Salem’s “Witches”

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.

Jamie Rawson
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

Further reading:

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

Witch Hunts Of Yesteryear …

Two closely related events on two close-by days:

It was on 8 February 1692, in the small village of Salem, (now Danvers) Massachusetts, that Abigail Williams and Betty Parris were declared by a competent physician to be under the spell of witchcraft, thereby launching the most famous – really infamous – “Witch Hunt” in History. In 1949, Marion Starkey published her powerful and influential work The Devil In Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into The Salem Witch Trials. Though the work has been criticized as offering no new research findings about the historical events, Starkey’s book is notable in applying 20th Century psychological interpretation to the events of 1692.

The Devil In Massachusetts was a great influence on Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece, The Crucible, which is usually interpreted as a thinly-veiled expose of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s then-current “Witch Hunt” for Communists in the United States government. I find it most interesting that Starkey, in the introduction to “The Devil,” makes a strong case for studying the Witch Trials as a means of helping to forfend against a modern day repetition. Starkey notes that the upheavals and wars of the 1930s and 1940s had produced many a Witch Hunt, and she expresses her hope that by 1949 the world will have grown more mature, and somewhat wiser.

How terribly ironic it is then, that less than a year after the publication of The Devil In Massachusetts, on 9 February 1950 that Senator Joseph “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy made his first public assertion that the U.S. State Department was completely infiltrated by known Communists. During the next four years, McCarthy would repeat this charge over and over, changing the numbers, and eventually changing his focus from the State Department to the Army, yet managing to retain a high profile in the public eye despite his inability to identify a single “Fellow Traveler” in his investigations.

Speaking before the Wheeling Women’s Republican Club in West Virginia on 9 February 1950, McCarthy made the shocking claim that the State Department was then employing “204 known Communists.” At first there was little media attention paid to this speech; the only first-hand account of it appeared in the local Wheeling paper. But McCarthy was asked about his claim a few days later back in Washington, D.C. and he asserted that there were “at least 81 Known Communists” in the State Department. In the next few weeks, the stated number fluctuated between a low of 10 and a high of 205.

It seems inexplicable in light of what we know today, but the mainstream media did not call McCarthy to account for his wildly varied numbers; the media did not then even request a jot of proof to support the claims. The unsupported and unsubstantiated assertions were repeated as if factual, and many came to believe them. Indeed, the question became not, “Are there Communists in the State Department?” but “How many Communists are there in the state Department?” As my older sister told me many years ago, this was precisely what McCarthy had intended. The “Big Lie,” as some political savant once observed, is more easily sold than the small one. It would seem the absurd and ever-morphing lie is even more readily saleable.

Hundreds of careers were destroyed in the course of nearly four years of fruitless investigations. Hundreds of lives were upended and shattered by the baseless and invidious claims made by McCarthy and his staff. His key lieutenant Roy Cohn made an especial point of exposing homosexuals – generally believed to be especial security risks whatever their politics – as a part of the investigations. Ironically, after Cohn’s death from AIDS in 1986, it became public knowledge that he himself was homosexual.

So fervid was the McCarthy team in its unsubstantiatable attempts to locate subversives within the U.S. government, and so pointless was their probing, that the term “McCarthyism” has become synonymous with “Witch Hunt” to mean a frenzied search for a non-existent threat. Nevertheless, their tactics had a chilling effect on political debate in America for years.

McCarthy’s political downfall came in 1954 after ABC television, alone among U.S. networks, decided to televise McCarthy’s hearings into the affairs of the United States Army. Though the audience share of the broadcast of the hearings was rather small, the impact from those who watched McCarthy and his hatchetmen at work was great. A watershed moment was when the Army’s attorney, Joseph Welch, turned to McCarthy and demanded: “Have you no sense of decency, Senator?!?!! At long last, have you left no sense of decency???!??!” McCarthy was revealed to be a bullying grandstander without substance to his claims. The 2005 film, Good Night and Good Luck focusses on these events.

Later in 1954 the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy for his vicious tactics. President and Mrs. Eisenhower forbade him to attend White House functions. It is hard to appreciate the impact of this seemingly social ban, but it signaled the end of McCarthy’s influence. McCarthy’s political heyday had passed decisively, though the ruined lives and careers he left behind took decades to rebuild, and many never could recover.

Yet, whatever the current assessment of McCarthy’s tactics and impact may be, it must be acknowledged that he acted from a very real and pure motive: McCarthy really, really, REALLY wanted to be politically powerful, and to have his views dominate the political process. From that, it can be seen, as is always the case in politics, any excess is excusable. Or at least explicable. And it is ever thus. It is ever thus …

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.

— Lillian Hellman,
to the House Committee on un-American activities, 1952