After my trip to Salem last month and seeing my ancestor’s 1636 house which contained anti-witchcraft talismans to protect the family [1], I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in those times, to be in that place and time, living through this extraordinary time in Colonial history.

When you think about this period in history, there are a few sort of obvious facts that we often forget, but that bear mentioning in this type of mental exercise:

  • These folks were not Americans, but English. They lived under English law, and they saw themselves as English citizens.  Fun fact, the number of accusations for witchcraft in the Colonies was roughly the same as the number (per capita) in England at the same time.
  • Their society was not culturally diverse to the extent ours is. There were people they considered savages (natives or slaves from Barbados), and there were marauding French settlers to the north (an aggressive pre-Canada) with a mandate from King Louis to kill English settlers. People with mixed ancestry pretended to be English.
  • They had no separation of church and state, even though Puritanism left England for “religious freedom,” it was so they could set and interpret the laws and reform the Anglican church in the ways they felt it needed reform, not so they could have a religiously tolerant society like we enjoy (mostly) today. Rhode Island was a much more diverse and tolerant community.
  • Each town had its own government, its own taxes, and to some extent, its own culture. As in England, wealthy families in these towns had the most pull.
  • Not everyone came to the New World for religious reasons. Many came for economic reasons or to leave other intolerable situations or simply because they had little to lose and a willingness to hew out a rough existence in the wilderness.

OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, most people know something about the witch trials, whether it’s from school, from reading or watching The Crucible, or just from soaking in Pop Culture.[2] I’m in the middle of a fascinating podcast called Unobscured that talks through the various stories of the participants.

Those involved can be grouped as follows (which fits neatly into the Karpmann Drama Triangle of Victims, Rescuers, and Perpetrators):

  • Accusers & Witnesses (Perpetrators). 
  • The Accused (Victims).
  • The Judges (Rescuers). 

The funny thing about these roles, is that during the Witch Trials, as the drama unfolded, it all started with the perception that the girls (The Accusers) were victims and the Accused were the perpetrators. Let’s talk through each of these groups and try to understand why they did what they did.

The Accusers (& Witnesses)

It started when two girls began having seizures. They were living in a small house with their parents and disgruntled slave Tituba. Their father was the Reverend Parrish, who was not getting paid according to the agreement the community made when he was hired. In fact, he was so impoverished that he had to beg for wood in one of his sermons or let his family freeze that night.

This was a community that was very near to danger. A nearby town only 20 miles away was attacked by natives operating in league with the French, and its inhabitants were killed and houses destroyed. Girls and women outnumbered men in Salem and surrounding communities at this time, and under English law, unmarried women could not own property and would become indentured servants if they did not marry. Even when they did marry, it was no guarantee they would be supported or cared for. [3] 

Family members were alarmed by the girls’ seizures. They consulted with a local doctor who diagnosed “betwitchment,” meaning someone in the community was secretly a witch, causing them pain. Nearly everyone near them believed (and told them) that it must be the work of malevolent forces, then offering up names to them and explaining how naming these “perpetrators” would ease their suffering. (Although the good Reverend at one point felt that beating them might help them to stop being bewitched, something that did help in many cases).

As the trials and accusations became public, more accusers joined in. When one of the accusers seemed to recover from her symptoms, it was seen as a sign that she had given in to Satan and joined his ranks. Later in the trials, several of the accusers were exposed by witnesses as frauds (using pins to create evidence by poking their skin). Despite the accusers being discredited, the trials didn’t stop. In fact, in later days when the trials spread to nearby Andover, two girls became “Witch Detectives,” providing a service to the community in identifying witches for them. In some cases, they asked about people first, and it became clear who would be a good candidate for a witch and who would not.

The Accused

Two thirds of the accused were women, initially women on the fringes of society. Tituba was both accused and an accuser. She confessed, and kept adding to her confession as a way to prolong her life. She also found that by accusing others, she could demonstrate that she was now on the good side, trying to do God’s will, not Satan’s.

Sarah Good was one of the first to be accused. She was homeless with an abusive husband and a young daughter she took with her to beg for food. She had started life, though, as a daughter in a well-to-do family, so her state of penury was a result of greatly reduced circumstances. She was bitter and angry at the world, and often muttered curses under her breath. She was an obvious candidate for witchcraft as a result.

The Coreys, an older couple who were accused, were under the Halfway Covenant, a more liberal alternative to the Covenant that some churches created to admit more members. Covenant members had had a conversion experience that they shared with the congregation who then agreed they were “elect.” Those who joined under the Halfway Covenant had access to the church and its benefits (such as The Lord’s Supper and voting rights), but didn’t claim the same kind of religious experience. They might have been the children or grandchildren of those who had signed the Covenant. As a result, more orthodox congregations resented the full rights of these upstarts and felt they were weakening the entire purpose of the settlement: to establish a city that was a beacon on the hill to the world. The more orthodox church members saw them as wolves in sheep’s clothing who weakened the community.

To add to that, Giles Corey [4] had a troubled history. He had a temper, and was guilty of murdering a “half-witted” servant years earlier whom he beat so severely that the young man died a few days later. Several in the community confessed that they, too, had beat the young man in their frustration, so Giles’ crime, while still a crime, was not that exceptional.

