Salem Witch Trials Essay Sample

Salem Witch Trials Pages
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 At the beginning of XVIII century witches started to go out of fashion. Belief in witches smoldered in conscience of population of the Old and New Worlds and separate fits of fanaticism didn’t change overall picture.

American colony of New England was predominantly puritanical; it remained one of thoroughly supported hearth of resistance to progress. Everyday life was constant struggle of divine and devil’s origins; and everyone knows that devil acts with help of witches and magicians. That’s why laws of New England considered witchcraft as crime, which is more terrible than murder or arson; besides it was very convenient to arrogate to devil all difficulties of everyday life.

Education of children played important role in organization of local “ideological” life. Moral rigorism turned them to house prisoners, banned outdoor games and loud laugh. From the early childhood adults explained to children that people are sinful; that gates are narrow and way to eternal salvation are difficult… Winter was especially dangerous for children’s mentality: white long desert without Christmas, Santa Claus and any other signs of joy.

In close children’s world, where good fairies and Robin Hood were prohibited, thoughts were unwillingly turned to devil and his host. Recently the girls (daughters of priest) have read the book of theologian Cotton Maser from Boston about cases of witchcraft in Massachusetts (three witches were executed and forty four people were suspected in witchcraft in the colony). In January something wrong happened to Betty. Apathy was changed by attacks of unjustified irritation… This was the beginning of nightmare…  “a kind of social hallucination” (McWilliams C., p.247).

We know a lot of details of Salem’s events – such, as social standards, features of characters and behavior of witches during trials. Probably, those details contain the secret of gloomy glory of Salem’s tragedy… More than 10.000 of supposed witches were burnt in Europe; only nineteen of them were murdered in Salem. Mass repressions for human conscience are something abstractedly terrible; here, in Salem, we can distinct separate persons. The tragedy strikes with its horror; Claudia Durst Johnson calls it “the horror of the Salem hysteria” (p.22)

Historian Charles Ephem was a mayor of Salem in the middle of last century. This pedantic scientist wrote a narration about city disgrace of 1692 in two volumes. He also added geographic maps of Salem and suburbs, showing addresses not only of witches, but also addresses of informers. This work, to tell the truth it was almost impossible work even for local inhabitant, turned out to be a priceless “experimental material” for American sociologists. Its analysis combined with more detailed examination of social standards in Salem brought scientists to interesting conclusions.

Let’s remember the main characteristic features of witch trials in the Old World. They were known for their locality: a neighbor informed about a neighbor. The second feature was a direction “from up to down”: informer usually had higher position in society, than a defamed person. The third feature: the informer often believed that witch did harm to him personally or to his relatives. He believed simply because he, the informer, was the first who offended a witch consciously or unconsciously, and therefore, he expected for just revenge. Logic of those times was quite malicious.

But in 1692 Salem experienced completely different things. Plenty of informers didn’t know even their victims, who lived far away from them. Further, major part of informers was lower b hierarchic position, than their victims (it seemed that lower classes simply pursued and annihilated their victims with help of law). Finally, Salem’s informers rarely told that a witch had cause for revenge. They spoke about erroneous way of thinking and disgraceful behavior in general more often than for definite demonstration of criminal acts.

Isn’t it strange? It is strange only at first glance. We can explain those and other specific peculiarities of Salem’s trials by anything, but not by wild outburst of religious fanaticism. We can explain all those mysterious events only by analysis of social relations and standards inside of Salem’s community.

Puritans left England and settled down in Salem in 1626, trying to find peace and better life in unknown land. The first settlement was called ‘Naumkeang’ (in Indian language – “land of three rivers). In 1629 the city received new name – Salem (Hebrew – ‘shalom’ – peace). In spite of such name, the city wasn’t able to live in peace.

Puritans came to America with good desire – to work, to rest and to praise God together, to share bad and good. Priests talked without stop in newly-built churches that devil will try to destroy friendly communities. They called people to live in peace, in a kind of brotherhood… to share everything they have and to be “knit together as one man” (Gragg L., p.27). Puritans thought that they were sent by God with mission to establish Christian utopia and did everything possible to fulfill the God’s order. They behaved as if “the churches send their missionaries” (Dean Best, p.117)

Puritans didn’t wallow in money, and didn’t have great expectations regarding their economic future. They worked hard from early morning till late at night. “The quality of life was, even beyond this paranoid circumstance, particularly hard and trying; that is, disregarding the unknown possibilities of the hinterland, the colonies were engaged in a day-to-day struggle against cold, hunger, and general deprivation which has become proverbial” (Charles Alva Hoyt, p.121). Slowly they started to develop agriculture.

