The Salem Witch Trials

13-06-2019 04:06

To what extent did mass psychogenic illness cause the Salem Witch Trials?

The Salem Witch Trials carry the weight of myth, history and American identity on their perpetually confounding shoulders. Famously beginning in 1692 with the inexplicable seizures of two young women, Salem’s powerful members of the community were fearful for their positions, their lives and their external destination would blame the supernatural (History Channel, 2016). The most visceral representation of the supernatural in the lives of late 17th century New Englanders was that of the witch (Demos, 2004). The first person accused of bewitching the girls would be Tituba, a Native American slave in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris (Norton, 2002). Despite hesitating at first, Tituba confessed, also claiming to be in a league with nine other witches. Even at this point there was no indication that the largest witch-hunt in American history would result because of a confession (Street, 2019). At the conclusion of the trials in 1693, eighteen people had been executed for the crime of witchcraft, and one man had been crushed to death by stones. Up to 200 people would be convicted and imprisoned for this crime. There are various views and beliefs as to what influenced the Salem Witch Trials to spark; mass psychogenic illness, the belief that the convicted were actually witches and the Putnam family’s contentions (History Lists, 2012).

There are various views and beliefs as to what influenced the Salem Witch Trials to spark; mass psychogenic illness, the belief that the convicted were actually witches and the Putnam family’s contentions (History Lists, 2012). The Salem Witch Trials carry the weight of myth, history and American identity on their perpetually confounding shoulders. Famously beginning in 1692 with the inexplicable seizures of two young women, the Salem community were fearful for their lives and blamed the supernatural (History Channel, 2016). The most visceral representation of the supernatural in the lives of late 17th century New Englanders was that of the witch (Demos, 2004). The first person accused of bewitching the girls would be Tituba, a Native American slave in the home of Reverend Samuel Parris (Norton, 2002). Despite hesitating, Tituba confessed, also claiming to be in a league with nine other witches. Even at this point there was no indication that the largest witch-hunt in American history would result because of this (Street, 2019). At the conclusion of the trials in 1693, eighteen people had been executed for the crime of witchcraft, and one man had been crushed to death by stones. Up to 200 people would be convicted and imprisoned for this crime.

In modern society most historians disregard the idea that every person convicted of witchcraft in the Salem trials was actually a witch, as there is compelling evidence to suggest there were a number of other factors. 19th Century historian John Ashton believed that the convicted were actually practicing witchcraft, “a society of girls met… for the purpose of practicing palmistry, fortune-telling, necromancy, magic and spiritualism and they soon became so far advanced in these arts as to be seized with unnatural spasms” (Ashton, 1896). The citizens of Salem believed in Puritanism, a puritan sought to purify the Church of England and Roman Catholic practices. Whilst maintaining a strong belief in witchcraft, even though their evidence to convict witches was rather injudicious the justice system in Salem relied on ‘spectral evidence’, a witness testimony that the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream at the time the accused person’s physical body was at another location (Salem Witch Museum, 2013). This led many to accuse those seen in such visions of being witches. However, even historians at the time were sceptical of this unreliable method. A letter from Robert Pike to Judge Jonathan Corwin 1692 raised the issue that these visions were “more commonly false and delusive than real, and it cannot be known when they are real and when feigned” (Pike, 1692). Pike then goes on to argue that, apparitions and visions are sometimes caused by delusion, even if an apparition was real, it is impossible to know whether it is real or a delusion. This exert is extremely valuable and reliable as Pike’s previous views on spectral evidence was the opposite, until he evaluated the evidence. Therefore, the weight of spectral evidence that was used to accuse witches at Salem should be treated with caution, if not disregarded entirely, when trying to explain the Trials.

The Putnam family played a crucial role throughout the Salem Witch Trials, contributing significantly to the hysteria. The father of the family (Thomas Putnam) whom acted as a ringleader in the trials, accused and testified against 43 people while his daughter (Ann Putnam), testified against 62 people (Brooks, Thomas Putnam: Ringleader of the Salem Witch Hunt, 2013). Thomas even went to the lengths of writing a letter to John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, the judges of the witch trials, thanking them for their service, “After most humble and hearty thanks presented to your Honors for the great care and pains you have already taken for us…”, (Putnam, 1692). This compelling evidence portrays the supportive attitude Thomas had towards the trials, articulating to historians that Thomas sought out to make sure the Salem population was being punished. Although this letter can tell historians Thomas’s attitude, it is limited in displaying the motive for this positivity. Many historians believe the Putnam family used the witchcraft hysteria in Salem as a way to get revenge against their neighbouring rivals and enemies. Thomas’s brother-in-law James Bayley had been restricted of becoming minister even though he was qualified too. Instead George Burroughs was appointed to the ministry in Salem, he was also accused of being a witch resulting in an execution (Karson, 1999). To argue this point further, Ann Putnam ended up confessing sometime after the conclusion of the trials; “I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ’92; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons” (Putnam, 1706). This confession adheres to the fact that the Putnam family had a major influence on the trials as the daughter herself incriminates the family with a belated confession, conveying to historians the guilt Ann must have experienced due to her false accusations during the trials. The strong historical evidence implies that the Putnam family had a rather large role in the trials and was one of the causes to a great extent.

