November 7, 2008

Salem: America's Bewitched Town

In 1692, in the small American village of Salem, Massachusetts a young girl fell sick. Her fits of convulsions, contortions, and outbursts of gibberish baffled everyone. Other girls soon displayed the same symptoms. As their problems weren't physical, the town doctor could suggest only one cause - witchcraft. The work of the devil.

This grim diagnosis of bewitchment launched a Puritan inquisition that would result in the death by hanging of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; two dogs were executed as witches accomplices; others died in prison, and many lives were forever changed.

1692 was a difficult time for Salem Village. Under British rule when the hysteria began, the colony was awaiting a new governor and had no way to enforce laws. New England towns were under attack by Native Americans and French Canadians.

Salem faced daily domestic challenges as well. Families had to support themselves making their own clothes, growing their own vegetables and raising animals for meat. Farming was painstaking in their harsh climate. A drought or flood could ruin a year’s harvest. An smallpox epidemic could kill a family. Salem's residents were intensely religious. It was a world where people thought the Devil responsible for every misfortune.

In 1688 an influential village elder, John Putnam, hired a new village minister. Samuel Parris moved to Salem with his wife Elizabeth, his 6-year-old daughter Betty, niece Abigail Williams, and his slave
Tituba, bought while in Barbados.

During the exceptionally cold February of 1692, young Betty Parris became strangely ill. Feverishly, she dashed about, dived under furniture, and knotted herself in pain. The cause of her symptoms may have been a combination of many things, but talk of evil spirits increased when friends of Betty, 11-year-old Ann Putnam, and teens Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott, began to exhibit similar unusual behavior. When his medicines failed, the doctor suggested they were bewitched.

Salem began praying and fasting in order to rid itself of the devil's influence. The girls were pressured to reveal which townspeople were the witches that controlled their bizarre behavior. Three women were identified: Tituba, the slave; Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn.

Tituba made herself a target, when shortly after Betty Parris's strange fits began she prepared a "witch cake"; rye bread soaked in Betty's urine. She fed it to a dog, believing the dog would reveal the identity of Betty's afflicter. The dog too became bewitched and died, implicating Tituba as a witch.

Tituba had been known to tell the girls tales of voodoo and witchcraft from her native homeland and the sick girls accused her of being a witch. Reverend Parris beat Tituba until she confessed that a conspiracy of witches permeated Salem Village.

Sarah Good was a beggar and misfit who depended on people to take her in and Sarah Osborn was old, quarrelsome, and had not attended church for over a year.

Meanwhile, the number of affected girls grew to seven. The girls twisted into grotesque poses, collapsed in frozen postures, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. The consistency of Betty Parris' and Abigail Williams' accusations suggests that the girls worked out their stories together. The other girls, including Ann Putnam, saw witches flying through the winter mist. In a village where everyone believed that the devil was close at hand, the girl's affliction became an obsession.

The Putnam family brought their complaint against the three women to county magistrates who scheduled to examine the witches in a local tavern but when hundreds showed up, the examinations were moved to the meeting house. The girls described attacks by the specters of the three women, and fell into their perfected pattern of contortions when in the presence of one of the suspects.

Other villagers came forward to offer stories of cheese and butter mysteriously gone bad or animals born with deformities after visits by one of the three suspects. The magistrates asked the suspects the same questions over and over: Were they witches? Had they seen the Devil? How did they explain the contortions caused by their presence?

The matter might have been less tragic if not for Tituba. Afraid of taking the blame for all the trouble, Tituba claimed that she was approached by a tall dark man who sometimes appeared as a dog or a pig and asked her to sign his book and to do his devilish work. Declaring herself a witch, Tituba announced that she and other witches, including Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn, had flown through the air on their "poles". Tituba's confession silenced most skeptics, and Parris and other local ministers began witch hunting with zeal.

The girls accusations and their polished performances, including the new act of being struck dumb, were widely accepted. Suspects began to see confession as a way to escape the penalty of death. Salem's jail was filled with many townspeople. On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop was the first of the accused to be tried. Found guilty of being a witch she was carted to Gallows Hill and hanged.

The pace of the trials picked up in the summer of 1692. The afflicted girls reported attacks by the phantoms of other townswomen. In church Ann Putnam suddenly shouted that she could see a local woman sitting on a rafter near the ceiling with a yellow bird on her hand.

Respectable and devoutly religious women were now tried in court. They too were convicted and sent to the gallows. An uneasy village hanged their ex-minister, supposedly guilty for being the ringleader of the witches. The 4-year-old daughter of Sarah Good was arrested, kept in jail for eight months and eventually watched her mother taken to the gallows.

People who laughed at the accusations of witchcraft risked becoming suspects themselves. John Proctor, who was openly critical of the trials paid for his skepticism with his life. He openly denounced the witch hunt but was accused of being a murderer. Futilely, Proctor fought back, but was hanged.

One old man who refused to stand trial was pressed to death under a pile of heavy rocks. Three days after his death, the last victims of the witch hunt were hanged.

Almost as quickly as it started, the hysteria that swept through Puritan Salem ended. By early autumn of 1692, townsfolk lost confidence in the trials, doubting that so many respectable people could be guilty. The last witchcraft trials ended in acquittals. In May 1693, all remaining accused or convicted witches were released from jail.

After the trials were shut down, the girls were never brought to task. Their actions resulted in many deaths. But no one was ever punished.

Today researchers are looking for reasons behind the mass-hysteria and the symptoms displayed in the Salem girls. Their visions and maladies plus the frenzied response of others may have been caused by tainted grain in the colony.

A very small fungus called ergot infects only the grain of rye plants and does so more often in the cold, wet weather. The victims of ergot poisoning suffer from burning pains in the limbs, twitches, spasms, crawling sensations on the skin and hallucinations. Did the townsfolk return to their more passive nature when the supply of infected grain ran out?

It could have been the prank of emotional girls, copying the symptoms of a sick friend, vying for attention, yet unable to know when to stop. We know now it wasn't the work of devil or witches but we'll never know whether the girls were poisoned by their bread or just fraudulently theatrical.

Today the residents of historic Salem cash in on the misfortunate events that occurred over 300 years ago. Along Salem's pleasant cobblestone streets, the tales Salem Witch Trials are told at the Salem Witch Museum, The Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers, the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum and the Witch House. The original witchcraft papers are displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum.

In October Salem gears up for Halloween with parades, costume balls, witch tours and other special events. Nobody in America celebrates Halloween like Salem. Witches, real or imagined abound!
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Massachusetts: A state in the northeastern United States on the Atlantic Ocean. One of the earliest founded American states. Its capital is Boston.

Puritan: A follower of the Puritan religion which reached North America with the English settlers who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620. It remained the dominant religious force in New England throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Puritans believed in rigid morals, the condemnation of innocent pleasure and followed a narrow religious path.

hysteria: a state of extreme or exaggerated emotion such as excitement or panic, especially among large numbers of people

voodoo: a religion practiced throughout Caribbean countries, especially Haiti, involving magic and communication with dead ancestors.

gallows: execution by hanging or the structure upon which one is hanged.

specter(or spectre) : a ghostly presence or apparition

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