on to have a better understanding of why these people reacted the way that they did. Taking it way back to the beginning, the first ever law related to witchcraft, The Witchcraft Act of 1542, was enacted in England during the time of Henry VIII’s rule (Eschner). The act was the first law to ever define witchcraft as a crime that could be punishable by death, and also defined what was considered witchcraft (Eschner). The act defines witchcraft as, “using invocations or other specifically magical acts to hurt someone, get money, or behave badly towards Christianity,” (Eschner). Back in the seventeenth century, anyone found guilty of practicing was charged and potentially executed, not only in England, but also in Salem, Massachusetts, (MacBain).
The Salem Witch Trials began in spring of 1692, after a group of girls in Salem, Massachusetts claimed they had been possessed by the Devil and accused several local women of witchcraft, (History.com Editors). In January, a local doctor had diagnosed Elizabeth Parris, the daughter of the town minister, with “bewitchment” and other girls in the community began to show symptoms as well (MacBain). In late February, arrest warrants were issued for the Parris’ slave, Tituba, along with two others, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne (History.com Editors). Elizabeth Parris along with Abigail Williams, who was also affected, had accused the three women of bewitching them (History.com Editors). Good and Osborne both denied the accusations while Tituba confessed under the assumption that she could potentially save herself by being an “informer” and naming other witches as well (History.com Editors). From there on out the village spiraled out of control leaving over 200 accused of witchcraft and over 20 executed before the craze slowly died out.
As support for the trials began to slow down, the governor got rid of the court that held trials for accused witches, although trials continued into 1693, by May the governor had pardoned and released anyone who was imprisoned on witchcraft charges (History.com Editors). By the end, the damage had already been done, even after Massachusetts passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and provided financial restitution to their heirs almost 20 years later (History.com Editors). A study published in 1976 tried to find a scientific reason as to why the villagers were affected in the ways that they were found that a certain kind of fungus found in rye or wheat can cause symptoms like delusions, vomiting, and muscle spasms (History.com Editors).
Now, after understanding what the Salem Witch Trials were, you can take a closer look at all the different elements that contributed to them, like what were the people affected like? How did they regularly live their lives? The villagers who lived in Salem were known as “Puritans,” who were “members of a religious reform movement known as Puritanism that came to be within the Church of England,” (History.com Editors). The simplest way to explain Puritans, are people who live their day to day life strictly by following the Bible. Anyone who strays from those guidelines is considered an outcast and would most likely have been shunned or punished by the rest of the colony. Because of their strict life, the Puritans did not take well to mental illnesses, and anyone who was not “normal”, in their eyes, had to be possessed by the devil. Not only the Puritans, but everyone really, did not have a very vast knowledge of mental illnesses, so most people did not really know how to handle or deal with people who did have them.
In 1337, the first mental asylum, Bethlem Royal Hospital, opened in England. “In the eyes of the law, mentally ill people lacked the capacity to reason, so a Court of Wards would hand the responsibility for their affairs to someone else,” (Mental Illness in). So pretty much, the very few people that were institutionalized were deemed unfit to care for themselves and every decision was made for them, almost like they were children. Although this hospital existed, most mentally ill people lived at home with their families or on the streets because they could not care for themselves. No one really felt like it was their responsibility to care for these people even though they clearly needed it (Mental Illness in). ” Most could not afford to pay a physician or surgeon, but Tudor England had a vibrant medical marketplace from which illness, including mental illness, could be treated,” (Mental Illness in). A lot of the time, people were in denial and did not want to believe that there was anything wrong with a family member or friend and defended them or insisted they were fine. Previously mentioned was a theory on why the people in Salem believed in witches and it linked the delusions to a fungus, but what are delusions, and how is it that this is what the people of Salem could be diagnosed with if witchcraft does not really exist?
A delusion is when is when someone genuinely believes that something is real even when it is not (Paranoia and Delusional Disorders). Delusional disorders are usually characterized by impossible and irrational beliefs that a person genuinely believes is true, like seeing people and “talking” to them (Paranoia and Delusional Disorders). Paranoia is a similar disorder that is often mistaken as a Delusional disorder, and although they are similar, they are not the same thing. “Paranoia involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy,” (Paranoia and Delusional Disorders). Symptoms of both disorders include irrational suspicion or distrust in others, and can relate to repressed feelings (Paranoia and Delusional Disorders). When describing the Salem Witch Trials and the people of Salem, the word “paranoid” has been thrown around a lot, and it’s easy to just use the word without truly knowing the meaning. But, after learning what it truly is along with what a delusional disorder is, it’s a reasonable way to describe how these people felt and acted.
The witch hysteria began with a few girls, and soon spread throughout the entire village. Mass Hysteria is like an outbreak of an illness with no physical symptoms, but a lot of people claim to have it, and there’s two kinds. The first type of Mass Hysteria is Mass Anxiety Hysteria, when a person exhibits the same kind of symptoms as a person with an anxiety or panic disorder (Cohut).
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