Giles and others like John Alden [5] were likely accused simply due to convenience. His wife Martha warned him not to attend the meetings in which these “distracted” girls were accusing randos right and left, but part of being under the covenant, even the Halfway Covenant, included being obligated to attend meetings. You could be called out just for avoiding meetings. She went so far as to hide his saddle to prevent him going which is what resulted in her own conviction for witchcraft later when it came out.

You stood a better chance of being accused if you didn’t have people to stick up for you, but that wasn’t always the case. Rebecca Nurse had a petition from 39 members of the community, but her Not Guilty verdict was overturned due to a misheard question (she was 71 years old and hard of hearing). She was hanged.

Some of the accused confessed or named other witches in an effort to prolong their lives. Initially, this worked, but eventually, it did not. A few shockingly named relatives, but the majority named those who had already been executed rather than cause another neighbor harm. Only those wealthy enough to bribe the guards at the jail escaped and fled Salem.

The Judges

Once people were being killed based on these accusations, the stakes were too high in the community, and particularly among the judges, to let anyone back down. Welcome to Sunk Cost Fallacy.

The judges were the pillars of the community, nine men who were wealthy and powerful. They were also from the ranks of the “elect” in the church, people who had been accepted as being chosen by God as his elect. In other words, they could do no wrong in their own eyes, and in the eyes of the most orthodox in the community. 

They were convinced by the publications of religious leaders that Spectral Evidence was reliable. They were convinced that the community was under siege by Satan and that members of the community had made a covenant with Satan and were trying to undermine their purpose. And once they discovered some of the witnesses were duplicitous, they doubled down on their mandate rather than admitting fault.

The judges who were also the most privileged in their society, lacked compassion to a degree that is surprising. When 4 year old Dorothy Good, daughter of Sarah Good, was accused, they manipulated a confession out of her that implicated her mother. Her mother’s execution was delayed because she was pregnant, but after her ironically named daughter Mercy was born, Sarah was carted off and hung in July. With no mother to care for her, Mercy didn’t live long, and nobody bothered to free young Dorothy from jail until December of that year. She spent 10 months in chains.

Conclusion

Why did the trials end after so much escalation? Ultimately, everybody was running out of steam. Many had lost relatives and friends to the trials without believing that they were guilty. Increase Mather, father to Cotton Mather, published a treatise that scorned the use of “spectral evidence” in court, and recommending that only non-spectral evidence be considered. This greatly curtailed the court’s ability to obtain a guilty verdict. “Spectral evidence” was essentially the testimony of the witnesses that the accused’s specter was tormenting them. Naming the specter they alone could see was initially considered sufficient evidence that the person was guilty.

There’s a reason we trot out the term “witch hunt” in modern times to refer to scurrilous accusations. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Learning about the past can help us avoid repeating it. For example, when we are trying to determine things like apostasy or political correctness, are we using evidence that relies heavily on the perceptions of the “victims” (or their allies / “rescuers”) rather than on an objective measure?

I mentioned the Karpmann Drama Triangle earlier. This is an explanation for how group dynamics escalate in dysfunctional ways when people see themselves or others as victims. When there is a victim, there must be a person or group of people to blame. The real danger, though, is when a rescuer enters the picture on behalf of the person they see as a victim. A rescuer with power, limited understanding, and lack of compassion for those being accused can really wreak havoc, creating a breach that is impossible to mend without great cost. When the rescuer also has a personal mission or a vision s/he feels is threatened by the accused’s actions (or even their mere existence), this heightens the drama, as it did with William Stoughton, the chief prosecutor in the witch trials.

Sometimes there are real victims. Sometimes they need rescue, and sometimes not. Sometimes people are guilty of victimizing others. The Salem Witch Trials should give us pause in determining who the victims are and who the perpetrators are. History, in this case, showed us that the roles were reversed.

While proponents of religious freedom may like to point to the advances made in the name of religion, nobody is clamoring to be associated with the Salem Witch Trials, and yet, this is certainly an example of religious freedom run amok. [6] 

  • What modern parallels do you see to the way people behaved in the witch trials?
  • What type of person would you have been in Salem in 1692?
  • How have we advanced from this time? How have we stayed the same?
  • What types of “evidence” qualify as modern-day “spectral evidence,” in your opinion, evidence that is too subjective and prone to imagination?

Discuss.

[1] The shoes of a dead person were hidden in the walls by the hearth because the dead person was supposed to protect the family from witches trying to enter the house spectrally through the chimney, windows, door, or even the well. You had to keep their shoes there because fighting off astral projecting witches in your bare ghost feet would be silly.

[2] While shows (and comics) like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch are obvious fabrications based on the literary assumption that the charges of witchcraft were real and could be taken at face value, they do actually get the gist of the charges pretty correct. The things people were accused of doing fit pretty squarely with that outlandish worldview.

[3] Bridget Bishop, one of the first accused witches, was beaten by her husband so badly and often that the community brought him in to punish him for it. His punishment? They were both beaten by the community and told to knock it off. Her husband had to make a public apology, and she had to publicly apologize for being so disobedient that she forced her husband to beat her.

[4] he was technically not executed, but pressed to death with stones as a form of torture to compel him to confess. The octogenarian refused to speak until near the very end when he drily called out for “More weight!” Then he died as they placed another stone on his chest.

[5] He wasn’t a local, just came up to the crowd to see what all the commotion was about, and he was accused and arrested before he even knew what was happening.

[6] Interestingly, the court convened (Massachusetts Superior Court) that finally ended the trials is still in place over 300 years later and was also the first court to make gay marriage legal.