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The Salem Witchcraft Trials

Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz 2004 12 Seiten

Geschichte Europa - and. Länder - Neuzeit, Absolutismus, Industrialisierung


Table of contents


1. Chronology of events

2. The Salem setting: political and economic conditions

3. Puritan faith and religious bigotry

4. The Trial of Martha Carrier at the Court of Oyer and Terminer
4.1 The end of the trial



The outbreak of religious bigotry in 17th century New England bothers historians, sociologists and theologians to find out where the motivation lay to accuse neighbours and finally put them to execution. This work will sum up the most important attempts to explain the causes as well as it will attempt a kind of focussing on the picture of the world as recognized by members of puritan faith. After a short summary of the events in winter 1692 I will first focus on social and economical circumstances during the second half of the seventeenth century. Chapter 3 will focus the puritan world-view and matters of discussion of theologians and philosophers. Chapter 4 sums up the accusations that were stated during the trials of Martha Carrier in 1692 as a showcase.

1. Chronology of events

Since positions like town leaders became increasingly unpopular within the mercantile elite of Salem during the 1680ies the most influential citizen of Salem invited Samuel Parris, a former rather unsuccessful farmer in Barbados, to serve the position of a village minister. During the exceptionally cold winter of 1692 the daughter of Samuel Parris became ill. Since the symptoms could not be analysed he got a quite new book from his library, the “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions ” written by Cotton Mather, minister of the Old North Church in Boston. Taking an old Irish washerwoman as an example, Mather described symptoms of witchcraft and few of these symptoms Parris recognized resembled the ones of his daughter. With an Indian war raging less than 70 miles away evil seemed to be near for the citizens of the puritan New World and apocalyptic literature was widely read and discussed. When playmates of Betty were also affected by the symptoms and the medicine of doctor William Griggs could not cure them he suggested a supernatural origin. As victim of suspicion the Indian servant of the family, who was known to tell the girls of omens and voodoo rites from her native culture, was accused for having used her witchcraft to rule over the girls. Since a short time later seven girls were affected by falling into strange poses, biting and pinching, historian Peter Hoffer concluded that the girls "turned themselves from a circle of friends into a gang of juvenile delinquents."[1] Asked for their tormentor the girls named Tituba, Sarah Good, a local beggar and Sarah Osborn an old woman who was quarrelsome and not been seen in the church for over a year. The Putnams, whose daughter was also “infected” brought the case to the county magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne whose examinations began at 1st March 1692. Since public interest was big and the tavern was crowded the examinations were moved to the public meeting house. The girls swore they were haunted by the witches’ spectres and other witnesses provided stories of milk gone bad when one of the accused appeared. After some time Tituba confessed that she spoke to a man, maybe Satan, who wanted her to sign in a book and work for him. In April Mary Warren accused the accusing girls for telling lies concerning their visitations but rejected after Titubas confession. That confession gave way for the beginning of a hunt for witches and accusations of women who were thought to have done something supernatural. A four year old child was arrested for eight months because one of the seven witnesses swore that she was bitten by the spectre of the child. More and more women were accused of using witchcraft and many confessed since they hoped to relieve their punishment. In May 1962 the Court of Oyer and Terminer started its work under leadership of William Stoughton. In June 1692 Bridget Bishop was the first victim of a wave of executions. In July and August 10 persons were found guilty of using witchcraft and were sentenced to be hanged. In September 23 further persons were judged and Giles Corey was tortured to death. Due to criticism concerning the trials Governor Phips decided in October to prohibit further detentions and a few days later he suspended the Court of Oyer and Terminer. In November 1692 the Superior Court was appointed and adjudged only three of 65 arrested accused persons. The scrutiny of spectral evidence was given up and Phips pardoned eight adjudged who were waiting for their execution and freed all still arrested persons.[2]

