Brennyn Mackey 2 May 2011 The Secret War of Salem Exposing the Culprit behind the Mass Hysteria The Salem Witch Trials were a series of infamous events that demand an explanation for their occurrence. The trials that took place in 1692 caused neighbors in the community of Salem Village in the colony of Massachusetts to turn on one another out of paranoia, accusing one another of witchcraft. According to Carol Karlsen, a longtime author of the subject, nineteen people were hanged and about 200 others were imprisoned (40).
A few theories have been offered in order to explain the root of this mass hysteria. The theories in question need to be examined to see which holds the most credibility. Most historians who have studied the subject agree on the chronological order of events that set this dark episode of history into motion. They believe it began in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris. Reverend Parris owned a West Indian slave named Tituba. Tituba would tell the young girls stories of her experiences in sorcery when the reverend was away.
This small group of girls started with Abigail Williams, the reverend’s niece, and Elizabeth Parris, his daughter. Soon, a few girls from neighboring homes joined. Eventually, the girls began to exhibit exceptionally erratic behaviors. They would have hallucinations and convulsions. A physician checked the girls, but he failed to find a natural cause for their behavior. He attributed their ailments to a supernatural cause (Salem Witch Trials). The girls began to claim they were being afflicted by witches and started making accusations. Thus, the panic ensued.
Those who have studied the subject of the Salem Witch Trials have very few disagreements on these events. Though history may have documented the events, it has not presented a clear underlying cause to their occurrence. Why did the girls act in such a manner? Scholars have presented their own theories for this mystery. One theory that attempts to explain the hysteria is that there was a fungal poisoning such as ergot in the bread that the girls ate. This would be an ideal explanation for their convulsions. Another theory is that witchcraft was actually being practiced.
This theory states that the incredibly odd behavior of the girls was attributed to the practices that Tituba was teaching them. A final theory that draws much interest is that the girls were acting. Scholars have looked at these events from a political perspective and suggest that Reverend Parris persuaded the young girls to act in an odd manner. The theory that answers the most questions without raising an equal number of new questions is the best explanation. The theory that Reverend Parris used the girls to gain wealth holds such a status.
The theory that there was an ergot infestation is advocated by a professor named Linnda Caporeal. Caporeal has argued that a fungal poison known as ergot, which grows on rye, had been ingested by the girls, causing their behaviors. She goes on to explain that “all the symptoms [of ergot poisoning] are alluded to in the Salem Witch Trials” (Caporeal). This theory does not make sense when considering why the only ones affected were the young girls in the Parris household. Convulsive ergot poisoning most often affects small children, but the Salem Village had hundreds of residents.
The whole village ate grains harvested from the same fields and this theory does not have an account of anyone else exhibiting the slightest convulsions. It is far too coincidental that the only ones affected were a few young girls. This theory has also been attacked by researchers such as Spanos and Gottlieb. They address the point previously mentioned as well as the nutritional condition of the villagers. In another article, they responded to Caporeal’s arguments regarding the afflicted girls as well as the villagers’ nutritional susceptibility.
Spanos and Gottlieb state that “the fact that most individuals […] living in the same households as the afflicted girls showed no signs of symptoms is attributed by Caporeal to wide individual differences in susceptibility to ergot poisoning. ” They also discuss vitamin A deficiency. According to their research: Ergot poisoning in individuals with adequate vitamin A intakes leads to gangrenous rather than convulsive symptoms. Vitamin A is found both in fish and in dairy products. Salem Village was a farming community and Salem Town, which bordered the village, was a well-known seaport; cows and fish were plentiful.
There is no evidence to suggest a vitamin A deficiency in the diet of the inhabitants, and it would be particularly unlikely for the so-called “afflicted girls,” some of whom came from well-to-do farming families. The absence of any instance of gangrenous symptomatology makes it highly unlikely that ergot played any role in the Salem crisis (Spanos). The theory that there was an ergot infestation does not seem to hold up to the accounts of Spanos and Gottlieb. The theory of ergot infestation has slowly lost credibility due to these pieces of evidence.
Another theory that attempts to explain the paranoia is the theory that witchcraft was being practiced in the community. The word “witch” came into English from Wicca, an Anglo-Saxon word that means “wise one” (Buckland 26). Witches have been viewed throughout history as servants of Satan, spreading misfortune. This is an exaggerated stereotype similar to the misconception that witches fly around on broomsticks and transform into animals. A Wiccan author known as Sheena Morgan addresses issues regarding false stereotypes of witchcraft. She states that people “have lots of misconceptions about what Wicca and witchcraft actually entail.
People seem to confuse witchcraft with Satanism or devil worship […] Wicca […] does not seek new adherents” (14). The author implies that Wicca is a pantheistic religion that promotes harmony with the natural world and does not entail bloodletting rituals. All the “Halloween” aspects of Wicca are stereotypical misrepresentations of their beliefs. The Puritans had a deep fear that those dark conceptions were a reality. Such preconceived notions and religious beliefs that the Puritans had regarding witchcraft must have been the fuel for the trials. According to
Puritan beliefs, witches worshipped Satan. Melanie Gauch, a lifetime Wiccan, has stated that Wiccans do not believe in a devil. That is a Christian notion that the Puritans associate with paganism. The Puritans exercised complete intolerance of the Wiccan beliefs and created the paranoia in their own minds when they felt threatened. In the Bible, Exodus 22:18 states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (King James Bible). The puritans followed the Bible wholeheartedly, and their beliefs carried them to accusations, and then on to interrogations.
