The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692

Powerful Essays
The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692

The Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, which resulted in 19 executions, and 150 accusations of

witchcraft, are one of the historical events almost everyone has heard of. They began when three

young girls, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam began to have hysterical fits, after being

discovered engaging in forbidden fortune-telling (not dancing naked in the woods) to learn what sorts

of men they would marry. Betty's father, the Reverend Samuel Parris, called in more senior

authorities to determine if the girls' affliction was caused by witchcraft. Although Betty was sent away

fairly soon, and did not participate in the trials, the other girls were joined by other young and mature

women in staging public demonstrations of their affliction when in the presence of accused "witches."

The events in Salem have been used as a theme in many literary works, including the play by Arthur

Miller which we are going to read during this unit. They are interesting to anthropologists because

they display some of the characteristics of "village" witchcraft and some of the features of the

European witch craze. Many commentators have seen the Salem witch craze as the last outbreak of

the European witch craze, transported to North America. As in African and New Guinea villages, the

original accusations in Salem were made against people who, in one way or another, the accusers

had reason to fear or resent. Moreover, the first few of the accused fit the definition of "marginal"

persons, likely to arouse suspicion. However, as in Europe, the accusations spread, and came to

encompass people not involved in any of Salem's local grudges. As in Europe there was a belief that

the accused were in league with the Devil and "experts" employed "scientific" ways of diagnosing


Interestingly, during the colonial period in Africa, shortly after World War II, there were a number of

witch finding movements in Africa, which resembled the Salem episode in some ways, and had a

similar status "in between" the sort of witch hunt found in Europe and the typical African pattern.

Typically, in these movements, "witch finders" would come in from outside a village and claim to be

able to rid the village of witchcraft. At this period there was great dislocation, with people moving

around because of government employment, a...

... middle of paper ... trusted them. This was likely to be a more

acute problem in the U.S., since the people who were named by those who cooperated with the

Committee weren't hanged and put out of the way, just fired and left to try to lead the resistance to

McCarthyism. Namers of names sometimes found themselves with no friends at all, since

anti-Communists often still failed to trust them. The issue of resisting collaboration with the witch

hunters was important enough to Miller that he altered history, and portrayed the trials as stopping

when more people refused to confess when, in fact, a significant increase in confessions probably

served to cast some doubt on the validity of individual confessions.

Taking liberties with the text is one of the characteristics of the interaction between humans and their

myths. And a charter myth is certainly what the witch hunts in Europe and Salem have become,

though they have more basis in fact than most myths. The stories of the witch hunts are charter myths

for our time, to be told by feminists, left-wing intellectuals, and lawyers for President Clinton, each

taking what he or she needs from the story, adding or subtracting as seems fit.
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