The Salem Witch Trials: A History of Mass Hysteria?

Socio-cultural problems have historically been played out through women’s bodies. The Salem Witch Trials were no different.

There is perhaps no other historical event that is as synonymous with Halloween than the Salem witch trials. The trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. In one year, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, and 20 were executed. Was it the work of the devil? Or, was it an example of superstition and mass hysteria? There have been many explanations for the witch trials, but they may speak to a lot more than superstition and fear. Moral panics reflect concerns deeply rooted in the gendered, historical, cultural and political environment of colonial Massachusetts. 

The Salem Witch Trials: A History of Mass Hysteria?

Christianity, Colonial History and the Work of the Devil

New England was settled by religious refugees from England who were looking to build a bible-based society for themselves. This Protestant sect, originating in the 16th century, founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, and laid the foundation for the religious, social, and political order of New England colonial life. The Puritans were a repressed group, and their turmoil with the Anglican Church led to a mass exodus from England. Led by John Winthrop in America, and informed by Calvinist theology, the Puritans believed they were chosen by God to create a new Christian utopia. America was to become a 'City Upon a Hill', a shining beacon that would be admired by all other Christians. The Puritans wanted to create a perfect reformed society that would be a model for England.

 These problems were understood by Puritans as being the work of the Devil. 
By the mid-to-late 17th century, cracks in colonial life were beginning to show. First, a successful merchant class soon developed that was less religiously motivated than the colony's early settlers. Salem Village –which today is called Danvers, Massachusetts– also experienced quarrels over grazing rights, church privileges, and more. Colonial leadership also became an issue. In Boston colony, the clergy was the main social and political authority, and this often led to tension, as did the election of colonial leaders from prominent members of local congregations. In addition, political turmoil between English and French rulers in the American colonies led to American refugees streaming into Salem Village in the late 1680s. These refugees aggravated rivalries between different families, put a strain on village resources, and complicated economic matters. To make matters worse, King Charles II revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s royal charter, which had granted them permission to colonize the New World. These problems were understood by Puritans as being the work of the Devil.



This was also a time when inward reflection became a central means of becoming a good Christian. Puritans were very concerned with what Michel Foucault would call self-discipline. The writing of diaries played a pivotal role within early American Christianity and in the formation of a good self. Diaries were used as tools of meditation, reflection and examination of conscience. For many, writing was a way to come to terms with the loss of children (often through self-blame), for others it was about writing down the ways in which God was present in their lives. For most however, the diary was used a way to understand themselves, their relationship to God and their difficulties with keeping the faith, especially submission to God. Puritans tried as hard as they could to be good Christians, but understood that bad things happened to them because of moral failure, or sin. 

How The Witch Trials Began

 Tituba claimed that the three women had gotten together and made a pact with the Devil. 
As is often the case, children were the start of the moral panic. In January 1692, 9 year old Betty Parris (daughter to Reverend Samuel Parris), 11 year old Abigail Williams, and 11 year old Ann Putnam began experiencing 'fits'. During their fits they made incomprehensible sounds, contorted their bodies in strange positions, screamed and threw objects around. When a local doctor suggested a supernatural explanation, the town magistrates pressured the girls to explain themselves. The girls placed the blame on three women, Sarah Osborne, a poor elderly woman, the Parris family Caribbean slave Tituba, and a homeless beggar named Sarah Good. 

The three women were interrogated for days but proclaimed their innocence. That is, until Tituba confessed that, "the Devil came to me and bid me serve him.” Tituba claimed that the three women had gotten together and made a pact with the Devil. She also claimed that there were many more witches in Salem. Tituba was accused of reading the girls stories of enchantment and sexual encounters with demons from Malleus Maleficarum, a 1487 treatise on witchcraft written by the discredited Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer.

Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum

Suddenly, the problems afflicting Salem Village began to make a lot more sense. Dozens of people from Salem and surrounding areas were brought in by the magistrates for questioning. Soon, members of the church in good standing were accused of witchcraft, which led to even more accusations and increased moral panic. If members of the church could be witches, anyone could be.


Salem Witch Trial Torture

There were many ways of eliciting information from suspected witches. These included, but were far from limited to:

Witch Cakes:

Witch-hunters would take a sample of the victim’s urine, mix it with rye-meal and ashes and bake it into a cake. This would be fed to a dog in the hopes the dog would identify the witch (dogs were thought to be aids to witches). Tituba even helped bake such a cake, though it did not reveal new witches.

Heretic's Fork:

This consisted of a piece of metal with two opposed pronged "forks". The Heretic's Fork was placed between the breast bone and throat of the victim, just under the chin and secured with a leather strap around the neck. Increase Mather, who was an influential Puritan minister, and president of Harvard University, used this device to torture Tituba.

Touch Test:

Many believed that victims of sorcery would have a special reaction to the touch of a witch. And so, suspected witches would be brought to their victims and would place a hand on them. If there was no reaction, the person was considered innocent by the court. However, if the victim's fits came to an end, it was understood as proof that the offender was a witch.

