Historical Background

In 1692 Salem Village (Danvers) and the town of Salem experienced the infamous witchcraft hysteria. The dramatization that you will see is based upon the court transcripts of the trial of Sarah Good which occurred at the beginning of that hysteria. The historical record as to what happened surrounding the hysteria is very clear and quite complete. However, to this day historians continue to argue as to why and how the hysteria could have occurred.

During the particularly cold and bitter winter of 1692, several young girls of Salem Village regularly gathered in the kitchen of Reverend Parris. Ann Putnam, who will be the accuser in your presentation, was one of those girls. There were few entertainments available for young girls in Puritan New England, and the girls were expected to entertain themselves. Tituba, a Carib Indian and slave of the Parris, helped to amuse the girls with tales of her native Caribbean. These tales may very well have included stories of witchcraft and voodoo.

Before the winter was over, Parris' daughter Betty and his niece Abigail were acting strangely. Dr. Griggs was summoned to examine the girls, but he could find nothing physically wrong with them, so he declared them "bewitched". Soon the other girls were exhibiting similar strange behavior. They barked like dogs, had fits, and eventually claimed that the Devil was pursuing them. The Puritans of the time believed in an actual! physical! presence of the Devil, and a meeting was called to investigate the girls' strange behavior.

At that meeting the girls accused Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osburne of being a witch. (If a person accused of witchcraft confessed, he or she would be stripped of their property but allowed to live. To deny the accusation was to risk execution.) To save her Iife - a slave's only possession - Tituba confessed to witchcraft. Now there was proof - a confessed witch and her victims - that the devil had established a physical presence in Salem. The hysteria began for real.

Contributing to the spread of the hysteria was the legal system of that time which accepted "spectra! evidence" in cases involving witchcraft. Spectral evidence held that the spirit of a witch could leave his/her body and torment a victim. Additionally, invisible "familiars" - usually cats or birds associated with the witch - could also attack the victim. In our dramatization, Ann Putnam will testify that she is being attacked by Sarah Good's familiars (little yellow birds) even while the trial is in session. Obviously, there was no way for individuals to defend themselves against invisible evidence.

Before the hysteria was over, nineteen people, including Sarah Good, were hanged on Gallows Hill, and Giles Corey was pressed to death. Even two dogs were hanged for giving the children the "evil eye". Hundreds of accused people were jailed in Salem, and hundreds more were jailed throughout New England. And as your Dungeon Tour will demonstrate, imprisonment at this time was a horrible experience.

Fourteen years later, in August of 1706, Ann Putnam confessed that she had falsely accused Sarah and others. She was humbled before her congregation. The colony of Massachusetts eventually made small financial restitution to the surviving families of those executed for witchcraft, but no restitution was given to those who merely suffered imprisonment.

But how and why could the hysteria have occurred ? Historical theories have ranged from weather conditions producing an LSD-tike mould on the grain to boundary and property-rights disputes being fundamental causes. There were petty disputes between rival groups in Salem Village, and a new wealthy merchant class was challenging the traditional political influence of the church leaders in the colony. But it is impossible to single out one specific fundamental cause.

However, an hysteria is essentially a psychological occurrence, so a glimpse of the mind set of the times might be helpful. By the winter of 1692 the population of Massachusetts had good cause to feel insecure and threatened for a variety of reasons:

  • The colony existed on the edge of a huge, unknown continent, and there was a constant threat of Indian attack.

  • The winter was particular(y harsh and this reinforced the feeling of isolation.

  • The harvest of 1691 had been poor

  • There had been an outbreak of smallpox.

  • The colony's charter, which gave it the right to exist and established legal rights and land boundaries, had been revoked. The new charter would extend toleration to other Protestant groups and thereby challenge the established order.

  • The French were waging war.

  • New wealth from the trade with the Caribbean was upsetting the social and political establishment of the colony. The traditional leadership of the church was being challenged by a new merchant class.

It is not difficult to find other times in more modern American History (The McCarthy Hearings of the 1950's, The Palmer Raids, or the Sacco-Vanzetti Case could serve as some examples) when mass insecurity created by uncertain times resulted in hysterias similar to Salem's in 1692. So rather than judging our Puritan ancestors too harshly, perhaps we should just try to learn from their experiences and try to avoid repeating their mistakes in our future.

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