In 1692, it was believed the devil had arrived in Salem. Young girls were exhibiting convulsions, contortions, and outbursts of gibberish. Other girls soon exhibited similar symptoms. After examination, the town doctor could only come to one conclusion... the girls were bewitched. Whoever was responsible for this outrage must be brought to justice. The hysteria in Salem was a product of great fear on the foundation of Puritan belief and the desire to douse evil, but may have also had deeper roots in a critical-period full of rumor, panic, local animosity, and inequality. This paper will explore the some of the origins of Puritan belief in witchcraft, a few of the accused, as well as some methods of determining innocence or guilt.
Witchcraft can be defined as: the practice of magic, especially black magic, or the act of summoning spiritual powers to accomplish a supernatural task, such as placing a curse on someone, or telling the future (Goss 1). The spiritual beliefs of the people in the community of Salem, Massachusetts were held very strong. They believed that the bible was god’s true law, and it provided the proper plan for living. This way of thinking carried over into community laws and customs. Puritans used the law to enforce morality, as in the law that required men and women convicted of adultery to wear “a Capital A of two inches long...sewed on their upper Garments.” Witchcraft, a capital crime, was punishable by death (Norton 39). Puritans were god-fearing people who believed in predestination, the idea that god has already determined who, and who will not, be saved (Butler 36). Another idea was a belief in the existence of the invisible spiritual realm of God and his angelic beings which stood in resistance to the spiritual powers of Satan and his army of fallen demons (Goss 1). The practice of accusing and occasionally executing witches had not originated in Salem, as it had been happening for centuries in Europe. Virtually everyone who lived in Europe from the earliest times to the beginning of the eighteenth century had a general belief in the existence of witchcraft (Goss 3).
Reverend Samuel Parris, whose ministry would prove controversial, was hired in Salem in June 1689. It is said that Reverend Parris was a weak and ineffective minister who used witchcraft as a way to assert his dominance and to define his ministry (Butler 44). He explained that the devil and his witches had chosen Salem Village for destruction “by reason of the peoples being divided & theire differing with their ministers.” The devil, he stressed, was “the grand enemy of the Church,” assisted by “Wicked & Reprobate men,” likely including many detractors in Salem Village. In one sermon, pointing to spiritual warfare between the saved and the damned, he told his congregation that “the Church is separated from the world,” and that “it is the main drift of the Devil to pull it all down.” That was the last sermon Parris’s nine year old daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams heard before they began to behave strangely (Norton 17-18).
In January of 1692, Betty Parris began displaying bizarre behaviors. She would stare blankly into space as if in a hypnotic trance. This trance-like state would be followed by more strange behavior such as crawling on the floor on all fours, writhing wildly, barking like a dog, and making choking sounds. Before long, Abigail Williams began to exhibit similar behaviors to that of her cousin. The town doctor was called, and after a thorough examination, he was unable to find anything physically wrong with them. His diagnosis was that the girls’ behavior was the result of a magical spell and that they were under the force and power of the ‘‘evil hand’’ of witchcraft (Goss 16-17).
At the request of a neighbor and fellow church member, Tituba (a slave belonging to Reverend Parris) employed some traditional counter magic. She