Colonial Era

Witches of Salem Village

In 1692, the relatively poor farming community of Salem Village, Massachusetts, became the site of one of the most peculiar events in American history. Hysteria, rumors, and accusations of witchcraft spread rapidly, originating from the home of Reverend Samuel Parris. When two young female members of Parris’s household started exhibiting strange symptoms, doctors could find no explanation beyond the supernatural. Soon, others throughout the community began to experience similar signs. Those afflicted pointed accusing fingers at their neighbors, leading many to believe that witchcraft and its associated evil had infiltrated the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

From June 1692 to May 1693, nearly 200 people were accused of witchcraft. Prior to the dissolvement of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, established to try and convict the accused witches, twenty individuals were sentenced to death. In just over three months, fourteen women and five men were executed by hanging. One man was pressed to death under heavy stones. Several more died while imprisoned in harsh conditions. By 1695, relative peace and normalcy had returned to Salem Village.

Historians and enthusiasts have written much about the details surrounding the Salem witchcraft hysteria, yet much remains to be discovered. Chronologies, intensely researched books and articles, and countless retellings have done little to create a consensus regarding the cause of this Colonial American episode. Research has suggested various reasons, such as strict Puritan beliefs and the possibility of poisoning, to resolve the affair, yet there still fails to be one accepted explanation. As time has passed, various fields of study have provided numerous unique perspectives. By comparing and contrasting the lenses through which this event has already been interpreted, it may be possible to discover a common link to a singular cause.

The hysteria and resulting trials have long been a favored subject of study among historians. While many placed the strict Puritan religion and its leaders at fault, others made compelling arguments for increasingly modern alternative agents. In recent decades, researchers have raised questions concerning race relations and applied them to the events at Salem. Through this lens, examiners placed emphasis on the role of African and Native Americans, their proximity to Salem Village, and Salem’s conditioned fear of the “other.” Similarly, the growth of women’s studies inspired considerable attention to the feminine situation in Colonial Massachusetts. This perspective opened doors of study into domestic roles, Puritan prejudice, and emotional significance. These lenses brought to light areas often overlooked by traditional accounts and provided a more inclusive examination of the event.

Puritans adopted strict beliefs adhering to Scripture. Derived from Calvinism, Puritanism’s main driving force for both life and politics was the idea that its followers were predestined by God to be pious examples in their communities. Numerous historians blamed Puritan theology for the chaos occurring at Salem in 1692. Among those who believed religion to be the cause of events was David Harley. In his 1996 article, “Explaining Salem: Calvinist Psychology and the Diagnosis of Possession,” Harley argued that the lack of distinction between demonic possession and witchcraft affliction was not only what guided the hysteria but also what led to the collapse of the trials. By examining the history of Calvinist doctrine, he revealed the difficulties leaders had in making a correct diagnosis since symptoms of obsession, caused indirectly by witchcraft, and possession, caused directly by the Devil, often overlapped.

Richard Latner also addressed the events at Salem through the lens of religion in his article, “‘Here Are No Newters’: Witchcraft and Religious Discord in Salem Village and Andover.” Similar to Harley was Latner’s choice to place blame on religious leadership. He, by examining the history of Salem Village and its neighboring town of Andover, discovered a disproportionately higher number of witchcraft accusations in that area concurrent with the ordinations of two young, Harvard-educated Puritan ministers to the local churches.

Benjamin Ray, a historian of religion, took a similar approach and stance to Latner in his article, “Satan’s War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692.” He even referenced Latner’s article in several places throughout his research. Ray’s belief that Samuel Parris was the driving force behind the hysteria mirrored Latner’s hypothesis; however, the method chosen to present the material was different. Ray purposefully arranged his research chronologically in order to analyze the patterns which developed throughout the episode. By employing this technique, he demonstrated the progression of instability between Parris’s Covenant and the outside villagers.

As time has passed, researchers have added more contemporary perspectives to the events at Salem. One of these interpretations explored the role of race and ethnicity. Several historians examined both the influence of African and Native Americans in Colonial Massachusetts and the perceptions of white European settlers about African and Indian cultures. Timothy McMillan, perhaps having been inspired by the end of apartheid and the 1994 multiracial elections in South Africa, researched the religion and beliefs of African Americans during the period surrounding the events at Salem to determine the role of race as an impetus for the spread of witchcraft accusations.

John McWilliams also considered the role of race and ethnicity in his 1996 article, “Indian John and the Northern Tawnies.” However, instead of studying the influence of African Americans on events, as McMillan did, McWilliams focused primarily on the misunderstanding of Native American culture and the resulting fear of Indian attacks. He, most likely, compelled by his extensive historical research into James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, explored numerous accounts related to the witchcraft hysteria in Salem and the surrounding towns to demonstrate the effects of the northern Indian wars on Colonial New England.

A year after McWilliams provided an account of Indian John’s actions, Elaine Breslaw presented intriguing research into the role of another Native American – Tituba, Indian John’s wife, who was also a slave in the Parris household. Breslaw, having lived for a year in Barbados, was especially intrigued by the potential African influences on Tituba during her time spent serving Parris in that country.

Beginning in the 1980s, the growth of women’s studies provided a new lens for the events at Salem. Ann Kibbey applied this modern perspective to her 1982 article, “Mutations of the Supernatural: Witchcraft, Remarkable Providences, and the Power of Puritan Men,” by examining the relationship between Puritan beliefs of witchcraft and providence and the power assigned to Puritan men.

Historians and interested seekers have researched the Salem witchcraft hysteria extensively. Until recent decades, much of this research resulted in general overviews of the events or economic and legal interpretations of the trials. Few historians have searched for a singular cause and even fewer have applied cultural and social lenses to the outbreak. Examination into these potential influences is still rare, but there remains at least one area of exploration that has been completely neglected – the role of the young men and boys of Salem. The impacts of Puritan leaders, Salem Village’s men and women, and even the young girls of the community have all been researched. However, the roles played by the young men and boys of the town are suspiciously absent from nearly every account. In order to gain a more complete understanding of societal standards and cultural traditions and how these may have influenced the episode at Salem, it is important to consider the impact of the community as a whole, with young men included.

[Excerpt from “Causes of the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria: A Historiographical Exploration”]

  • Breslaw, Elaine G. “Tituba’s Confession: The Multicultural Dimensions of the 1692 Salem Witch-Hunt.” Ethnohistory 44, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 535-556.
  • Harley, David. “Explaining Salem: Calvinist Psychology and the Diagnosis of Possession.” The American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (April 1996): 307-330.
  • Kibbey, Ann. “Mutations of the Supernatural: Witchcraft, Remarkable Providences, and the Power of Puritan Men.” American Quarterly 34, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 125-148.
  • Laskaris, Isabelle. “Agency and Emotion of Young Female Accusers in the Salem Witchcraft Trials.” Cultural & Social History 16, no. 4 (October 2019): 413-429.
  • Latner, Richard. “’Here Are No Newters’: Witchcraft and Religious Discord in Salem Village and Andover.” The New England Quarterly 79, no. 1 (March 2006): 92-122.
  • McMillan, Timothy J. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, and Resistance in Colonial New England.” Journal of Black Studies 25, no. 1 (September 1994): 99-117.
  • McWilliams, John. “Indian John and the Northern Tawnies.” The New England Quarterly 69, no. 4 (December 1996): 580-604.
  • Ray, Benjamin C. “Satan’s War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692.” The New England Quarterly 80, no. 1 (March 2007): 69-95.
  • Reis, Elizabeth. “The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England.” The Journal of American History 82, no. 1 (June 1995): 15-36.

* Featured image courtesy of Frank Balsinger via Flickr