Crisis and Catharsis

Focusing on Stories of Ingenuity and Creativity

Historical Interpretations of the Salem Witch-Trials, 1692 with Anika Choudhury

Salem Witch Trial Scene - (Original Caption) Salem Witch Trial. Accusation of bedeviled girl. After an engraving by Howard Pyle.

Salem Witch Trial Scene – (Original Caption) Salem Witch Trial. Accusation of bedeviled girl. After an engraving by Howard Pyle.

The supernatural, magic, and witchcraft persisted to be a part of the United States belief system as a result of a sincere, generational fear of the unknown. In American history, early modern European migrants and New England Puritans feared anything paranormal, and most importantly, witches that could harm their families. There were many factors involved which led to the accusations of witchcraft in Puritan society. Some of the biggest reasons for why accusations ravaged Salem included fear, the belief in both good and bad witchcraft, the willingness of physicians to utilize witchcraft as a form of medical diagnosis, politics, and potential ergot poisoning. Sadly, for those accused of witchcraft in Salem, the factionalism of both the Town and Village provided the ideal conditions for what is most widely regarded as the greatest witch-hunt in American history.

Puritans used spells to describe what they did not understand. This was thoroughly described in The Devils Dominion, when author Richard Godbeer stated that, “Magic offered a release from uncertainty.” He also explained that although it did this, it came in two categories – good and bad. “Bad” magic came from a source that was detrimental to religious beliefs of the Puritans. Image magic, on the other hand, was the practice of enchanting an object in order to harm a person. Image magic was believed to be the evil magic that witches used to harm others.

In Witchcraft at Salem, the author, Chadwick Hansen, delves into the fear of witchcraft in Salem’s society during the 17th century. He explores the way in which members within the community were affected by their beliefs, and how they responded to those that showed bizarre behavior or unexplainable physical symptoms. Hansen also explains that any person that was thought to be sick with a physical or psychological disorder that was not understood would be misinterpreted as being afflicted by “the evil hand.” He asserts that the fear of it is what gave the ritual its power. Some of the physical symptoms Hansen describes of those afflicted by witchcraft include convulsions, loss of certain senses, and intense pain. These symptoms happened to coincide with someone accusing another person of witchcraft. It can be seen that a physician being unable to diagnose an unexplainable illness helped with strengthening the fears of witchcraft, which in turn sparked a growth of accusations.

Hansen argues that this hysteria was created by the pressures of their immensely devout and particularly strict society, as they believed witchcraft was more likely than a psychological illness. Numerous young women started to exhibit some odd symptoms such as memory problems, temporary hearing loss, vision and speech impairment, seizures, bite marks and pin pricks on the skin surface, among several other peculiar behaviors. These girls were afflicted by spontaneous fits considered impossible for a person to do to themselves. One of the girls involved was Reverend Parris’ daughter. He decided his prayers weren’t working, and that he needed to bring his daughter to a doctor. After viewing her, the doctor established that it was very obviously the hand of the devil and they were under the spell of witchcraft. These symptoms affecting a mass group were not something that was understood by the community. Attempting to blame it on the witchcraft would be their own way to make sense of something for which they had no credible justification.

In addition to this, throughout their 1974 text, Salem Possessed, Boyer and Nissenbaum largely hypothesize that the roots of the Witch-Trials were attributed to the divide amongst Salem Town and Salem Village. This divide was based on the size of the church, prosperity, and geographic location. They note that the priests, including Samuel Parris, took advantage of this division. Salem Village had become more socially distant to the town, as the town experienced the growth of commercial wealth. Salem’s villagers also had very little assistance from neighboring areas and had little freedom and political control to champion themselves. The lack of adequate involvement by officials further weakened the village, and these community conflicts had dire effects on a town that was volatile and poorly developed from the outset.

When the Puritans first founded New England, it was emphasized that society was just to be one entity acting in the best interests of the whole as opposed to a set of individuals operating for their own gain. This concept was central to the initial settlements’ success. The moral and economic threat of a radical change in the values of the society exacerbated the more detached Pro-Parris group to view the opposing party as an immoral group which jeopardized the moral and economic integrity of the Salem community itself. This ultimately resulted in the Salem Witch-Trials becoming a paranoid witch-hunt.


Further Reading:


  • The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England by Richard Godbeer
  • Witchcraft at Salem by Chadwick Hansen
  • Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum

1 Comment

  1. Well explained

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