People are throwing the word “witch-hunt” around a lot this year. They mean it in its metaphorical sense: “the widespread persecution of innocent people based on manufactured and untrue accusations.” The most famous American witch-hunt, in this sense, is of course that spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used to be Wisconsin’s most shameful contribution to American politics. I don’t know, but I think Paul Ryan has him beat.
McCarthy’s witch-hunt was one of the inspirations for Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, which is about America’s most famous literal witch-hunt, the one that started in Salem Village in 1692. 2017 is the 325th anniversary of the Salem witch-hunt, an episode also called the Salem witchcraft hysteria, the Salem witch trials, the Salem witchcraft crisis. As these different labels suggest, we still aren’t entirely sure what happened to Salem and Andover and the other villages affected by the plague of witchcraft accusations. There are a thousand theories about what caused the crisis, from tensions between the agricultural interests of Salem Village and the mercantile interests of Salem Town, to the stress of years of guerilla warfare with the Wabanaki Indians (who were also believed to do the Devil’s work), and just as many theories about what was actually going on—ergot poisoning, persecution of people practicing what we would now call witchcraft (more on that in a moment), outright fraud on the part of a gang of bored teenage girls—and yet none of them really seems to answer the question: what happened?
Short version: In Salem in 1692 and in the surrounding villages, over a hundred people were accused of witchcraft based on the testimony of several persons who claimed to see the apparitions of the witches who tortured them. Even by the standards of the day, this wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring a suspected witch to trial, much less to convict. And yet by September of that year, nineteen people had been hanged (no one convicted of witchcraft was ever burned in New England), one pressed to death for refusing to plead, and five had died in prison (two of them infants). Those who survived were those who confessed to being witches. Announce yourself to be a witch and you wouldn’t be brought to trial. Maintain your innocence, and you would be tried, convicted, and hanged. This is exactly and 100% the opposite of every other witch trial I know of, where those who confessed were—logically, if not necessarily justly—executed.
Not in Salem.
The first question we need to clear up is that troublesome word, “witchcraft,” and what the people of New England meant by it in 1692. First of all, and I really cannot stress this enough, it is not Wicca or any other strain of modern witchcraft. No one in Salem was practicing witchcraft as we now use the word, and if they were, they weren’t being persecuted for it. “Witchcraft,” when the word was used in Salem, was made up of two elements. One, which is closer to what we think of when we think of wicked fairytale witches, is maleficium, ill-wishing, the kind of thing that made a witch’s enemy’s crops fail, children sicken, or cows die. The evil eye was also strongly attested; the afflicted persons (they are generally referred to as “girls,” but not all of them were—several of them were adult women, one or two were men) reacted strongly when a witch looked at them (and sometimes did so when they themselves were blindfolded). This was the traditional—you can call it “folk” or “popular” if you don’t get carried away—meaning of witchcraft.
“Cunning folk,” who might, if you stretch the point far enough, be considered as forerunners of today’s witches, were in fact vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, since their claims to be able to heal or to break curses was just the bad witch’s power in reverse, and in Boston a few years earlier a woman with a reputation for “cunning”—including cursing people herself—had been convicted and hanged for bewitching the Goodwin children. But it is very important to note that the people accused of witchcraft in Salem weren’t cunning folk. Some had reputations for maleficium; most had reputations simply for quarrelsomeness. A few, like the venerable Rebecca Nurse, were staunch members of their church and had no reputation for wrong-doing of any kind.
The second meaning of “witchcraft” was theological and/or legal, those two terms being very closely allied in Puritan New England, and by this meaning, what the people of Salem Village were terrified of weren’t witches, by our understanding. They were terrified of Satanists—although, even then, there’s a lot of slippage between what we mean by the term and what the magistrates in Salem were hunting for. Witches (or warlocks) were people who had signed the Devil’s book: had entered into a contract or covenant with him and therefore did his bidding in exchange for… well, whatever the witch’s heart desired, although judging by some of the confessions extracted, witches had very limited imaginations and could be bought for pathetically little. Abigail Hobbs sold her soul for pretty clothes.