 By that point however, 19 people had been hanged, and one elderly gentleman had been pressed to death with heavy stones. 
One form of evidence for witchcraft was called spectral evidence. The victim of witchcraft would claim to see an apparition or shape of the person who had afflicted them. It was believed that the Devil was unable to take on anyone's shape without that person's consent, and so an apparition meant that the offender had been complicit with the Devil. This was a problematic theological assertion for obvious reasons. Many people involved in the Salem witch trials were opposed to the use of spectral evidence, including the famous Mather brothers, Cotton and Increase. Echoing a line of reasoning that many who oppose the death penalty today would be familiar with, Increase Mather said that, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”

A Deadly End to the Salem Witch Trials

Many people in the colonies opposed the witch trials, and the trials came to an end when Governor Phipps (whose wife was accused of being a witch), in May of 1693, pardoned all who were in imprisoned on charges of witchcraft. By that point however, one elderly gentleman had been pressed to death with heavy stones, 19 people had been hanged, many died in prison while awaiting trial, and nearly 200 people had been accused of practicing witchcraft. 

When the dust settled in Salem, many involved in condemning witches confessed error and guilt. In 1697, there was a day of fasting and soul-searching in Massachusetts, and the court declared the trials unlawful in 1702. Eventually, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused. In 1957, more than 250 years after the witch trials, Massachusetts formally apologized for the witch trials.

salem witch trials

Salem Witch Trials as a Means of Policing Social Norms

Many modern theories about the witch trials argue that people in Salem were suffering from epilepsy, child abuse, or mental illness. Some suggest that villagers were bored, or that a disease brought on by eating fungus infected rye could be to blame. Instead, let's put on our anthropological hats and be careful not to read our contemporary world into the past. It is easy, but problematic, to try and find a scientific explanation for events that seem utterly insane to our modern eyes, or use modern models of mental illness to explain the actions of people in the 17th century. There is however, a lot we can learn by trying to understand the social and cultural environment in which the trials took place. 

 ...one method among many to approach the events beyond simply blaming female hysteria, mental illness or fungal infections. 

First, we should not underestimate the importance of sin in Puritan self-understanding. Women especially tended to understand misfortune as stemming from their own sin and moral failure. Women's bodies were viewed as weaker and thus susceptible to corruption. The body was turned into a symbol of significant religious concern, and women turned to religio-cultural norms to understand evil. For example, the loss of a young child, or a miscarriage, was understood as stemming from their religious backsliding.



Second, the three women first accused of witchcraft were social outcasts and easy targets. These women were at the margins of society, and perhaps they were scapegoats for the problems faced by Puritan colonies? While many men were accused of witchcraft, this was a predominately gendered experience, and magistrates were exclusively men. Tituba was also of Caribbean descent, and it was easy for the Puritans to exoticize her, and her supposed knowledge of the dark arts. This is to say nothing about the experience of the three young girls who claimed to be possessed, or others who claimed to be victims.

Possession Stories and Policing Women's Bodies

Women's bodies have historically been the site where societal and cultural concerns are played out. Cultural anthropologist Celia Rothenberg, writing about possession stories in 20th century Palestine says, “Jinn [demonic spirits] stories and teachings provide amazingly precise discourses on broad social and cultural trends as well as an individual's personal-, cultural-, and time-specific experiences.” Anthropologist Janice Boddy has argued that possession can be an opportunity for the self to be played out in an environment that can disrupt norms. Possession narratives in contemporary times are often about female agency, and how woman find ways to work within male-dominated systems. The agency afforded by possession narratives can become a way to recode patriarchal systems. 

Now, whether this explains what occurred in Salem is another question. But it offers one method among many to approach the events beyond simply blaming female hysteria, mental illness or fungal infections. Witchcraft, and the subsequent witch trials, became a performance space for villagers to make sense of gendered, racial, and religious ideals that were not easily attainable. 

salem witch trials mass hysteria

History Repeats Itself: The Satanic Panic

Finally, let's remember that we, as enlightened, "secular" and modern people are not immune to moral panic. Times of social and religious upheaval often come with their particular moral outrage, and this was evident in Reagan-era America. The Satanic Panic was the widespread fear in North America about Satanic ritual abuse. It originated in the United States in the 1980s, and spread around the globe by the 1990s. There were stories of child abuse, ritual mass-murder, abductions, and the hypnotic dangers of heavy metal. According to G.A Fraser, when early sociologists and anthropologists investigated rumors of satanic ritual abuse, they concluded that its cause stemmed not from actual abuse but, "media hype, Christian fundamentalism, mental health and law enforcement professionals and child abuse advocates." In fact, over 12,000 cases of supposed abuse were investigated by law enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s, and no charges were ever laid. None of this was aided by memory-recovery therapists, who seemed able to only recover false memories. By the time the panic subsided, lives were ruined, some people were falsely imprisoned, and sales of heavy metal albums skyrocketed (at least some good came of it!).

The Salem witch trials has become a cultural meme in various ways, and for many different communities. There is an aesthetic sense to our fascination with the macabre, and the darker parts of our cultural heritage. People make yearly pilgrimages to Salem and Danvers, and are fascinated by the topic (a Google search for Salem Witch Trials reveals 10,800,000 results). There is also a fascination with the depths of human depravity –we did not mention most of the torture techniques used to find witches, including the famous Iron Maiden. The witch trials are also an opportunity to think about what makes us human, and how we can turn a more thoughtful and empathetic eye to the inner demons of our ancestors, and ourselves. 

Posted by Jeremy Cohen

Jeremy Cohen is a PhD candidate in the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University and received his M.A. in 2016 from Concordia University. His work explores contemporary death rituals, technology & Transhumanism. I am interested in the cultural and history context of Transhumanist ideas, and issues surrounding contemporary death practices.

  1. […] to fend for themselves. Why do people continue to believe in possession? In our article on the Salem Witch Trials, we asked a similar question. Why were all these people in Salem having "fits" and claiming to […]

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