Frank Lin, Period 1
They were shameless in their claims. They were ruthless in their allegations. In the spring of 1692, a group of young girls set off a fire of immeasurable proportions in the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts, and when the smoke finally cleared more than a year later, twenty-four innocent men and women were left dead. The gentle Mary Parker, the outspoken Martha Corey, the pious Rebecca Nurse – no matter who the victims were, the girls pursued them with a relentless devotion. They mercilessly accused anyone they despised (and later, simply anyone) of witchcraft. In court, they screamed and moaned hysterically as soon as any glimmer of hope emerged for the accused. Their fitful cries sealed the fates of every single one of their victims, often serving as the only evidence that would condemn the innocent to hang. All this, and one cannot help but be confounded by one simple question: what caused the girls to go to such an extent just to see their neighbors die?
At the center of the Salem Witchcraft Trials were three strikingly different individuals: Betty Parris, a shy, timorous, and reasonably conscience-guided nine-year-old girl, Abigail Williams, her strong-willed, domineering eleven-year old cousin, and Tituba, their house-slave and caretaker for most of the winter before the accusations began. Were these accusations a quest for attention? Or did these girls truly suffer from some inexplicable condition? Only after a careful study of these three figures can any reasonable conclusion be formed.
One often-cited explanation for the girls’ outlandish behavior and subsequent onslaught of accusations was the explosive release of repressed fascination, or perhaps fear, of the supernatural and an intense and overwhelming guilt. The winter before the accusations began was long, cold, and harsh for the residents of Salem. It was during this time that Tituba began looking for “any opportunity to interrupt her work schedule and idle the time away with the children” (Rice Jr., 18). An indolent worker, Tituba frequently took breaks during the day to tell exotic stories to Betty and Abigail, both of whom were eager listeners. Because they were often left without the supervision of Betty’s father, Reverend Parris, who spent much of his time outside the home, Tituba began embellishing her stories with “tricks, spells, and voodoo chantings” (Rice Jr., 19).
It is easy to see why Betty and Abigail would be so enthralled by Tituba’s fantastic tales. Repressed by the rigors of Puritanism, and bored by the isolation of a long winter, the girls turned to Tituba’s storytelling as a source of much-needed diversion. And while both of the girls followed Tituba into an exploration of what was clearly dark and evil, it was Abigail who “actively urged Tituba to reveal more and more of her macabre knowledge” (Rice Jr., 20). This suggests the differences in the two girls’ characters; Betty feared God, the devil, and eternal damnation, while Abigail derived thrill from immersing herself into the world of the supernatural.
Soon, other girls in the community wanted to join Tituba’s circle. By then, Tituba had already begun reading fortunes, an act that was considered to be sinful by the strict, austere Puritan community. It was not long before the secret sï¿½ances “began to put a strain on nine-year-old Betty Parris” (van der Linde, 32). It is entirely reasonable, therefore, to conclude that Tituba’s stories led to the psychological breakdown of Betty Parris, and eventually, the other girls as well. By late winter, Betty and Abigail were both acting extremely strangely. They “suffered convulsions and babbled incoherently…appeared to be bewitched by something” (Rice Jr., 25). Similar symptoms quickly spread to the other members of Tituba’s circle.
When it became clear that the medical treatments available at the time were of no help to the girls, the residents of Salem turned to a supernatural explanation of the girls’ afflictions. Church leaders who visited them declared that “the souls of these youngsters were in terrible danger”, fueling the fear that the girls were in the grips of evil (van der Linde, 35). The Puritan community began questioning the girls as to who was afflicting them. At first, the girls did not know how to answer. The ministers persisted, however, because they were convinced “that God did not permit his followers to be afflicted by the Devil without opening the eyes of the victims to the ones who tormented them” (van der Linde, 35). This assurance is important because it indicates that the pressure to name an afflicter would not be lifted until the girls actually did so. It was not until after “the people of Salem Village began looking among themselves for likely candidates” that the girls finally gave in (van der Linde, 35). Such evidence strongly suggests that, at first, the girls were reluctant to bring forth any accusations they knew to be untrue.
This explanation for the girls’ eccentric behavior is generally the most widely-accepted, yet oddly unsatisfying. Supposedly, the girls reacted from fear and guilt after listening to Tituba’s decadent stories and participating in their sinful deeds, and began pointing fingers only after relentless pressure for them to do so. But certainly, if their affliction was not a physical one but a psychological one, they had some degree of control over it. At the very least, one would expect such a disorder to be limited to but a few of the girls; however, the hysterics spread to all who had heard Tituba’s stories, and lasted well into the summer of 1692.
Which implores the question: did the girls fabricate their supposed “affliction”? That is highly implausible. While it has often been said that the girls were on a quest for fame or attention, their “sort of suspicious activity usually met with social stigma, shunning, or, at the least, brutal whipping from father or master” (Carlson, 121). A psychological explanation, like the one given earlier, also “does not answer why the symptoms…were so obviously physical” (Carlson, 122). Instead, an alternate explanation for what happened to the girls of Salem proposes that a physical illness, and not a psychological one, ailed the girls.
Encephalitis was not a well-understood disease during the time of the girl’s ailments. However, “the symptoms reported by the afflicted New Englanders and their families in the seventeenth-century strongly resemble the symptoms of encephalitis” (Carlson, 124). The circumstances surrounding the girls’ afflictions also strongly resemble what happened during the encephalitis epidemic of the early twentieth-century, in which “most of the afflicted were young women or children, and afflictions appeared in late winter and early spring and receded with the heat of the summer” (Carlson, 125).
This, however, leaves one to question whether Tituba and her storytelling had anything to do with the girls’ afflictions at all. Perhaps not. However, due to the close proximity of the two incidents, it is easy for history to assume that they are related. It is only after a careful analysis of the events leading up to the girls’ bizarre behavior that the conclusion can be formed: the underlying cause of the Salem Witchcraft Trials was not a psychological affliction but a physical one, most likely due to an outbreak of encephalitis.
Carlson, Laurie Winn. A Fever in Salem. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.
This is a secondary source. I found it in my local library. This incredibly valuable resource gave profound insight into the afflicted girls’ motives, a detailed breakdown of the possible causes for the Salem hysteria, and what happened to some of the girls after the trials had ended.
Petitions for compensation relating to the Salem witchcraft trials. 18 Oct. 2003. <http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_PET.HTM>
This is a primary source. I found it through “Literature Links” on the Pre-AP English II website. This document gave me a clearer understanding of what happened after the witch trials were over.
Petitions relating to the trial of Rebecca Nurse for witchcraft. 18 Oct. 2003. <http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/ASA_TITX.HTM>
This is a primary source. The website gave it a misleading title, because the page contained testimony from Tituba, not Rebecca Nurse. I found it through “Literature Links” on the Pre-AP English II website. This examination of Tituba gave me a better insight into her motives and intentions.
Rice Jr., Earle. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1997.
This is a secondary source. I found it in my local library. This book had an extremely useful chapter about Tituba, and her effects on the young Betty and Abigail. It gave detailed information on how she helped shape the events that would unfold in Salem.
van der Linde, Laurel. The Devil in Salem Village. Brookfield: Millbrook Press, 1992.
This is a secondary source. I found it in my local library. This book discussed the earliest signs shown by Betty and Abigail that something was wrong. It also attempted to speculate what actually may have afflicted the girls.