Later a part of inhabitants established their farms, which were wealthier than those of their neighbors. Puritans started to divide into ‘villagers’ and ‘outsiders’. Villagers were the poor cousins of outsiders, because they weren’t so lucky in commerce. In such a way, “if members of the first generation of settlers organized themselves into communities that encouraged close cooperation between neighbors, by the third generation this relationship of mutual interdependence had been transformed into one of intense political and economic rivalry.” (Weisman R., p.83)

In 1666 villagers asked the authorities of Salem city to build a church. They got approval in 1672, but this approval didn’t make the villagers a full-fledged society – they remained a parish of city. Some of the faithful continued to visit city church and villagers were irritated by such situation. Till the moment, when Parris became the fourth priest in the village, the village was divided into two opponent groups: supporters and opponents of connection with city. The first group thought that they should have close connections with city; the second group considered that they should be independent. Soon those two groups became, correspondingly, the supporters and opponents of Parris.

“Salem of 1692 is depicted as an isolated community, self-contained by the surrounding forest; its spiritual government and the secular arm are in the hands of Puritan divines and the law is the law of the covenantor” (Bloom H., p.40). Devil in community had (as, actually, it was noticed earlier and later) – quite definite social embodiment. The development of capitalistic relations became such “devil” Who were the enemies of Parris (he had been a “Minister in Salem -Village” (George Lincoln Burr, p.341) and others? According to analysis of residence, occupation and way of life of inhabitants, inhabitants of Eastern part of Salem were opponents of furious priest. They had their garden-plots in better land, their income was higher and the houses – better. They devoted themselves to trade, business and preferred city; some of them even visited city church. Evidently, those people were notable for impudent behavior, were freedom-loving; they quickly became rich and occupied higher social positions.

 In the meanwhile, hierarchy for Puritan community was sacred and inviolable. Of course, they were together, but everybody should know their position in society. A “belief that God has ordained the class structure” (Starkey M., p.65) ensured people that God determined social position of each person from birth; to try to achieve something more was considered as sin. “Parvenus” didn’t like their apathetic neighbors; they stayed apart; they didn’t want to communicate and to share results of their work with lazy and unskillful people.

It means, they caused envy and irritation of those, who knew their place in society and didn’t want or couldn’t take higher position. Outburst of accusations seemed to be hidden struggle of the lower classes against the upper classes. At least, it looks so. Still, the upper classes of Puritan society were the most energetic and creative force during that historical époque. Struggle against them was a kind of counterrevolution. No wonder that the next century was known for triumph of enlightenment and decay of Puritan conservative communities.

The other thing, which was unknown to ‘before-Salem’s’ analogous trials in the Old World is ascription to devil of some ideological program. Salem considered that enemy of the whole humankind wanted to achieve quite terrible aim: equality for everybody. They meant equality of possibilities, i.e. legitimation of future violations in established hierarchy.

Supporters of Parris in their majority lived in the Western part of Salem; they worked in waterlogged land. Those garden-plots were quite small, because population was increasing quickly. This part of Salem didn’t want to refuse from agriculture. They didn’t like their neighbors, who were smarter. Their neighbors were too independent; they rarely visited parochial church, preferring to go to the city. It seemed that God’s words were sweeter in the city church for them. Development of individualism, individual forms of behavior came into conflict with community’s way of thinking.

In such a way Salem’s trials became an exemplary performance on the subject of ideological violence in general, – not religious fanaticism only. A kind of universal mechanism of mass persecution for progressive way of thinking was presented by the lower classes.

Informers tried to defile free-thinkers everywhere in their destructive passion and fanaticism. They informed authorities not only about those, whom they knew personally, but also about those free-thinkers, whom they only heard about. This is the reason of such informing. That’s why inhabitants of Andover accused inhabitants of Salem; inhabitants of Salem accused inhabitants of Boston; those – Concord and Ipswich. As far as in the base of any analogous campaign lays phantom, a ghost of non-existent enemy, its forms and size sometimes can gain irrational appearance. But the victims are real.

Works Cited:

  1. The Salem Witch Crisis by Larry Gragg, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1992.
  2. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials by Marion L. Starkey, New York, 1949
  3. Witch Hunt in Wise County: The Persecution of Edith Maxwell by Gary Dean Best, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 1994
  4. Witch Hunt: The Revival of Heresy by Carey McWilliams, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1950.
  5. Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts by Richard Weisman, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 1984
  6. The Crucible by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, Philadelphia, 1999
  7. Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706 by George Lincoln Burr, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1914
  8. Witchcraft by Charles Alva Hoyt, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL, 1989

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