Witchcraft, Insanity, and the Ten Signs of Decay
Since there never was a spurned lover stirring things up in Salem Village, and there is no evidence from the time that Tituba practiced Caribbean black magic, yet these trials and executions actually still took place, how can you explain why they occurred?
The Salem Witchcraft Trials began not as an act of revenge against an ex-lover, as they did in The Crucible, but as series of seemingly unlinked, complex events, which a paranoid and scared group of people incorrectly linked. And while there were countless other witchcraft trials, Salem's trials remain the best-known. In Salem, fears of witchcraft perpetuated by popular writings were personified when two girls were said to be bewitched. A hysteria overcame the people of Salem, whose trials went awry. In less than six months, 19 men and women were hanged, 17 innocents died in filthy prisons, an 80-year old man was crushed to death, and two dogs were stoned to death for collaborating with the Devil (Richardson 6).
How could an entire village, including scholars, believe in witchcraft? Were these trials justified? Or were they evil, as many people think? How could respected, learned men believe the accounts of psychotics? Most importantly, could the trials have been avoided?
A major cause of the Salem Witchcraft trials was superstition, an "irrational [belief] ... resulting from ignorance or fear of the unknown" (Saliba). A lack of scientific reasoning led many people to believe that, for instance, walking under a ladder would bring seven years of bad luck. The Puritans in Salem had even more reasons to be superstitious. Cotton Mather's "Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions," with its inaccurate accounts of witchcraft, terrified. In addition, crude medical techniques, constant food poisoning, and unsanitary conditions killed many Puritans. (In the Trials, dead people and dead livestock were used as evidence of witchcraft.) More importantly, war with a nearby Indian tribe was imminent (Schlect 1); when livestock died, the Puritans thought their village was cursed, vulnerable to Indian attack. With several factions vying for control of the Village, and a series of legislative and property disputes with the nearby Salem Town which controlled Salem Village, it is easy to see how the people of Salem were so vulnerable to the notion of witches taking over their town.
The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts left England because they thought the Church was obscuring God's glory with its obsession of earthly things. While they realized that they could not escape this possession, (they believed they were intrinsically sinful (Encarta)), they felt that it was their responsibility to stay free from sin to glorify God. Thus, the they believed that there were ten visible signs of decay: 1. Visible decay of godliness
2. Manifestations of pride especially among the rich
3. Presence of "heretics" among them, witches
4. Violations of the Sabbath, and swearing and sleeping during sermons 5. Decay of family government
6. People full of contention more lawsuits and lawyers 7. Sex and alcohol abuse on the increase
8. Decay in business morality lying, underpaying laborers, etc. 9. No disposition to reform
10. Lacking in social behavior
Upon arriving in Massachusetts, the Puritans established a theocracy; religion and the power of religious authorities became vital to the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Some historians believe that, without religion, the Salem Witchcraft Trials and other persecutions would never have taken place. Reverend Parris's chief duty should not have been religious; he needed to resolve squabbles between factions in his village; regardless, he used his religious authority to persecute those who were allegedly sinful. Ironically, he showed visible signs of...
Cited: Encarta Online Deluxe. 2000. http://encarta.msn.com/encarta
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
Ergot – Claviceps purpurea, Evans, Dr. Ieuan. September 21, 1997. http://www.agric.gov.ab.ca/pests/diseases/63010120.htm
Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller Inc., 1969.
Historia: Salem in 1692 (pt. 1), Chris Schlect. 1999. http://www.credenda.org/issues/vol7/hist7-1.htm
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