Take an unseasonably long and cold winter after a poor harvest, a minor epidemic, (probably flu) and an unsuccessful military campaign against restive local tribes, then add a few unprovable accusations from unlikely sources, a populace wary and uneasy, fearing attacks by unseen foes, and authorities inclined to presume the worst, and you have a witches’ brew of explosive and lethal ingredients. In Salem, Massachsuetts, in 1692, such a mixture produced deadly results that resonate yet today. Three hundred twenty years ago, on 10 June 1692, Bridget Bishop, the first victim of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, was hanged.
The madness started four months earlier when two young girls became sick with “fits” which were diagnosed as the results of a bewitching. In the course of their seizures, these girls identified several local women as possible witches. The hunt was on.
Local authorities arrested one of the women whom the girls had identified, a maid who was a West Indies native. This woman, Tituba, had used some of her folk remedies to try to cure the girls, and such remedies were rather akin to spells and magic. The investigating officials offered to spare Tituba the worst penalties if she would name other witches. Not surprisingly, she did so quite readily. During her examination, Tituba expanded and embellished her descriptions with lurid accounts of conversations with the “Devill,” sightings of monstrous “hayry” beasts, and rides through the misty nights on wooden poles. Several of Salem’s townfolk were named in the course of her account. The hunt expanded.
By June, the Governor of Massachusetts empowered a special court to conduct trials of the accused witches. The judges included an ancestor of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, one John Hathorne. The president of the court, William Stoughton, was a fanatical prosecutor of witches, and he vowed to “clear the land” of witches and sorcerers. Most of the judges were not trained in the law, and had no idea as to how to conduct a proper trial, especially in the matter of witchcraft. As a result, the judges relied heavily on the advice of local clergymen such as the famous Cotton Mather.
Mather suggested admitting testimony that was even then quite improper, such as accounts of dreams, and third-hand reports of rumored conversations. With no effective restrictions upon what might be testified in court, folks with old grudges to settle made wild accusations about their neighbors. Bridget Bishop was particularly unpopular: she was a woman of “low character” (she may have run a small-time brothel!) and she was well-known for failing to pay her bills. She had no friends in Salem, but plenty of enemies.
Those who protested the madness, or simply failed to enthusiastically support it were at risk of being accused. John Proctor, who figures as a key character in Arthur Miller’s allegorical play about the witch hunts, The Crucible, was an outspoken sceptic and critic of the trials. He soon found himself accused. Though Proctor demanded the trial be moved to Boston, and denounced the confessed witches as liars, he was nevertheless hanged.
After Bridget was hanged on 10 June, the pace of the trials began to pick up. Before the summer was over, more than 150 of the Salem area’s perhaps 8,000 residents were accused of witchcraft. Twenty-four “witches”, 16 women and 8 men, were executed – mainly by hanging – or died in prison before the Governor at last dissolved the local court in October and and established a Superior Court to hear the remaining cases. The new court adhered to more stringent rules of evidence and subsequently handed down no more convictions. The madness was running out of steam.
In the later 19th Century and early 20th, Salem’s terrifying episode was explained as “mass delusion,” the theory being that everyone in town fell under the spell of suggestibility, as if a mass hypnosis had taken hold. That has some appeal: it would explain the flying and the visions that so many attested. Notably lacking, however, was an agent which could explain how this mass delusion/hypnotism was effected.
In the 1970’s, professor Linnda Caporael published a paper, Ergotism: The Satan loosed in Salem? Ergot is a grain fungus which is especially prevalent on rye growing in damp ground, or during mild, rainy weather. Rye was a standard crop in New England, and one may fairly assume it was grown in and around Salem, especially in the more poorly drained fields around the village which are known to have been cultivated, but which would have been unsuitable for wheat or barley.
The effect of ergot fungus is variable: ingested in small quantities it can make a person ill; in large quantities it causes hallucinations and convulsions, the sensation of things crawling on the skin, and a sense of soaring through the air. These symptoms may sound like a “bad acid trip,” and that is hardly surprising. Ergot fungus produces a variety of alkaloid compounds, including “isoergine,” lysergic acid amide, a weaker cousin of “LSD,” lysergic acid diethylamide.
Though Caporael’s thesis is unproven, and ultimately unprovable, it does have the great advantage of potentially explaining the symptoms of the Salem “victims of witchcraft,” and being plausible as well. Ergotism is real, its symptoms do present in a manner akin to demonic possession, and rye was a staple in the region. So, while we cannot know whether or not ergotism is the true cause of the victim’s distress, it seems likely. And it is comforting to think that there may have been an actual, organic cause for the afflictions, rather than either mass hysteria or over-arching malice.
Other organic causes have been suggested as well, including various viral and genetic diseases, and the matter is still fiercely debated. As I say, it is almost certain that we will never be able to know for certain. But there must have been some actual cause, I believe. I am not yet ready to be convinced that the Devil himself dwelt for nine months among and within the villagers of Salem.
And what of those who never developed symptoms, yet perpetuated the prosecutions and the persecutions? One historian has sought to explain the astonishing culpability of the judges involved by noting that they may have been using the witch hysteria to deflect their own roles in the unsuccessful campaigns on the frontiers. The military adventures had been ill prepared, and the citizens of Massachusetts were unhappy with their leadership. A focus on a new, far more manageable threat may have been politically expedient: it was an easy way to show that the authorities were doing something to protect the colony.
Five years later, the judges – except Stoughton – issued a collective admission of error and guilt, and made a public apology; Massachusetts observed an annual day of prayer and fasting for forgiveness due for the sins of the trials, and even paid compensation to the survivors.
Salem’s experience has ever after stood as a reminder that in times of anxiety and stress, it is especially crucial to be careful and deliberate when identifying the source of our woes. And from Salem we have inherited the term “Witch hunt” to describe an energetic, often paranoid and self-satisfying quest to find enemies within.
Flower Mound, Texas
It were better that ten suspected witches should escape
than one innocent person should be condemned.
— Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather,
in his work Cases of Conscience about standards of evidence
The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into The Salem Witch Trials, Marion L. Starkey; Anchor Books, 1949 (reprint ed. 1969): ISBN: 0385035098
In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Mary Beth Norton; Vintage, 2002: ISBN: 0375706909
Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum; Harvard University Press, 1976: ISBN: 0674785266