2. The Salem setting: political and economic conditions

Roger Thompson points out that witchcraft accusations were quite common during the seventeenth century in New as well as in old England. In 1645 and 1646 self styled “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins accused several persons and Connecticut also had its witchcraft trials in the 1650s. As one basis for these religious excesses Roger Thompson defines the adverse effects of King Philip’s War that had begun on 24th June 1675. Although the foe in shape of Metacom, leader of the Indian tribe of the Wampanoags, could be defeated at Mount Hope on 12th of August 1676, the war was a disaster for New England citizens. It had lasted seventeen months and 10% of all male inhabitants had been killed, twelve settlements had been wiped out and another forty damaged. The loss of manpower had wasted thousands of acres of agricultural land and had withdrawn people from labour force. The war fomented resentments against Indians, no matter which tribe or religion. To most military leaders only a dead Indian was a good Indian and despite all the Christian and friendly Indians the public suspected them to be smugglers, misleaders of troops or double agents.[3] Critics like Daniel Gookin, the Massachusetts Superintendent of Indians, who called upon the public to show faith to the Indian servants were abused and called “son of a whore” or betrayers of their own country. On 27th February 1676 Gookin was almost killed in an assassination attempt. The missing of discipline and respect for local authorities were widely recognized. Another basis for upheaval can be seen in the enormous wages public had to provide for the costs of war: a population of 6000 male individuals had to afford ₤150,000. This money was collected through taxation and especially young men felt that they had to fight and pay for the war. In the aftermath of the war courts had to deal with poverty and disruption of families; after dealing with the final wishes of victims they had to assign guardians to widows and orphans. In the 1680s Governor Bradstreet as well as Major Gookin complained about an increase of poverty and the ideal of love and charity was “undermined by a spirit of looking after one’s own, suspicion of the less affluent and hostility towards outsiders”.[4] Fear of attacks and activities of land speculators who tried to monopolise the allocation of resources lasted in a struggle for land. A further basis for upheavals were decreasing standards of behaviour and the war decreasing the self-restraint of young men. Cases of premarital fornication increased and many young men tried to flee to evade their responsibilities. To reassert local discipline in the towns the church sent tythingmen and to the mind of the Puritans all these plagues were the effect of “God’s Controversy with New England”. Another threat for New England was the strong hand that England tried to lay on it in person of Edward Randolph, hereditary claimant of the Lords of Trade, with the secret mission to investigate New England’s breaches against English law and trade regulations.[5] On 23rd October 1684 the government of the colony was dissolved and an English military governor took over the official duties. Following the news of the revolution against James II in England, the military government was overthrown on 18th April 1689. Thompson points out that this second revolution must have amplified the effects of war. To his mind the combination of social fate, loss of authority and an unstable government availed the search for scapegoats that were identified in some social misfits before the fire extended randomly.[6] Another factor, only marginally addressed to by Thompson, is the embedding of puritan faith in New England society and the figure of that faith.

3. Puritan faith and religious bigotry

As mentioned in the preface and the following chapters, puritan faith has also to be accounted as supporting item of religious bigotry searching for an outlet and aiming at Salem. Puritanism began as “clarified” Protestantism, clarified from the influence that the Roman Church had on the Anglican. Puritans denied all signs, symbols and dogmas that were not directly supported by biblical texts. Priests were chosen by the people and the creed was designed on the exact wording of the bible. In 1534 when Henry VIII divided from the Roman-Catholic Church Puritanism was able to widen its influence in England but was not accepted during the 16th century. During its formation Puritanism was influenced by Calvinism and the Huguenots. In 1593 England passed a new law against heresy of which many puritans now were accused and had to leave England for New England just like the Pilgrim Fathers who settled in Massachusetts. However Puritanism tried to find release from pursuit as well as from modernism and its obstacles for mankind to live a life in the name and word of GOD, it was attacked by epistemological and hermeneutical discussions of scholars during the seventeenth century. One hermeneutical challenge to puritan faith was the rejection of the immortality of the soul by rejecting the existence of an incorporeal substance which continues its existence after the death of the body.[7] The other challenges came 1. through the effort to contextualize the Old Testament prophecies exclusively within its own historical setting and therefore arguing that the types of OT prophecy could only be applied to Christ if allegory was admitted as legitimate proof (compare Grotius’s Annotationes in Vetus et Novum Testamentum) and 2. the researches into the bible as a text concerning its compilation and its direct origin from god (compare Hobbes’s Leviathan). For our actual topic, we will focus mainly on the discussion concerning the immortality of the soul since Puritanism used witchcraft as its evidence. Four different schools tried to get a grasp of whether the human soul was an autonomous entity able to live after the death of the corpse. The Roman Catholic position claimed that after purgatory just souls were admitted to the Beatific Vision (i.e. the direct experience of God), before the resurrection of the body on Judgement Day. Psychopannychists stated that souls sleep until resurrection of the body at Judgement day, Calvinists believed that just souls do not sleep but are active in the Second Paradise until resurrection when they are admitted to the Beatific Vision. Materialists believed that the soul is “not an incorporeal substance separate from the body but merely its moving force, which vanishes completely after the dead of the body”.[8] As mentioned above puritan belief was heavily influenced by Calvinism who had heavily opposed the Anabaptist’s teaching of the insensible sleep of the soul by stating “feign a soul which has none of the properties of soul, or dissever the soul from itself, seeing that its nature, without which it cannot possibly exist, is to move, to feel, to be vigorous, to understand.”[9] When the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) published his teachings in Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London, 1651) it was apprehended to threaten the whole belief in afterlife, since it stated that the soul has no independent life from the body and after the death of the body would vanish in the air. To show the misuse of the terms body and spirit by the exegetes he used the scholastic technique of reductio ad absurdum and claimed: “substance and body signify the same thing; and therefore substance incorporeal are words, which when they are joined together, destroy one another, as if a man should say, an incorporeal body.”[10] For Hobbes the Church tried to tie people to itself for gaining control and so introduced the dark doctrines:

