A woman is arrested for witchcraft in Salem. (Drawing by Howard Pyle)

Part II: The Witches of Salem: Theories and Speculations

In the year 1692 a number of young girls started to show bizarre behaviors in the quiet village of Salem, Massachusetts. They contorted and convulsed their bodies, crying out in an alarming manner. Adults quickly concluded that the girls were bewitched and hysteria swept through the small town. A court was convened and 19 people, accused by these "afflicted" girls, were hung for supposedly practicing witchcraft. Over a hundred other people were arrested for the same crime and many spent months in jail. A few died there.

What caused this sudden fear of witches and ripped the small community apart? Nobody knows. The past three centuries, however, have seen no end of books and articles filled with all kinds of theories and speculation about the reasons behind the terror. Today, scholars and pundits still look for meaning in what happened. Here are some of the theories:

There Really Were Witches at Salem

These days most people scoff at the idea that witches exist, or if they do, that they have real supernatural powers. It is important to remember, however, that in 1692 almost everybody, from the most uneducated slave to the president of Harvard, believed witchcraft was widely practiced and was a real threat to the community. Cotton Mather, a respected Puritan minister who was present at the time of the trials, wrote an account of them for the governor. His essay clearly shows that he believed that some of the people who were hung in Salem were indeed guilty of using black magic to torment the "afflicted" girls. Though very much in the minority, there are probably a few people even today who take the position that this was indeed the case.

While many people in the period believed that witches had supernatural powers given to them by the devil, many of the better-educated people, such as philosopher Thomas Hobbes, acknowledged that witchcraft was practiced but any spells that were cast only had power in the minds of the witch and those that thought themselves bewitched. It is important to note, however, that even Hobbes thought that this kind of witchcraft, though it had no physical power, brought real harm to a community and should be punished.

The Afflicted Girls Thought They Were Being Bewitched

Here the argument is that in a society that believes in witchcraft, witchcraft really works, not because there is any supernatural power behind it, but simply because of how the fear of being bewitched works on the victim's mind. Any symptoms such as convulsive fits, blisters on the skin, or choking sensations are psychosomatic rather than organic.

One of the "afflicted" girls rolls on the ground as a woman declares her innocence to the court.

Today we know that the mind can have a powerful effect on the body. Placebos are a necessary part of many drug studies in order that the psychological effects of taking the medicine can be separated from the organic effects. Psychological stress is known to cause all kinds of problems from rashes to high-blood pressure and heart disease. Studies have shown that hypnosis alone can induce an allergic reaction with no physical agent involved.

If the girls believed that someone had cursed them, that would have created enough stress in their minds to cause physical symptoms. In fact, historian Chadwick Hansen argues that many of the symptoms the girls had are nearly identical to a clinical definition of hysteria.

Whether some of those accused of witchcraft actually carried out some kind of ritual that might be associated with cursing someone is not as important as if the girls believed that this had been done. If the girls just believed that they had been bewitched, it might have been enough to produce the physical effects that were observed.

An Out-of-Control Game

The "afflicted" girls who made the accusations were some of the most powerless members of their society. Most were young and unmarried, and some worked as menial servants for other people. In the Puritan culture, nobody paid much attention to them until they started acting strangely and having fits. Perhaps it started as a game with the girls having no intentions of accusing anyone of witchcraft or causing them harm. The concerned adults around them seeking explanations soon came to believe the girls were bewitched and started putting pressure on them to identify the witch that was tormenting them. Perhaps the adults even suggested a few candidates. Finally, when one of the girls gave in and named a witch, they all saw what kind of power it gave them in the community and how it would allow them to strike out at people they didn't like.

Their fame wasn't only in the village but throughout Massachusetts: a heady power trip for a young girl in Puritan society. Once they started down this path, though, the girls found themselves trapped. If they admitted that they had been lying, they would be harshly punished for it, either by the authorities or by the other girls.

