Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Salem Witch Trials

For some of us, the closest we get to the Salem Witch Trials is an episode of Bewitched where Samantha gets spirited back in time by some jealous witch (male or female). Others may have learned about the trials through Arthur Miller's The Crucible or the more recent movie of the same name. The truth is much more sinister than any Bewitched episode could convey; but the jealous portrayed may not be far off the mark. There is also the small matter of usurping land thrown into the mix.
Called the Salem Witch trials probably because the most famous happened in Salem Village, there were actually trials in four towns in the province. Salem Village had the distinction of being a town in turmoil. Only recently allowed to have their own church, there seemed to be some struggle for leadership.

So, take a town in the middle of a province with changing leadership, hostilities with the natives and a growing shortage of land with a growing population and mix in some religious fervor and a mysterious affliction and you get the Salem Witch Trials. Frenzy usually feeds on the baser of human emotions like greed and jealousy. It just may be that land, deeds and inheritance motivated the witch hunting more than a desire to expel the devil.

At the center of the drama is the Parris family. Reverend Samuel Parris is the newly elected minister of the new Salem Village. He wasn't the unanimous choice and there were those who were not pleased that he was given the deed of the parsonage as part of his compensation. Just a few years later, his daughter and niece were the first to be afflicted with some sort of bewitching.Given the laws and a propensity to general anxiety in the province it is not difficult to understand how the most vulnerable became the first accused. The majority of "witches" were unmarried or recently widowed land-owning women. If a land owner died, his/her land passed back to the previous owner. If that owner could not be determined, it passed to the church.

The first three women accused were women with few defenders: Sarah Good, a poor woman known to beg for food; Sarah Osbourne, a woman marked for having sex with her indentured servant and for not attending church service; and Tituba, a slave of undetermined ancestry. Sarah Good's daughter is also one of the accused. Her testimony is used to convict her mother even though Dorothy Good was only four years old. Someone had to be blamed for the affliction of the minister's family.

After the frenzy started, it didn't take long for the land-owning citizens (male and female) to become targets. Of course, there were those that were just named due to the hysteria. Anyone who didn't quite fit in would be a perfect target. Being a witch could explain any oddity or non-conformity with the rest of society. Either people believed these men and women were really witches or they participated in the naming in order to not be named. It was a good way to rid yourself of an annoying neighbor as entire families were named as witches.

In a relatively short period of time, from March 1692 through July 1692, over 70 people were arrested or warrants for their arrests were issued. The accusations and trials lasted through May 1693 with the last cases resulting mostly in acquittals. All in all over 150 people were accused, twenty nine were convicted and nineteen of those were hung. One man who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death. At least five more died while in custody.

As for the four mentioned above: Dorothy Good, the four year old, was released on bond; her mother, Sarah Good, was found guilty and executed on July 19, 1692; Sarah Osbourne died in custody; and, Tituba was never indicted.
O Christian Martyr Who for Truth could die
When all about thee Owned the hideous lie!
The world, redeemed from superstition's sway,

Is breathing freer for thy sake today.
Words written by John Greenleaf Whittier and inscribed on a monument marking the grave of Rebecca Nurse, one of the condemned "witches" of Salem.

Wikipedia's Salem Witchcraft Trials Page
University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law Professor Douglas Linder's site: Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692
Salem Witch Museum

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