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Because the US was established on the principle of religious freedom, religion was a major factor in almost every aspect of its citizens' lives during the nation's early years. As a result, different regions of the country held different types of religious beliefs. However, Catholicism and Protestantism continued to be the two most prevalent faiths, and their adherents believed in both the power of God and that of Satan, especially in areas where many faithful adhered to puritanism-type religions. (Glock 1). The firm belief in devil's power drove many citizens to believe the presence of witches in their midst as witnessed in the infamous Salem trials and the hysteria that resulted from the witchcraft claims. In this short paper, the student examines the basic causes of the Salem witch trials and its effects on African Americans living in Salem towards the end of the 15TH century. The Salem Witch Trials had no moral and legal grounds but only by the society to justify their insubordination of the female gender.
The Salem incident remains one of the greatest calamities in the US history to this day. The infamous trials occurred in the spring of 1692 following the claims by some girls that the devil had possessed them and blamed many women of witchcraft (Callis 187). The accusations and the information on witchcraft spread very fast across Massachusetts creating a lot of unnecessary hysteria among the public. The Massachusetts's local government was forced to convene a special court to hear the cases of those accused of witchcraft leading to the execution of the first convicted witch - Bridget Bishop alongside another group of eighteen people who followed later (Callis 187). In addition, the trial left around 141 people from diverse cultures and professions imprisoned while others also died out of reasons connected with the Salem trials (Purdy 1). Interestingly, the society's view and hysteria on witchcraft began to abate by September 1692, and the government confessed to the tried victims and their families, nonetheless, the incident leaf painful legacy that continues to this date.
Johansson describes the period as one of the darkest periods in the history of the US referred to by some historians as the Burning times (2). The term Burning Times was used because the government burnt the witchcraft convicts in the hope that fire cleansed the people of their sins. All those condemned to death thus were burnt at stake after their execution. In Salem and Massachusetts per se, the government hanged those accused of witchcraft; the society believed that the witches had forsaken God and instead submitted to the devil; as such they deserved nothing but death. The Puritans and other churches spread ad a lot of rumors concerning witches; for instance, they made the society believe that the witches met with the devil who promised them all they want through a binding ritual that involved shedding the witch's blood. The devil would in exchange give the witches power to destroy their enemies and acquire wealth. All these contradicted the doctrines of the church, and it did its best to expel such horrible deeds.
The American Puritan religion practices had infusions from various ancient attitudes and practices; for example, the believers nailed horseshoes for protection. The Puritans believed in the existence of witchcraft and its ability to cause harm to others through spectral powers. That is, Puritans believed that witches had devil's powers to hurt other without any physical contacts between them and the person (Purdy 2). Arguably, those who believe in superstition and witchcraft stand a chance of getting afflicted by the same; since Puritans believed in witchcraft, they could significantly be afflicted by the same. Although many scholars term the occurrences in Salem as mere hysteria; evidence suggests that real witchcraft existed in Salem even as early as 1600. For example, some of the witnesses in Bridget Bishop's case confessed that they came across a lot of poppit made up rugs commonly used to cause harm to others in 1600. Despite the evidence, however, researchers still disagree on the existence of witchcraft in Salem by arguing that some people just confessed to save their lives.
Although the Salem events seem to defy and lack plausible explanations; scientific arguments may provide an apparent cause based on ergot poisoning discourse. Ergot poisoning emanates from consumption of rye bread infected with ergot fungi. Victims of ergot poisoning may likely suffer signs and symptoms similar to those described by the afflicted girls in the Salem case such as paranoia and hallucinations, twitches. Similarly, ergot poisoning can result in disorganized speech, convulsions, and cardiovascular problems among the victims. Linda Caporael in 1976 provided the initial scientific explanation that Salem ergot poisoning could help remove and free the women accused of witchcraft (Purdy 4). Ergot survives during cold winters succeeded by wet springs. Research indicates that 1690-1691 had an icy winter that might have contributed to the development of fungus on rye leading to the poisoning of the victims. Besides, most of the sacramental bread used during this period composed of some red color, which suggests the presence of ergot poison; 3% of ergot in a floor is enough to redden bread.
Research has linked the Salem witch trials to the political instability of that era; residents apparently employed witch hunting to justify the unstable political situations. The period in the 15TH century witnessed numerous political rebellions against the colonists such as Bacon and Leisler’s Rebellion among others. Besides, most of the colonies feared attacks from the Native Americans and would do anything within their means to subdue them even if it meant telling lies. The Massachusetts Bay Colony where Salem is located had more problems having lost it charter earlier in 1648 and was just in the process of ratifying a new charter in 1692 when the Salem issue erupted. The residents of Salem Village had two divisions with one willing to secede from Salem town and the other without interest to separate. The farming families, for example, held the view that Salem City commercial operations made it difficult for them to prosper given its individualistic nature. Consequently, the Putnam suggested separating from the Salem town which they felt had lost touch with Salem Village.
The political unrest in Salem was further worsened by natural calamities such as smallpox epidemics and crop failure among others. The Puritans questioned why God had to punish them; consequently, they set out to look for any evidence of evil though political factors formed the primary reasons for such actions. Most those who accused the women of witchcraft inhabited the Western part of Salem town while the defendant and their defenders majorly resided in the Eastern part of Salem Town. Two of the primary accusers of the witches lived in Reverend Samuel Parris' house who led the Putnam family breakaway from Salem Town. Other two afflicted girls also lived close to the reverend's house following the separation. One can thus argue that the accusers had their reasons emanating from the separation between Salem Town and Putnam family. The petitioners primarily from the West wanted to find reasons to justify their community unrest that had afflicted it for a decade hence the witch hunting.
