History Textbook Exercise


Salem Witchcraft Trials


Boyer, Paul S.  et. al. The Enduring Vision, A History of the American People. 2 Vols.  2nd Ed.  Lexington, MA: 1995.



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 on their economic behavior. Indeed, by 1690 the Puri­tans, having built a society from the ground up, no longer felt 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 dwellers.

In 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 accused witches.


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 surfaced. Clergymen 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 witchcraft.


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 colonies in the Dominion of New England in 1686.


By 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.