*Article first published on October 31st, 2012* Click here for our recent Salem Witch Trials podcast episode!
CONTENT WARNING: this article contains commentary on religion, and includes disturbing descriptions of torture and death.
THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS : 1692-1693
Samhain, Sowin, “All Hallow’s Eve”, or as it’s commonly known today: Halloween, was (according to Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, the ancient Celts, and the Gaelic traditions) a Sabbat ritual that honored the lives of those who had passed on to the nether realm, much like the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’. It’s a seasonal festival marking the beginning of the darker half of the year. So, in honor of the traditions of our long-passed fore-mothers, I’ve decided to dig up the dirt on some of my puritan ancestors, and expose one of the worst atrocities to ever be swept under the rug like it never it happened…
I am of course referring to The Salem Witch Trials.
Here’s an Epic Fail that has become synonymous with unjust persecution on a ridonkulous scale. The Salem Witch
Trials Massacres were absolutely deplorable. Perpetrated by the Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th Century, these show trials give new meaning to the term scapegoat. The Red Scare of the 50’s was patty-cake in comparison. Seriously, these ‘Trials’ make Senator McCarthy look like Mother Teresa.
I honestly can’t comprehend how one can dehumanize another person to the extent that they feel justified in killing them for who they are. Unfortunately this is just one of *many* cases throughout history. (see: The Spanish Inquisitions for more random fun!) Sure, it may not have been on the scale of the Holocaust, but at least the Nazis didn’t attempt to sugarcoat that atrocity as a judgment from God.
The Salem Witch Trials took place in colonial Salem, Massachusetts from February 1692 to May of the following year, and had about as much in common with an actual legal-based trial as a game of Jenga. In other words there wasn’t much in the way of rules… or fact-based judgments. It was in fact (*drum roll please*) a Witch Hunt!
Their thesis of course was flawed from the very beginning. The problem with this premise? The witches in question weren’t actually witches! In fact, their concept of a “witch” was very far from reality in several ways. These rumored “witches” hiding among them simply didn’t exist, unlike the monsters under your bed. And hell, even if they were practitioners of an Earth-based spirituality, does that give others the right to murder you because you believe in different imaginary deities?
This is a perfect example of irrational superstition at its worst. This paranoid-infused ‘Witch’-Hunt was fueled by fear of the unknown. In their warped mindset, demonic magic was a valid reason for any number of catastrophic events that plagued their sad little town. The result was 200 citizens convicted of practicing ‘witch-craft’ (mostly women, because of course) many of whom died in prison, and 19 completely innocent people found ‘guilty’ through barbaric torture, and were savagely executed, mostly by hanging. (Note: Just to be clear though, no ‘witches’ were burned in Salem, but plenty were burned during the Inquisitions in Europe.)
This was back before ‘Merica was its own country mind you. The colonial villagers of old New England were a cowardly and superstitious lot who feared the presence of Satan behind every corner. Puritan society revolved around The Church. The Church WAS the government, and maintained absolute authority until the American Revolution a century later, when the Founding Fathers decided to found a country based on the separation of Church and State (or at least that was the idea at the time). Back then, the residents of Salem were taught that if something wasn’t in the Bible it was EVIL. Somehow that included dancing, toys, holidays, and general all around happiness. Smiling was frowned upon.
Bewitched by… Mold?
It all started with the refugees of King William’s War with the French flooding into Essex county, specifically Salem Village, where the town’s resources were scarce enough as it was. This new population surge put further strain on an already shaken can of Dr. Pepper ready to pop. Naturally the people of Salem figured that all their problems must be the work of the devil and just needed someone to blame.
Right around this time, Reverend Samuel Parris’s daughter, Elizabeth (age 9), and his niece, Abigail Williams (11), both started having explainable “fits”, which were most likely either seizures or tantrums, but medical knowledge was a bit lacking at the time. A local doctor said they’d contracted a bad case of “Voodoo”. Another girl, Ann Putnam, had experienced similar symptoms. Those that were ‘bewitched’ were in fact suffering these afflictions from toxicological symptoms from ingestion of a fungus (Claviceps-Purpurea) found in Rye and Wheat, which causes delusions, vomiting and muscle spasms. Or you know, the Devil.