However, the main problem with the witchcraft theory is that it cannot be proven. The accusations themselves could not even be proven. One way to accuse someone of witchcraft was by use of spectral evidence. If an apparition appeared to an individual, they could point a finger at someone and accuse that person of afflicting them (Salem Witch Trials). This spectral evidence was only witnessed by the afflicted, but was generally accepted as credible evidence. Due to fear and hysteria, accusations could be made without proof of any witchcraft.
It is highly unlikely that witchcraft played any part in the terror of the trials. The theory that Reverend Samuel Parris was the true incendiary behind the trials carries the most logic. Samuel Parris was closely associated with the Putnam family and had been given a minister’s contract that included all the usual benefits, such as a decent salary, a house and free firewood. However, Parris had received all this in addition to a title and deed to the parish, which enraged the residents who did not want to be congregationally separate from Salem Town (Saari 35-6).
He was in desperate need of securing his position as minister and the outbreak of witchcraft accusations was the best way to do it. In a time of such paranoia regarding satanic forces, the villagers would be in desperate need of his services. Ernest King and Franklin Mixon Jr. authored an article discussing that concept. According to them: Salem Village, both before and through the witchcraft trials, was a religion-based community, allowing its minister to exert a level of political–economic control over its citizens. During the height of the itchcraft episode, there was an increased demand for ministerial services (salvation) in the Salem area. Recent research has argued that the minister used the witchcraft episode to maintain and build upon personal and corporate wealth (King and Mixon). This demonstrates that Reverend Parris had the political motives for taking advantage of the girls’ behavior. When witchcraft accusations arose, some of the Salem residents who had opposed the reverend’s contract had no choice but to attend church and pay any offerings they could. If they did not do so, they would run the risk of being accused of witchcraft.
This was a simply perfect solution for Reverend Parris. Before continuing to examine the reverend, it is necessary to understand his background. Samuel Parris was born in London and grew up to inherit his father’s plantation. After a hurricane devastated the plantation, he became a merchant. However, when his business failed, he decided to be a minister (Orr 16). It seems the reverend’s life had a series of failures. According to Frances Hill, author of numerous books on the subject, Parris’s first misfortune had been dropping out of Harvard (117).
After all the other hindrances, he was ready to accept a job as minister of Salem Village, but then demanded more and more changes to his contract over time, continuously negotiating matters such as firewood and corn provisions, the deed to the ministry house and salary (118). The Putnam family controlled most of the farmland in Salem Village and played a large part in his ministerial contract. This evidence shows there may have been a political partnership between the two. Salem Village and Salem Town were in a period of great political tension.
During this time, the Putnam family owned most of the farmland in Salem Village and wanted to become separate from Salem Town, the nearby thriving seaport on which the other villagers depended upon for economic reasons (Salem Witch Trials). This divided the village, and the Reverend Samuel Parris became minister during this turmoil. Other than political division, the villagers had everyday worries such as Indian raids and smallpox outbreaks, which increased tensions. This was the social situation at the time of Parris’s ascent to position of minister.
In order to gain political power, Reverend Parris would have had to do something about those who opposed him. The authors Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum examine the social history of the Salem community in their book, Salem Possessed and they have noticed a pattern. A series of petitions against the reverend were collected and the names of those who opposed Parris in the past were the ones most often accused of witchcraft. The names included the majority of the Proctor family and Rebecca Nurse (183-6). The most astounding case was the account of George Burroughs, the previous minister of Salem Village.
When George Burroughs spoke out against the trials that Reverend Parris was championing, he was immediately tried for witchcraft. He was found guilty. Soon before he was hung, he had recited “The Lord’s Prayer,” which was supposedly impossible for a witch (Salem Witch Trials). Unfortunately, it is not known for certain whether or not Reverend Parris had been advocating against him until his moment of death, but this was another accusation that worked in Parris’s favor. The Salem Witch Trials may have been an irrational event, but they still have a rational explanation.
Numerous scholars have attempted to explain away the events with multiple theories, but only one explanation has withstood questioning. The theory that Reverend Parris used the girls to gain political influence is most sensible. The reverend would have lost his job and after so many setbacks in his earlier life, he would not have been prepared for another loss. The relationships between two of the girls and the reverend makes the reverend highly suspect, but even more so was the fact that the accused were the ones who had usually opposed Parris in the past.
The accounts of George Burroughs and the political partnership between the Putnam family and Reverend Parris carries also carries a lot of weight. In the end, the evidence shows that Reverend Samuel Parris was the culprit behind the mass hysteria. Works Cited Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard, 1974. Print Buckland, Raymond. Witchcraft from the Inside: Origins of the Fastest Growing Religious Movement in America. St. Paul: Llewellyn Pub. , 1971. Print. Caporeal, Linnda. Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem? ” Science Vol. 192 (1976) Web. 30 Apr. 2011. Gauch, Melanie. Facebook Personal Message Interview. 1 May 2011. Hill, Frances. The Salem Witch Trials Reader. Cambridge: Da Capo P. , 2001. Print. Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. Ontario: Penguin Books Canada, 1987. Print. King, Ernest W. , and Franklin G. Mixon. “Religiosity and the Political Economy of the Salem Witch Trials. ” Social Science Journal. 47. 3 (2010): Abstract.
Business Source Premiere. Web. 29 Apr. 2011. Morgan, Sheena. The Wicca Handbook: A complete Guide to Witchcraft and Magic. London: Vega, 2003. Print Orr, Tamra. People at the Center of: The Salem Witch Trials. Farmington Hills: Blackbirch Press, 2004. Print. Saari, Peggy. Witchcraft in America. Detroit: UXL, 2001. Print. “Salem Witch Trials. ” In Search of History. History Channel. A&E Television Networks, 1998. DVD Spanos, Nicholas and Jack Gottlieb. “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials” Science Vol. 194 (1976) Web. 30 Apr. 2011.