The occurrence in Salem Witch trials and the association with the ladies to the entire even indicates that women held a subordinate position to men in the 17TH century America. The situation was worse in areas where the society professed the Puritan religion compared to Catholic and Protestantism regions because the Puritans’ married for both procreation and company. The Puritans held the belief that the human soul was feminine; as a result, a feminine soul inside a female body was more vulnerable to sin compared to a similar spirit in man (Curley, 5). The Salem community and the entire colonial American society believed that women were more susceptible to sin and the ways of the devil compared to their male counterparts. Many scholars have questioned over the years whether the Salem and other witchcraft accusations leveled against women were intentionally directed towards the female gender. Such accusations as observed above contributed to the death of many women across Europe; many women had to confess as witches while those who refused were executed.
The witch trials in Salem confront the readers with issues about women who have fears about their fellow women. It hence becomes difficult to discuss the plight of women when they insubordinate themselves and make malicious accusations against one another. Purdy (4) observes that the Salem Witch Trials present a well-choreographed systematic violence against the female gender. The majority of the people accused of witchcraft ostensibly comprised of women while most of the judges who many times decided the cases consisted of men. It sounds ironical that such judges could read the well planned malicious intentions in the accusations directed at women particularly from the Eastern side of the Salem town. Moreover, the American colonists under the Puritans majorly practiced patriarchal family life in which men dictated most of the aspects of the community life. Fathers controlled their daughters' lives while husbands did the same to their wives; in case fathers were not presented, brothers took a strict observation of their sisters' actions in the community.
Execution of Innocent people
The most outrageous effect of the trials involved the killing of innocent individuals in the society and false imprisonment. The Puritans were religious fanatics and followed the Bible's teachings to the latter. Consequently, they believed that people especially women could get into a compact union with the devil to receive destructive powers that they used against their neighbors. The Salem society thus rounded women of various social status primarily those who had no children, beggars, and those who never went to church and charged them with witchcraft while accusing them of various natural calamities that had befallen the Salem community as at then. It sounds interesting that the Puritans firmly believed that this group of women was responsible for the famine, smallpox epidemic, and death of livestock witnessed in 1691 in Salem. Apart from execution, another group of around 200 people faced different jail terms based on spectral evidence where the society and the jury believed that the witches had the devil’s power to direct their spirits to the complainants without any physical contacts.
Strained Community Relations
The relationship between the Eastern and Western sides of the town never remained the same after the trials. For example, Essex County Court gave instructions to the Salem villagers to conduct fresh elections following the Salem fiasco. The town, therefore, elected a new committee with different political, economic, and social ideologies opposed to the former administrators. Although some of the people like Reverend Samuel Parris who instigated the division and the witch accusations admitted having played a role in creating the spectral evidence and assigning it more weight; the relations remained strained as this did not convince the people living in Eastern Salem. The community was confident that the reverend had a hand in the trials and accusations since two of the accusers lived in his house thus nobody took serious his reconciliatory sermon delivered in November 1693. The reverend was forced to leave Salem in 1696 creating room for a new pastor who tried to reunite the community; however, part of the congregation felt betrayed by the church and walked away.
Purdy (14) argues that judges and the society should relate to the occurrences at Salem in arriving at decisions in cases involving minors. According to him, the term "witch hunt" may have significant political, social, and economic implications. A witch hunt investigation in the contemporary society refers to a case that the jury can readily delegitimize and charge both the plaintiff and the respondent with fraud. Child abuse investigations and trials carefully compare with the 1692 Salem incidents. Just as it happened in Salem, the accusers primarily comprise of children; as a consequence, it becomes difficult to establish whether the abuse took place or the child made up the story or acts under parental or another adult's guidance. On the other hand, Salem trials have become an important political allegory particularly in the fight against terrorism in the US with most of the Muslim community viewing it as witch hunting mission against Muslims. Both Salem and terrorist hunting represent a struggle against an imaginary enemy unknown to the person conducting the search.
The Salem Witch Trials had no moral and legal grounds but only by the society to justify their insubordination of the female gender. Many of the executed and imprisoned people comprised of women mostly from the Eastern side of Salem Town. The incidence arguably shows that the Salem community refused to address the root causes of the social, political, and economic problems affecting it; and instead decided to shift blames on women who were innocently executed and jailed. The primary cause of the problem emanates from the separation of Salem Town since most of the accusers came from Western Salem while the accused resided in the Eastern part. The Salem fiasco bred a sour relationship between the two sides of Salem with some victims failing to reconcile with their accusers. The paper indicates that the Salem case can apply as a precedent in present day courts in cases dealing with child abuse and the war on terror.
Callis, Marc. "The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America." Historical Journal of Massachusetts 33.2 (2005): 187.
Glock, Shannon. "The Influence of Witchcraft on American Literature." (n.d.).
Johansson, Tobias. "The Crucible and the Reasons for the Salem Witch Hunt." (2004). Masters thesis; Department of Language and Culture Luela University.
Kocic, Ana. "Salem Witchcraft Trials: The Perception of Women in History, Literature, and Culture." (2010).
Purdy, Sean. "Conjuring history: the many interpretations of the Salem witchcraft trials." Rivier Academic Journal 3.1 (2007): 1-18.
Curley, Sarah, Katherine Lang, and James Oberly. "Tituba of Salem: The Racial, Gendered, and Encultured Dimensions of a Confessed Witch." (2014).
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