Local magistrates, Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, lined up three suspects: Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, Sarah Osborne, an elderly woman, and Tituba, the Reverend’s Caribbean slave. The three poor women were tortured, relentlessly. Good and Osborne both pleaded their innocence, but Tituba eventually ‘confessed’, basically stating that the Devil made her do it. All three women were thrown in jail.
As a final ‘F you’ to these patriarchal Puritans, Tituba went on to warn of other witches among them. In her ‘confession’ she convinced them that they’d been infiltrated from within, perhaps in the hopes that they’d destroy themselves through unfounded fear. Ironically the Puritans cursed themselves in a futile attempt to destroy ‘evil’ by perpetrating it.
The Trials Begin…
\As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a specialized court was convened to dish out unfounded judgments based on here-say. This included ‘Spectral Evidence’ such as random nightmares, or visions others had of others committing witchcraft, and of course ‘eyewitness accounts’ from peeping toms who claimed to have seen said witches doing ‘naughty things’ that somehow led to Timmy coming down with Pneumonia two villages away.
Thomas Newton was in charge of prosecuting along with Judges Samuel Sewall and William Stoughton. Bridget Bishop was the first case brought before the Court of Oyer and Terminer (meaning ‘to hear and to decide’). She was convicted for ‘not wearing appropriate clothing’, and in the eyes of the court deemed worthy of execution. “I am as innocent as the child unborn,” were her famous last words. She was the first of many to be hung on Gallows Hill for simply being different.
Those who spoke out against the cruel accusations were promptly accused and sentenced themselves. Motivated by irrational fear and blood lust, the town elders would make completely baseless accusations that the innocent party was a witch… or perhaps born in Kenya. The so-called trials themselves were more absurd than a John Grisham legal thriller. Half the time the so-called jury was biased, and the verdict was decided from the get go. The evidence was inadmissible at best, hell, these weren’t even logical accusations. It was more like children pointing fingers and making stuff up to avoid getting blamed themselves.
Everyone was suspect, everyone was guilty till proven innocent. Just like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica…
Red flags included: broom sticks, pointy hats, and horoscope books. Skin blemishes, or warts would sometime be condemn-able. Mentally ill victims were prime suspects of witchcraft, as well as those tripping on shrooms. While many mistakenly believed there was evil magic afoot, others used the situation to their advantage and made-up shit about the co-workers they didn’t like just to get rid of them.
They weren’t even “real” witches…
One of the most absurd things about these particularly ludicrous Witch Trials was that those accused were not even ‘pagans’ per say. Not that there’s anything wrong with pagans. In fact, the term has been misused for centuries as an insult. Throughout history Christians have used the term to refer to anyone who isn’t a Christian: such as Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, or even used to refer to those who didn’t believe in the exact same type of Christianity they did. (see: The Crusades – all Nine of them!)
The word Pagan actually refers to one who believes in a pantheon of gods, or multiple aspects of the same universal force that is God. Besides, those whom would consider themselves witches in the original sense of the term believe in a nature-based world of spirits and magic, not devil-worshiping. However, the human race has proven rather adept at convincing itself that others who don’t share our particular world view are inherently EVIL.
This form of ‘racial profiling’ became habitual due to an effort at making an uncertain world make sense. It can be explained as nothing more than an attempt to bring order to the chaos. It’s by no means an isolated situation to Salem, Massachusetts alone. In a lawless land on the fringe of the wilderness / the edge of civilization / the precipice of society, this was their way of maintaining (perceived) control.
