In 1692, the peaceful village of Salem, Massachusetts, was teeming with black magic. Or so it seemed… Witchcraft, curses and mounting paranoia poisoned the local community which abruptly sentenced 19 people to death. But there were human beings behind the Devil’s work…
By the end of the 17th century, Salem Village was a quiet town that only a few hundred lonely souls called home. Puritan settlers founded it decades ago, back when Native Americans still roamed the countryside and the wild was thick with bushes and maple trees. But in the 1690s, Salem looked like a vast plain of corn crops lined with barns and farms, its daily life featuring the monotony of rural business. On Sundays, though, every villager wore his best suit to church to take a bite of local gossip among the parishioners. During the winter of 1691-1692, the whispers bore the name of reverend Samuel Parris: the newcomer arrived from the Caribbean two years ago.
The fortune teller’s apprentices
The issue with Parris is the Native American maid he brought along with his family. Tituba’s the name. A few weeks prior, she pretended to a group of young girls — including Betty, the reverend’s daughter — that she could foresee the future. Perhaps it was just a game, a clever way to kill time during the endless winters of Massachusetts. But what started as a pastime eventually became very serious for the girls, who kept on trying to predict their own future. Until one day, one of them saw a coffin in her visions…
Was that the trigger? Soon enough, most girls became prone to fits of hysteria. Betty herself started saying obscenities and having recurring nightmares. The worried reverend brought his daughter to the local doctor, who made a rather grim diagnosis: ‘the evil hand is upon her’.
From then on, Parris was convinced that the Devil operated somewhere at the heart of Salem, bewitching innocent girls and casting sinister spells. In February 1692, supposed victims of ‘demonic possession’ were interviewed by the local authorities. Probably out of fear of paternal or divine reprimand, the girls confessed that Tituba had initiated them to the ancient arts of black magic. Surprisingly, they also blamed two women living on the fringes of the community, Sarah Osborne — who lived as a recluse and didn’t even show up to church — and Sarah Good — a beggar one could sometimes hear whisper under her breath.
As for Tituba, she was the perfect scapegoat: a foreigner, formerly enslaved, with questionable origins and beliefs. The Parris’ maid did not even deny it: she admitted having been visited by the Devil and riding flying broomsticks. She also stated that she had accomplices among the community to spread fear across Salem. Although the two other accused denied everything, all three were put in custody, awaiting further investigation.
‘All the devils are here’
Paranoia and hysteria spread like wildfire. The defendants tried to prove their innocence by blaming somebody else, expanding the list of suspects. Witnesses accused people with whom they had a grudge, taking the Salem Witch Trials as an opportunity for settling neighbours’ quarrels. The girls kept on displaying worrying symptoms, sending more and more villagers to jail. The situation in Salem was soon reported by the papers, and news of the witchcraft accusations eventually reached Boston.
The case was getting out of hand. William Phips, Massachusetts’ brand-new governor, showed up in Salem in May. There, he created a special court dedicated to investigating the affair and judging the culprits. Needless to say, the late-17th century legal system was extremely susceptible to superstition: in the meeting house where the testimonies were heard, judges relied on ‘spectral evidence’ — that is, the belief that the spirits of the accused could reveal their owners’ malevolent intentions. Fuelled by panic, the botched trial sent his first victim, Bridget Bishop, to the gallows on June 10.
As the young girls’ behavior kept on producing spectral evidence and, ultimately, death sentences, a question needs to be addressed: have they been faking? Not necessarily. Growing up with a powerful fear of sin and Hell, the girls have built their entire personality on Puritan values. A traumatic trigger episode could thus provoke the physical and mental symptoms (spasms, coprolalia, rashes…) observed on Salem, the psychologists believe.
Hang ’em high!
Summer of 1692. Salem’s Gallows Hill was rotting with the corpses of nineteen so-called ‘witches’, sentenced to death as a response to the villagers’ growing panic. Until Increase Mather, a prominent member of the Puritan community (and president of Harvard College) stepped in from Boston. He published Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits which questioned the use of spectral evidence at the trials. “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned,” he famously stated. By the end of October, as if waking up from a seemingly endless nightmare, the court was dismissed.
Although ‘the evil forces’ eventually left Salem Village, the local community remained wounded. How does one explain a mass hysteria phenomenon which, in a mere few weeks, had spread like a disease in the minds of its inhabitants? We can only guess as much. The girls’ trauma could have poisoned the town as a whole. There are also collective scars carried by the community: a recent smallpox epidemic, the havoc of the French-English Wars, frictions between Salem villagers and Native Americans… Those events contributed to instil fear and paranoia — especially when fuelled by religious rigor — deep inside the heart of the community. Researchers have also considered a collective ergotism epidemic, provoking hallucinations and delusion among Salem villagers. However, no one knows for sure.
A neighbour’s quarrel?
It is also likely that social tensions contributed to the Salem witch hunts. Indeed, the community had been torn apart for a few years leading up to the events. The eastern part, located next to the harbour, had seen its inhabitants get considerably richer due to the region’s economy boost; however, the western half, mostly rural, hadn’t had its share. The latter was inhabited by country dwellers embodying Puritan traditions and values, for whom the accumulation of wealth was a deadly sin. So the community was already rotting on the inside: as soon as 1682, a villager by the name of Jeremiah Watts already complained about the atmosphere of hatred and distrust seeping through the community: “Brother is against brother and neighbors against neighbors, all quarreling and smiting one another,” he said.
A few years after the events, tongues eventually loosened. A judge admitted having rushed his decisions at the peak of the hysteria. In 1711, the Colony of Massachusetts officially recognized wrongdoing and restored the names of the accused, also compensating the victims’ families. One of the accusers, Ann Putnam, who was 13 at the time of the infamous trials (where she was responsible for about a third of the accusations!), stated ten years later that she had been deceived by ‘a great delusion of Satan’. Pursued by the ghosts of her past, she died prematurely in 1716. She is considered the last official victim of the Salem Witch Trials.
- Marc Aronson, Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials, Simon & Schuster, 2003.
- Jess Blumberg, “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials”, Smithsonian Magazine, October 23, 2007.
- Liliane Crété, « Les possédées de Salem », Historia n°660, December 2001.
- Liliane Crété, « Salem balayé par une hystérie collective », Historia n°775, July 2011.