At one point when it looked like someone was actually going to be hung, one of the girls, Mary Warren, admitted she had been making up the accusations and that the other girls had been lying, too. Immediately, the rest of the girls turned on her and identified Warren as a witch. Warren soon changed her story again, saying she had been lying about lying. She had little choice. If she had maintained that the girls had been making up the stories about witches, she soon would have been tried as a witch herself and probably hung. Many of the girls probably felt like Warren that the game had gone too far but were unable to confess to what they were doing for fear of what would happen to them.

A girl, terrified of being dragged off as a witch, seeks comfort from a man, while her accuser and the village authorities watch. From a painting by Douglas Volk.

There was a Conspiracy Based on Village Politics

The village of Salem, even before the events of 1692, was considered one of New England's most divided communities. Two extended families dominated the politics of the day: The Porters and the Putnams. The issue that was on everyone's mind at the time of the trials was whether the village of Salem should merge with the town of Salem. The Porters favored this as they had close connections with those in town and were already involved in town politics. The Putnams did not, as they had exclusively focused on village politics. The Putnams, while wealthy, were not as successful as the Porters and were jealous. Perhaps they even blamed the Porters and their friends for this.

One theory suggests that to get back at the Porters, the Putnams had their girls accuse people in the community allied with the Porters of being witches. There is some evidence for this, as almost all the "afflicted" girls came from families connected to the Putnams. The first two afflicted girls were Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, both members of Reverend Parris's household. The Putnams were supporters of the Reverend Parris, the Porters were against him. Ann Putnam, Jr, the daughter of Thomas Putnam, was listed among the afflicted and apparently made many of the accusations of witchcraft. Mercy Lewis, also an afflicted, worked in his home. Mary Walcott, another accuser, was the step-daughter of Deliverance Putnam, sister of Thomas.

The "Afflicted" Girls Suffered from Some Physical Ailment

Some argue that the girls may have actually been made sick by some unknown disease or poison that 17th century medicine did not recognize. One of the causes most often mentioned is ergot, a fungus found in rye grain. Ergot produces a poison that affects the nervous and circulatory systems. Symptoms can include convulsions, seizures and hallucinations.

Another possibility is that the girls contracted encephalitis, a disease carried by mosquitoes. Encephalitis can cause fever, headaches and confusion.

Critics of these explanations argue that it is unlikely that only the girls in these households were affected by these agents. However, if the agent was ergot, children and women seem to be more susceptible to its poison and this may help explain why only the girls seemed to be affected.

A Combination of the Above Causes

A woman is lead away to be hanged as a witch.

Perhaps the most likely explaination of what happened is that it was a combination of many of the above possible causes. It may be the case that the first victim, Beth Parris, may have actually been sick with some unknown disease. It isn't hard to imagine that the other girls, seeking the same attention she got, joined in faking similar symtoms so they could share the limelight. Adults, unable to find a satisfactory explaination in the natural world, thought witchcraft was involved. The children were undoubtably questioned about this. We know from recent studies that children will try to please adults by giving them the type of answers they seem to be seeking, especially if the the children are asked leading questions or questioned repetitively. The adults would likely ask the girls if the people tormenting them with witchcaft were the people the adults considered in the community to be most- likely allied with the devil: outcasts or political rivals. Some of the girls, under this heavy questioning, might actually have come to believe they were bewitched, while others knowingly lied to please the adults and found themselves trapped in their own lies.

We may never know for sure what were the exact causes of the events in Salem Village in 1692. Sadly, these witchhunts will probably be repeated in modern guise. One needs only to look at the McCarty hearings of the 1950's and the satanic ritual abuse trials of the 1980's to know that witchhunts are far from a thing of the distant past.

Return to Part I

A Partial Bibliography

The Salem Witch Trials, Edited by Laura Marvel, Greenhaven Press, 2003.

A Delusion of Satan, by Frances Hill, Da Capo Press, 2002.

The Devil in Massachusetts, by Marion L. Starkey, Doubleday, 1989.


Copyright Lee Krystek 2006. All Rights Reserved.