The puritans responsible for these Witch Trials were no better than any other hate group. Regardless of whether or not they were ‘witches’ by their definitions, it was wrong for them to generalize. Even if they had legitimate reason to believe that an actual witch did something bad at some point, it would be blatantly inaccurate to label all witches as WICKED.
This is how people are dehumanized, marginalized, and demonized. It’s the very reason things like the Salem Witch Trials are allowed to happen in the first place. The mentality that, “They’re all the same” (Who the hell is THEY?). It’s the very same core thinking behind the Red Scare, the KKK, Nazism, and even the injustices perpetrated on the innocent suspects who were shipped off to Guantanamo Bay under the Patriot Act, during “the War on Terror”.
Point being: it’s wrong to impose your beliefs on others, persecute others, and blame others for your problems. Duh. However, the colonial townsfolk of Salem, Massachusetts (much like the Medieval Crusaders) took things a step further than that… they were out for blood!
Guilty: You Die, Innocent: You Also Die
Perhaps the absolute worst thing about these so-called “Trials” was the methods they utilized to divide the witches from the non-witches: drowning, hanging, and worst of all pressing. As it turns out sometimes the only way to ‘prove’ your innocence was to die a horrible death at the hands of a bunch of crazy, judgey, puritans.
The ‘Lord’s Prayer Test’ for instance consisted of the accused reciting the “Lord’s Prayer” without a margin of error. It’s kind of like a mid-term for speech class, except if you get a B+ for saying ‘um’ you’re instantly executed. Forced-confession-by-dunking was pretty standard: if you were even as even slightly sketch you could find yourself being inhumanely tortured till you confessed to a lie that would lead to your untimely death.
Bound submission was another favorite of the persecuting puritans: essentially a witch would be bound and chained to a bolder and then flung into a body of water. If for instance, the accused magically floated to the surface she’d be executed for witchcraft. However, the other option would be to prove your innocence by inevitably sinking to the bottom thanks to physics, and drowning at the bottom of a murky pond, because your village is full of idiots. Approximately 100% of those that underwent this test were proven innocent… presumably due to a lack of Navy Seals training.
Even upstanding church members, Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse weren’t immune to all these bullshit accusations. What’s even more infuriating was that they even questioned Good’s 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy! Her understandably timid answers were somehow construed as a confession.
One “ingenious” way of getting a witch to plead guilty would be to place them under the crushing weight of heavy stones, which of course made it impossible to breath, much less speak. Giles Corey, Martha’s husband, was pressed to death by massive stones after he refused to plea during his arraignment, he was 71.
The President of Harvard College urged that these trials should proceed like any other legal hearing, and that the evidence should be as solid as any other crime, “It would better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.” When his own wife as accused, Governor William Phips eventually stepped in, and put a stop to the court, but unfortunately many of those who were sentenced to prison were left there.
Of course it is worth noting that even though Witch Hunting in America was primarily isolated to this little incident in Salem, it had already become quite the past time back in Europe. In fact somewhere between 20 and 50 THOUSAND were burned at the stake over accusations of witchcraft, thanks to the Spanish Inquisition! So I guess that’s just one more problem colonizers imported to ‘The New World’, along with smallpox, and dumb pilgrim hats.
Centuries later, Arthur Miller wrote his play, “The Crucible” as both a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials and an allegory for the anti-Communist Red Scare perpetrated by Senator McCarthy in the 1950’s – a warning of history repeating itself, once again. Just like the failed ‘War on Drugs’, or the systematic targeting of racial minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community over the past several decades, “Witch Trials” in all their many forms are really just another form of patriarchal control. Yet another a way of keeping the powerless in line, through any means necessary.
If nothing else, the Salem Witch Trials should be seen as a lesson in not blaming others for your own problems, or pointing the finger without any tangible evidence. It’s a parable for what happens when we view the world as black and white, we lose sight of what really matters: Sexy witch costumes, scary movies, and Halloween candy of course!
Other articles you might enjoy!
“A Delusion of Satan” by: Frances Hill and Karen Armstrong
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