Mass psychogenic illness or ‘mass hysteria’ was a definite cause of the trials, inflicting the minds of the Salem citizens. Mass psychogenic illness refers to the rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affecting members of a cohesive (sometimes isolated) group without a physical cause (Starkey, 1949). Looking at Salem geographically is it apparent that the village is isolated due to harsh weather and far boarders, making the civilisation more vulnerable to the condition (Miller, 1953). Dr. Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist in New Zealand who has collected more than 3,000 cases on conversion disorder dating back to 1566, saying the Salem witch trials were “undoubtedly” a case of the psychogenic condition, in which “psychological conflict and distress are converted into aches and pains that have no physical origin” (DeCosta-Klipa, 2017). It is factual that the disorder is authentic and still affects modern society, according to medical epidemiologist Timothy Jones, “Outbreaks of psychogenic illness are likely to be more common than is currently appreciated, and many go unrecognized” (Jones, 2018). The Salem village whilst consumed with extreme panic and hysteria, their leaders of the community added to the trauma. A sermon from Samuel Parris, “Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how many Devils there are in his Church, & who they are…. What is meant here by Devils. One of you is a Devil. And by Devil is ordinarily meant any wicked Angel or Spirit…” (Parris, 1692), is a key source historians can use to portray the fear and panic Salem would have experienced from the perspective of a powerful member in the community. The Salem citizens during the court trials all acted as if they were ‘bewitched’, spreading the symptoms across the village. The American painter Tompkins Harrison Matteson depicts the image of mass hysteria at the trial of George Jacobs as an oil painting (Matteson, 1855). Historians can use this painting as a way to visually portray the large extent the hysteria of the Salm village went to, especially during the trials of the accused. Therefore, the concept of psychogenic illness spreading across the Salem population and being a plausible cause of the trials is historically accurate.

The historiographical context of the Salem Witch Trials is complex and rich, with various aspects and views as to what caused the trials. The three probable causes of the trials are mass psychogenic illness, the belief that the convicted were actually witches and the Putnam family’s disputes amongst the community. The theory that all the convicted were practicing witchcraft still lingers today but is dismissed by physical evidence. The letters suggesting that the Putnam family contributed greatly towards the trials is compelling and startling, it is accurate to suggest that the family was a cause of the trials. The other equally credible cause was that the citizens of Salem were driven by mass psychogenic illness, spreading the false symptoms of being bewitched. The Salem Witch Trials had a devastating effect on the people of Salem and has left a lasting imprint on American society.

Bibliography

Ashton, J. (1896). The devil in Britain and America. London: Ward and Downey.

Brooks, R. B. (2013, November 19). Thomas Putnam: Ringleader of the Salem Witch Hunt. Retrieved from History of Massachusetts: https://historyofmassachusetts.org/thomas-putnam-ringleader-of-the-salem-witch-hunt/

Brooks, R. B. (2016, February 10). Best Books About the Salem Witch Trials. Retrieved from History of Massachusetts: https://historyofmassachusetts.org/best-books-about-salem-witch-trials/

Brooks, R. B. (2018, July 7). Salem Witch Trials: Primary Sources. Retrieved from History of Massachusetts: https://historyofmassachusetts.org/salem-witch-trials-primary-sources/

Brooks, R. B. (2018, July 7). Salem Witch Trials: Primary Sources. Retrieved from History of Massachusetts: https://historyofmassachusetts.org/salem-witch-trials-primary-sources/

DeCosta-Klipa, N. (2017, October 31). The theory that may explain what was tormenting the afflicted in Salem’s witch trials. Retrieved from Boston: https://www.boston.com/news/history/2017/10/31/the-theory-that-may-explain-what-was-tormenting-the-afflicted-in-salems-witch-trials

Demos, J. P. (2004). Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. Oxford University Press.

Hill, F. (2000). The Salem WItch Trilas Reader. New York: Perseus Books Group.

History Channel. (2016, August 10). Salem Witch Trials. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJi5J4pmR5s

History Lists. (2012). List of 5 Possible Causes of the Salem Witch Trials. Retrieved from History Lists: https://historylists.org/events/list-of-5-possible-causes-of-the-salem-witch-trials.html

Karson, A. (1999). Revenge in the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria: The Putnam Family and George Burroughs. Retrieved from http://people.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1998-9/Karson.htm

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Miller, A. (1953). The Crucible.

Norton, M. B. (2002). In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

Parris, S. (1692). Sermon from Parris. In J. Cooper, & K. Minkena, The Sermon Notebook of Samuel Parris, 1689-1694 (1993). Boston.

Pike, R. (1692). A letter from Robert Pike to Judge Jonathan Corwin 1692. Salem.

Putnam, T. (1692, April 21). Thomas Putnam Letter to Judges of the Trials. Salem.

Salem Witch Museum. (2013, February 15). Spectral Evidence. Retrieved from Salem Witch Museum: https://salemwitchmuseum.com/2013/02/15/spectral-evidence/

Schiff, S. (2015). The Witches: Salem, 1692. Boston: Little, Brown Company.

Simple History. (2016, October 29). The Salem Witch Trials (1692) Cartoon. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJJLy5_DlqY

Starkey, M. L. (1949). The Devil in Massachusetts. London: Robert Hale.

Street, M. (2019). Reading Satan between the Lines: Changing Historiograqphical Interpretations of the Salem Witch Trials.

The Trial of George Jacobs, 5th August 1692, 1855 (oil on canvas)- Matteson, Tompkins Harrison

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