Witchcraft in Salem

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Witchcraft in Salem

Surely the Devil had come to SALEM in 1692. Young girls screaming and barking like a dog? Strange dances in the woods? This was behavior hardly becoming of virtuous teenage maidens. The town doctor was called onto the scene. After a thorough examination, he concluded quite simply — the girls were bewitched. Now the task was clear. Whomever was responsible for this outrage must be brought to justice.

The ordeal originated in the home of Salem's REVEREND SAMUEL PARRIS. Parris had a slave from the Caribbean named TITUBA. Several of the town's teenage girls began to gather in the kitchen with Tituba early in 1692. As winter turned to spring the townspeople were aghast at the behaviors exhibited by Tituba's young followers. They were believed to have danced a black magic dance in the nearby woods. Several of the girls would fall to the floor and scream hysterically. Soon this behavior began to spread across Salem. Ministers from nearby communities came to Salem to lend their sage advice. The talk turned to identifying the parties responsible for this mess.

Puritans believed that to become bewitched a WITCH must draw an individual under a spell. The girls could not have possibly brought this condition onto themselves. Soon they were questioned and forced to name their tormentors. Three townspeople, including Tituba, were named as witches. The famous Salem witchcraft trials began as the girls began to name more and more community members.

Evidence admitted in such trials was of five types. First, the accused might be asked to pass a test, like reciting the Lord's Prayer. This seems simple enough. But the young girls who attended the trial were known to scream and writhe on the floor in the middle of the test. It is easy to understand why some could not pass.

Second, physical evidence was considered. Any birthmarks, warts, moles, or other blemishes were seen as possible portals through which SATAN could enter a body.

Witness testimony was a third consideration. Anyone who could attribute their misfortune to the SORCERY of an accused person might help get a conviction.

Fourth was spectral evidence. Puritans believed that Satan could not take the form of any unwilling person. Therefore, if anyone saw a ghost or spirit in the form of the accused, the person in question must be a witch.

Last was the CONFESSION. Confession seems foolhardy to a defendant who is certain of his or her innocence. In many cases, it was the only way out. A confessor would tearfully throw himself or herself on the mercy of the town and court and promise repentance. None of the confessors were executed. Part of repentance might of course include helping to convict others.

As 1692 passed into 1693, the hysteria began to lose steam. The governor of the colony, upon hearing that his own wife was accused of witchcraft ordered an end to the trials. However, 20 people and 2 dogs were executed for the crime of witchcraft in Salem. One person was pressed to death under a pile of stones for refusing to testify.

No one knows the truth behind what happened in Salem. Once witchcraft is ruled out, other important factors come to light. Salem had suffered greatly in recent years from Indian attacks. As the town became more populated, land became harder and harder to acquire. A SMALLPOX epidemic had broken out at the beginning of the decade. Massachusetts was experiencing some of the worst winters in memory. The motives of the young girls themselves can be questioned. In a society where women had no power, particularly young women, is it not understandable how a few adolescent girls, drunk with unforeseen attention, allowed their imaginations to run wild? Historians make educated guesses, but the real answers lie with the ages.

Instant Quiz

Which of the following was not ground for witch accusation?

  1. Having a wart

  2. Causing others to scream and wail during prayer

  3. Refusing to pay taxes

Who was one of the first three Salem people to be accused of witchcraft?

  1. Tituba

  2. Rebecca Nurse

  3. Dorothy Gale

  4. George Jacobs, Sr.

How many people were executed for being witches?

  1. 10

  2. 20

  3. 43

  4. 140

Which of the following was not a possible cause of the hysteria?

  1. Smallpox

  2. Salmonella

  3. Weather

  4. Girls starving for attention

Four theories about the Cause of the Salem Witch Trials



1.    Mass hysteria caused by an overzealous religious faith all fueled by superstition, panic, and rumor.  Tituba, a West Indian indentured servant recently imported to a household in Salem, had been telling stories and folklore about demons and spells to several young girls who, in turn, spread the stories through the neighborhood.  Such stories of witches and demons and spells to ward them off or attract them had always been in circulation, but under the influence of an “authority” like Tituba, they took root in the minds of some very impressionable adolescent girls and spread. 


2.    Rye mold, which contains the chemical basis for LSD.  Mold on rye bread and mushrooms containing hallucinogenic chemicals have been blamed for many historical incidents from the Spanish Inquisition to a form of Medieval mania called Dancing Mania. 


3.    Economic jealousy of fringe groups in the small culture who felt disenfranchised and relatively deprived and who intended to get revenge on the landholders and wealthy citizens.


4.    A Spiritual realm invisible to the eye which is inhabited by demons and angels and who interact with humans either to cause grief and havoc or protect and give good counsel.  This, of course, is the traditional theory subscribed to by religious folks world-wide. 

Witchcraft or Psychedelic Trip?

First proposed by Linda Caporael in 1976, one of the most interesting explanations for

the [Salem Witch Trials] involves accidental ergot poisoning, or ergotism. Ergot is a fungus that

grows on grain, especially rye. It was commonly found in European and American rye through

the 19th century. Ergot is interesting because ...the psychedelic hallucinogen LSD was first

made from ergot. But when eaten, the poison and hallucinogens found in ergot-infected grain

makes for a pretty bad trip – ergot poisoning causes muscle convulsions, vomiting, prickling

sensations under the skin, and hallucinations.

These symptoms sound very close to the illness experienced by the Salem girls. And

in fact, other townspeople claimed that they had seen apparitions and lights that other people

could not see. Some also said that their skin was prickling. If these experiences were real, ergot

poisoning provides a believable explanation for the Salem Witch Trials.

But could grain in Salem have been poisoned with ergot? Rye is easily infected with

ergot, and it was a staple crop in Salem. Accounts from the time indicate that 1691 was an

unusually wet year. Since ergot grows in wet conditions, this weather could have caused the rye

crop to be infected with the fungus. On top of this, farmland in the western section of Salem

consisted mostly of swampy fields, so an ergot infection would have been likely. So if ergot

poisoning was a factor in the bewitching of the accusers in Salem, you would expect most of

them to have lived in the western section of town. As it turns out, 30 of 32 accusers (excluding

the girls) lived on the western side of town while 12 of 14 accused witches lived on the eastern side of town. Since stored grain is eaten throughout the winter, the effects of ergot poisoning on the population would have continued until the spring. As it turns out, the witchcraft trials ended http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schooladventures/images/salemwitchtrials/life/divisionsimage.jpg

abruptly when spring began.

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