Salem Witchcraft Trials
Boyer, Paul S. et. al. The Enduring Vision, A
History of the American People. 2 Vols. 2nd Ed. Lexington, MA:
In the three decades after adoption of the Half-Way Covenant, the Puritan
clergy unleashed a stream of jeremiads (angry lamentations, named after the Old Testament prophet
Jeremiah) at their congregations, berating them for failing to preserve the idealism of the first
generation. "New-England is originally a plantation of
Religion, not a plantation of trade," one minister emphasized, but in fact New Englanders were becoming more worldly, more individualistic, and far less patient with restrictions
economic behavior. Indeed, by 1690 the Puritans, having built a society from the ground up, no
an overriding need to place collective, community interests first. As New Englanders pursued economic gain more openly and as
populations dispersed away from town
centers, the fabric of community
frayed. Friction easily arose between the townspeople still dwelling near the meetinghouse (who usually dominated
politics) and the "outlivers," those living on outlying tracts of land,
who were less influential because of their
distance from town.
The rough equality of early New England, when most people had been
small landowners with few luxuries, also began to vanish. By the late seventeenth century, the
distribution of wealth was growing more uneven, especially in large, prosperous port cities. New England's rising involvement in international trade, moreover, encouraged competitiveness
and impersonality. John Winthrop's vision of a religious community sustained by reciprocity and charity faded before the reality of a world
increasingly materialistic and acquisitive like the one that the early
Puritans had fled.
Nowhere in New England did these trends have more disturbing
effects than in Salem, Massachusetts, made up of the port of Salem Town and the farm community of Salem
Village. Trade and rapid growth had made Salem Town the region's second-largest
port. By 1690 prosperous merchants controlled
much of the wealth and political power of
Salem as a whole, and the community was vulnerable to conflict between its prosperous merchants
and its struggling farmers.
Salem Village (now Danvers) lay six miles west of Salem Town's meetinghouse, and its citizens resented Salem Town's political dominance. Salem Village was divided between the
supporters of two families, the Porters and the Putnams. Well connected with the merchant
elite, the Porters enjoyed political prestige in Salem Town and lived in the village's eastern
section, whose residents farmed richer soils and benefited more from Salem Town's prosperity. In contrast,
most Putnams lived in Salem Village's less fertile western half, shared little in Salem Town's commercial expansion,
and had lost
their political influence. Rivalry between Porters and Putnams
mirrored the tensions between Salem's urban and rural
late 1691 several Salem Village girls encouraged a West Indian slave woman, Tituba, to tell fortunes
and talk about sorcery. When the girls began behaving strangely, villagers assumed that they were victims of witchcraft. Pressed to identify their
tormenters, they named two local
white women and Tituba.
So far the incident was not
unusual. Belief in witchcraft existed at all levels of American and European society. But by April 1692 the girls had denounced two prosperous farm wives long considered saints in the local church and had identified
the village's former minister as a wizard (male witch). Fear of witchcraft soon overrode considerable doubts about the
girls' credibility and led local judges to sweep aside normal procedural
safeguards. Specifically, the judges ignored
the law's ban on "spectral evidence,"
testimony that a spirit resembling
the accused had been seen tormenting a victim. Thereafter, charges multiplied
until the jails overflowed with
The pattern of hysteria and
accusations reflected Salem Village's internal divisions. Most charges
came from the western side of the village --a third from the Putnams alone -- and
were lodged against people who lived outside the western half and who were connected by economics or marriage to the Porters. Two-thirds of all accusers were
girls aged eleven to twenty, and more
than half had lost one or more parents in
conflicts between Indians and settlers in Maine. They and other survivors had fled to Massachusetts, where most worked as servants in other families' households. They most frequently named as witches middle-aged wives and widows, women who had escaped the poverty
and uncertainty that they themselves faced.
At the same time, the
"possessed" accusers gained momentary power and prominence by voicing the anxieties. Those found guilty of
witchcraft tried to stave off death by implicating others. As the pandemonium spread, fear
dissolved ties of friendship and family. A minister was condemned by his granddaughter, a mother by her
seven-year-old daughter, and a husband and father by his wife and daughter. Fifty saved themselves by
confessing, but twenty were condemned and executed.
By late 1692 doubts about the charges
objected to the emphasis on spectral evidence, central to most convictions. By accepting such evidence in court,
minister Increase Mather warned, the Puritans had fallen victim to a deadly game of "blind man's buffet" set up
by Satan and were "hotly and madly
mauling one another in the dark."
In October Governor William Phips forbade any further imprisonments for witchcraft. A hundred were still in jail, and 200 more stood accused. In early 1693
Phips ended the terror by pardoning all
those who were convicted or suspected of practicing
The witchcraft hysteria reflected profound anxieties over social change. The underlying
causes of this tension became clear as Salem Village's communally
oriented farmers directed their wrath toward Salem Town's competitive and
individualistic merchants. This clash of values revealed the extent to which John Winthrop's
city upon a hill had lost its relevance to new generations forced into economic enterprise by New England's stingy soil, harsh
climate, and meager natural resources. The tensions pervading New England society had been heightened by the crown's
revoking the Massachusetts charter in 1684 and subsuming several
the Dominion of New England in 1686.
1700 New Englanders had begun a transition from Puritans to "Yankees." True to their
Puritan roots, they retained strong religious convictions and an extraordinary
capacity for perseverance. Increasingly grafted to these roots were ingenuity,
sharpness and an eye for opportunity that would enable New England to build a thriving international
commerce and later industrial revolution.
I, 48 – 50.