The afflicted persons claimed that the tortures visited on them by the witches were in order to force them to sign the Devil’s book and become witches themselves. It is this Satanic covenant that was specifically illegal, and there’s a certain amount of cross-purposes in the surviving testimony, with (male) villagers attesting why they are certain the (female) accused is a witch, while what the magistrates want is proof she signed a contract with the Devil. Maleficium was not supposed to be taken as proof of Satanic dealings (just as any act of witchcraft was supposed to have two credible witnesses to swear to it under oath), but witchcraft beliefs aren’t anything as tidy as a binary or even a spectrum. They’re a giant muddle, with only a few fixed points around the edges, and the proceedings of justice in Massachusetts were similarly crude, failing in aspects that we consider a matter of course, like preventing contamination of witnesses or providing lawyers for the accused or even simply maintaining order in the courtroom.
But what everyone agreed on was that witches got their power—to turn themselves into animals, to curse their neighbors, to spectrally torment teenage girls—from the Devil. But since there were never reliable witnesses to a witch signing the Devil’s book (the only possible witnesses being, hello, other witches), evidence of witchcraft relied on accusations, and in Salem the most powerful of those accusations were what was called “spectral evidence,” a term which itself needs some unpacking.
A specter is not necessarily, in seventeenth-century New England, a ghost. In witchcraft cases, it is what we might call an astral projection (or a hallucination): the form of a witch, visible only to her victim, who does things to cause her victim agony (or—more and more frequently as the trials progressed—things like suckling a familiar that prove her to be a witch in a neatly circular argument). There was intense uncertainty and a great deal of debate about whether Satan could take the form of an innocent person in order to torment his chosen victim. Some authorities (on both the legal and ecumenical sides of the fence) said yes, some said maybe. It is significant that none of these authorities had come forward with a flat: no, the Devil cannot take the form of an innocent person, and it is significant because in the Salem trials, this unmade statement was treated as the truth. The magistrates and juries proceeded as if spectral evidence was damning evidence, as if what the afflicted girls said they saw was always true.
You can probably see at least five problems with that before you even get your mouth open to object. So can I. So can all modern commentators on the trials. And that leads us back again to the question: what happened?
What are we to make of affliction? What are we to make of the stark irrationality of the trial proceedings?
In February of 1692 (which was sometimes still reckoned as 1691, by the old system under which the New Year was the 25th of March), the village minister’s daughter and niece, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, started having a series of fits, in which they convulsed and shrieked, sometimes barked like dogs, sometimes ran wildly around the room. All of this was shocking from Puritan girls who were supposed to be decorous mini-adults, but there were explanations that could account for it. One, of course, was organic illness, but the village doctor insisted that there was no natural cause for the girls’ symptoms. The second was that it was the work of the Devil.
Puritanism was a millenarian sect; they believed the end of the world was barreling down on them. (Cotton Mather predicted it several times, each time undeterred by the previous failure.) Puritans in fact considered the end of the world a consummation devoutly to be wished, since they believed themselves to be the Chosen People of God, who would go to sit at His right hand. They saw the world as the cosmological battleground between Go(o)d and (D)evil (sorry, can’t resist the word play), and the Puritan people themselves as the beleaguered but righteous protagonists. (“Solipsistic” is one word for this world-view.) To them, it made perfect sense that the Devil would be persecuting them by tormenting them and their children. They knew the Devil hated them because they were the Elect.
The Puritans believed in the Devil in a visceral, deeply grounded way that few modern readers can get their heads around (and I include myself in that failure). Some scholars talk about “credulity” or “superstition,” but it’s important to keep it firmly in mind that those are profoundly misleading terms, based as they are on a judgment system of empiricism and scientific method, and a separation of “objective” reality from “subjective” reality, that was still waiting for the paradigm shift of the Enlightenment in order to exist. (Depending on how you reckon it, the Enlightenment was already underway, but even so, it had only made the most tentative of inroads into New England. Puritan culture was most decidedly and passionately pre-Enlightenment.) The Puritans would be baffled by the idea that you couldn’t believe in things you couldn’t see. Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather’s book about Salem and witchcraft, is a pointer in its title alone. Mather was one of the smartest and best educated men of his day (though never quite as smart as he thought he was); to him and to his culture the invisible world was absolutely as real as the visible.
(No, Puritans weren’t a monolithic culture, no matter how hard they tried to be, but their shared cosmology was one of the things that made them a culture, a weird hybrid half-secular half-theocratic society of brave, fanatical, spectacularly intolerant people.)