“first, of eternal torments; an afterwards of purgatory, and consequently of the walking abroad; especially in places consecrated, solitary, or dark, of the ghosts of men deceased; and thereby to the pretences of exorcism and conjuration of phantasms; as also of invocation of men dead.”[11]

A leading apologist of the immortal soul in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century was Cotton Mather. For Scholars like Mather the witchcraft trials provided empirical evidence to rebut the theory of Hobbesian materialism. In An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) Mather tried to provide empirical proof for witchcraft, for phenomena that could not be explained through natural causes and even saw a sense, a kind of Gods own will within these “unusual, strange Apparitions … Witchcrafts, Diabolical Possessions” because “The blessed God hath made some to come from the Damned, for the Conviction of us that are yet alive. The Devils themselves are by Compulsion come to confute the Atheism and Sadducism, and to reprove the Madness of ungodly men”.[12] A young who was possessed from temptations of “Atheism & Blasphemy “ Mather cured by taking him to the “possessed” Goodwin children where he was resolved “never to use but just one grain of patience with any man that shall go to impose upon me, a Denial of Devils, or of Witches … I shall count him down-right Impudent if he Assert the Non-Existence of which we have so palpable Convictions of.”[13] Calling Hobbes and the Materialists Sadducees, using the name as allegory for betrayal as well as pointing out their disbelief for reincarnation of the body, Mather continued in Memorable Providences:

“There are multitudes of Sadducees yet in our dayes; Fools that say, Seeing is Believing; and will believe nothing but what they see. A Devil is in the apprehension of those Mighty acute Philosophers, no more than a Quality, or a Distemper … We shall come to have no Christ but a Light within, and no Heaven but a Frame of mind, if the Scriptures must be expounded after the Rules of the modern Sadducees. Perhaps tho’ the Scriptures are Fables to that sort of men … Since there are Witches and Devils, we may conclude that there are also Immortal Souls.Devils would never contract with Witches for their Souls if there were no such things to become a prey unto them … We may truly say, Devils & Witches bear witness against them that have any scruple of it.”[14]


[1] Hoffer

[2] Boyer/Nissenbaum, p. 1ff

[3] Thompson, p. 83

[4] Thompson, p. 85

[5] Thompson, p. 87

[6] Thompson, p. 94

[7] Smolinski, p. 143

[8] Smolinski,S. 147

[9] John Calvin, Psycopannychia; or, A Refutation of the Error that the Soul Sleeps in the Interval Between Dead and Judgement (1542), in: Smolinski, S. 146

[10] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, pt III, ch. 34, in: Smolinski,S. 147

[11] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, pt IV, ch. 44, in: Smolinski,S. 148

[12] Cotton Mather, An Essey…, sig. A4, in: Smolinski, S. 151

[13] Cotton Mather, Memorable Providences, pt. I,40, in: Smolinski, S. 152

[14] Cotton Mather, Memorable Providences, pt. III, 14-5, 16-7, in: Smolinski, S. 152




Titel: The Salem Witchcraft Trials