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The Salem Witch Trials Essay, Research Paper

Essay on the Witches in Massachusetts

by Lars M?llegaard Hansen (F)

What evil spirit have you familiarity with?

None.

Have you made no contract with the devil?

No.

Why do you hurt these children?

I do not hurt them. I scorn it.

Who do you imploy then to do it?

I imploy no body.

What creature do you imploy then?

No creature. I am falsely accused.

Dialogue based on the examination of Sarah Good by Judges Hawthorne and Corwin

Even though Sara Good claimed that she was wrongly accused, the judges did not take her word for it. Instead they trusted the testimony of children, children who had no proof or evidence of any kind. To understand why one must look into the society in which the trials took place.

It was a society where Puritanism ruled. The extreme Protestant movement who sought a purification of the English church, which of curse meant a swift and thorough elimination of all that threatened their beliefs, including witches. One must also remember that the power of superstition and hearsay can distort the truth. And indeed it was a time of rumors and an almost unquestionable belief in the supernatural.

For Salem Villagers, Satan was a living, supernatural being who could and did appear to people, either in his own form or that of another. He could converse with mortals, bargain with them, even enter into agreements with them. The witches who submitted to such devilish compacts bargained their souls in return for special powers or favors: money and good fortune, perhaps, or the ability to revenge themselves on others.

Demons at that time was as real as TV is today, and maybe that was why the ministers was so quick to believe the testimony of the children. If the demons was real then just as real was the church, and of curse the ministers could not believe that the children would lie to the church. Leave out the possibility that real witchcraft was in fact what happened, and that the children did not lie to the ministers, then how could such a tragedy occur?

The deterioration of Salem’s social structure precipitated the murders of many innocent people. Arthur Miller’s depiction of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible and later the motion picture: The Salem Witch Trials, deals with a community that starts out looking like it is tightly knit and church loving. It turns out that once Tituba starts pointing her finger at the witches, the community starts pointing their fingers at each other. Hysteria and hidden agendas break down the social structure and then everyone must protect themselves from the people that they thought were their friends. The church, legal system and the togetherness of the community died so that children could protect their families’ social status.

Being isolated from any other group of people with different beliefs created a church led Puritan society that was not able to accept a lot of change. The church was against the devil, at the same time it was against such things as dancing and other premature acts. The reputation of the family was very important to the members of the community. When the girls were caught dancing in the woods, they lied to protect not just themselves but the reputation of their families. They claimed that the devil took them over and influenced them to dance. The girls also said that they saw members of the town standing with the devil. A community living in a puritan society like Salem could easily go into a chaotic state and have a difficult time dealing with what they consider to be the largest form of evil.

Salem’s hysteria made the community lose faith in the spiritual beliefs that they were trying to strictly enforce. The justice system was designed to protect the people that it serves but during the trials the accused witch had two choices, death or imprisonment. The punishment of death was given to all people that pleaded not guilty; the other punishment was to plead guilty and avoid execution. Salem was turning into a ghost town. With the community turning on each other, the church loosing its respect and influence, and an unjust legal system, it is only natural that the people were in a state of total chaos. John Demos writes:

…only at Salem did any considerable number choose to convict themselves, and there, it seemed, confession was the strategy of choice if one wished to avoid the gallows.

Endless rumors was made up because people did not want any blame put on to themselves.

The social breakdown in Salem was the major factor in the tragedy that took the lives of many innocent people. There was more than one tragedy happening in Salem. The first was the murdering of many innocent people, and the second was that a community that was once very close had been broken apart. Often the people of small puritan villages like Salem were like a family, but isolation probably made them unable to adapt to the difficult situation. It is ironical that the attempt to create a society based on rules and regulations given by the church and the most influential men back fired and created a state where people ended up questioning their religious beliefs. That is probably why writers like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the following years tried to move away from the general puritan ideas and move society into a new and more tolerant age.

As the trials went on the accusations became more and more bizarre. When a child became ill, or a cow ceased to give milk, the neighbor was suspected of magic. An accusation of witchcraft brought into court all the accuser’s enemies and rivals with stories of the mishaps and disputes of the last ten to twenty years, interpreted in the light of vicious occult powers.

Also disturbing is the Puritan disregard of justice. The upper class was treated leniently when accused, and placed under house arrest, rather than being consigned to months in a crowded and stinking jail. Because the rich also had the means to travel and live away from home, they could and did escape to New York, and were even encouraged to do so by some authorities. Ordinary people could not be confident even of due process. The sheriff, without warrant, sometimes confiscated the property of an accused couple, leaving their children destitute.

At the hearings, the accusers sat through the interrogations, frequently interrupting, adjusting their stories to fit the testimony they heard and sometimes even assaulting the accused. Onlookers coached and prompted the witnesses. The principle investigating judge, John Hawthorne, showed extreme prejudice. Then, too, most of the key witnesses had admittedly resorted to occult practices themselves, and were children or slaves.

Both court and clergy were inconsistent in their attitude toward witchcraft. While in theory condemning any recourse to occult powers, in practice they were more often under the influence of English legal assumptions. In England the witch crises produced proportionally many fewer accusations and a much lower conviction rate than elsewhere, because in England witches were tried not for trafficking with the occult, but for the actual harm done to others as a result. The resort to white magic to ward off witchcraft was easily forgiven by the Puritans.

Even stranger, accused witches were commanded to use their power to heal the afflictions of those who claimed to be suffering from the witch attacks. When the Salem Village minister’s slave, John Indian, a major figure in the witchcraft accusations, had a fit in court, the magistrates

ordered [Elizabeth Cary] to touch him, in order to his cure, but her head must be turned another way, lest instead of curing, she should make him worse, by her looking on him, her hand being guided to take hold of his.

Most of the accused witches was women J.W. Davidson and M. H. Lytle writes:

… out of 178 accused witches who can be identified by name, more than three out of four were female. And if the backgrounds of accused men are examined, it turns out that nearly half of them were husbands, sons, or other relatives of accused women… [examining] the trial records in more detail, [one finds] that the authorities tender to treat accused women differently from men. Magistrates and ministers often put pressure on women to confess their guilt.

The given texts suggest different explanations, it is suggested that it would be most beneficial to accuse and convict the women, because the women’s economical status in the 17th century.


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