It’s easy, four hundred years later, to say the people of Salem can’t really have believed in this witchcraft nonsense, it’s easy to ascribe deliberate agency to the men who put such leading questions to the teenage girls, and tease out their motives of greed and wounded pride and psychological imbalance, just as it’s easy to say that the teenage girls who sent twenty people to their deaths were more or less insane as a result of the hard, repressed, and oppressive lives they led. But we don’t believe in witches the way the Puritans did.
So, okay. The Devil is real, and he can really inflict torments on the godly to make them turn away from their faith. That still leaves us with a perilous question: were Abigail and Betty (and then Mercy and Mary and Ann) afflicted or possessed?
The two states looked exactly identical, but there was a yawning chasm between them. An afflicted person was a martyr, one who suffered the torments of the Devil because she refused to sign his book; a possessed person was one who suffered the torments of the Devil because she had signed his book and then had displeased him, generally by trying to recant. Same convulsions and screaming and what we, in our theocracy of psychiatry, might call mania, but one is a figure of innocence and the other a figure of depravity, and it was up to the person herself to choose which she was, to confess that she was the Devil’s creature or to pronounce herself a martyr by making an accusation.
(You would think this choice would be obvious, but the desperate women accused in 1692 weren’t the first in New England history to confess to witchcraft.)
So when authority figures asked an afflicted woman who had bewitched her, it was a question she had to answer carefully. Many women aimed too high and were slapped down for it, moved from afflicted to possessed by failing to create a narrative that suited the needs of the men in power. Many ministers simply disbelieved them on the very reasonable principle that even if an afflicted woman said truthfully whose spectral shape she saw, there was no guarantee that person was actually the witch. But in Salem something different happened. In Salem, when Betty and Abigail were asked who bewitched them, they named three women: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba, the Reverend Parris’ slave whom he had brought with him from Barbados. And when they named Good, Osborn, and Tituba, Samuel Parris accepted their answers as unassailable truth, as he would continue to accept the testimony of afflicted persons throughout the witchcraft crisis. When jailing the three “witches” didn’t stop the afflictions, Parris asked again. And believed again, a grim cycle that repeated itself for months before finally burning out.
Every scholar who writes about Salem seems to have a theory about a One True Cause. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum say it’s all socioeconomic resentments. Elaine Breslaw argues that it all hinges on Tituba’s confession. Mary Beth Norton treats the witchcraft accusations as transparent vehicles for anxieties about the Wabanakis. Others make arguments about ergot poisoning, or the psychodrama of Puritans’ deeply restricted lives, or the brazen fraud of the afflicted girls. I agree most closely with Samuel Parris’ biographer, Larry Gragg, who says that the true cause of the witchcraft crisis was Parris’ choice to believe the afflicted girls against members of his church, against legal and theological precedent, against the most rudimentary tenets of common sense. Parris chose to believe the girls, and he made that choice over and over again. And other men followed him.
We’ll never know exactly what was going on with Betty and Abigail, Ann and Mary and Mercy, but for me, that’s not the mystery, whether it was conscious fraud or what, when faced with startlingly similar symptoms, the nineteenth century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot diagnosed as l’hystérie: hysteria. The mystery is why all of these non-hysterical, non-bewitched men took the girls’ accusations and ran with them. The girls accused, sure, but the men listened.
What makes a witch-hunt, whether literal or metaphorical, isn’t the accusations. It’s the choice of the people in power to allow/promote/participate in persecution. Samuel Parris and the magistrates made Salem’s witchcraft accusations into a witch-hunt. Witchcraft accusations weren’t all that uncommon in Puritan New England; witch-hunts were vanishingly rare. In modern times, it’s the same thing. It’s Senator McCarthy who made the Communist witch-hunt, because he had the power to organize the widespread persecution. The people yelling “witch-hunt!” the loudest in 2017, interestingly enough, are the people in power. This suggests to me that, whatever may be going on and whatever may be the truth behind it… it’s not a witch-hunt.
Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: A Study of Witchcraft Hysteria. 1974. New York: MJF Books, n.d.
Breslaw, Elaine. Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. The American Social Experience 35. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Godbeer, Richard. The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
—. Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Gragg, Larry. A Quest for Security: The Life of Samuel Parris, 1653-1720. Contributions in American History 142. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: Mentor Books-New American Library, 1970.
Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. Introd. Karen Armstrong. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.
Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Landmark Law Cases. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial England. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.
Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Schiff, Stacy. The Witches: Salem 1692. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2015.
Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. 1949. New York: Anchor Books-Doubleday, 1989.
© 2018 by Sarah Monette