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One year. Countless accused. Many executed. Salem Village, Massachusetts. The event in which these tragedies took place is known as the Salem Witch Trials (1692-93). During this period “witchcraft” was on the rise. The recorded actions of the individuals who had this act performed on them range from violence to intense mental instability. These observations may support that witchcraft was truly present amongst the village during this time, but they also could support much simpler, more practical explanations. Looking back on the occurrences now, it’s up for debate if the Devil’s magic really to blame, or if there are much more realistic explanations such as convulsive ergotism, lies, deceitfulness, and lack of evidence,
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This narrative, directly from Reverend Deodat Lawson, provides his take of what he saw on March 19, 1692. Lawson, previous minister of Salem Village, was visiting Minister Samuel Parris’ house, when he witnessed his niece Abigail Williams, one of the first prosecutors during the Salem Witch Trials, having a “grievous fit.” He claims, “she was at first hurried with Violence to and fro in the room,” and even, “sometimes making as if she would fly, stretching up her arms as high as she could, and crying ‘Whish, Whish, Whish!’ several times,”(Lawson 3). This behavior was later identified as a result of witchcraft by a doctor. This behavior was a common act of the afflicted girls during the time of the Salem Witch Trials and for that reason his experience is helpful in determining the truth behind whether the behavior was truly a result of witchcraft or potentially something else like convulsive ergotism. According to The University of Hawai’i at Manoa, “Convulsive ergotism is characterized by nervous dysfunction, where the victim is twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, and wryneck, a more or less fixed twisting of the neck, which seems to simulate convulsions or fits. In some cases, this is accompanied by muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations, as well as a number of other symptoms,” (“Ergot of Rye”). While Williams brought this to court accusing a woman of performing witchcraft on her, it seems as if her behaviors, the severe fit and pretending as if she were flying, are very similar to that of an individual suffering from convulsive ergotism. The likelihood of somebody ingesting the ergot infected rye grain, which is what causes this disorder, was highly likely during this period as it was the staple grain during spring and summer. Not only that, the fungus also flourishes in climates similar to that of the meadows in Salem Village, warm and damp. (Blumberg). It seems to be very possible that Abigail Williams was exposed to ergot rather than being a victim of witchcraft.
Likewise, it is also important to take into consideration the typical age group of the individuals making the allegations. According to Mattosian, “Children and teenagers are more vulnerable to ergotism than adults because they ingest more food per unit of body weight; consequently, they may ingest more poison per unit of body weight,” (Mattosian 355). Of the original victims Elizabeth Hubbard was the eldest, and she was still only seventeen years old (Nichols). Their age is yet another indicator that there is a chance what they were experiencing wasn’t black magic at all, but instead could simply be them feeling the effects of the infected grain due to their small stature. Aside from most of the afflicted individuals being young, they were also girls. Females often tend to weigh less than men due to their naturally small frame and lower body mass index. This could also play a part in why they were the ones experiencing these potentially ergot-induced fits since it was more easily spread throughout their petite bodies.
Apart from the accusers physical traits pointing to a verdict other than witchcraft, their relationship to the accused and their personal bias could make their stories less reliable. For example, Abigail Williams alone incriminated about fifty-seven people of the act, but only testified on against eight (Brooks). The fact that Williams herself played such a big part in outing the total number of alleged witches raises concern. Why was only this one girl being targeted and if all of her allegations were valid, why did she not pursue them all? During this time the testimonies in court were basically one person’s word against another. After accusing so many people but not choosing to follow up with her actions, it would only be logical to question her legitimacy.
Similarly, the Putnam family played a big role in many indictments. Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Wildes, Reverend George Burroughs, John Willard, and George Jacobs Sr. just to name a few (Brooks). Brooks also states that it is believed that many people, especially the Putnam family, used this time of mass hysteria to make claims against people they either disliked or had prior problems with. As the cases of the previously mentioned defendants are further explored this statement makes a lot of sense. Take Reverend George Burroughs for example, he often borrowed from the Putnam’s, and was unable to repay them. He then left, eventually repaying them and yet was still later brought back to Salem and charged for witchcraft (“Important People”). The behavior of this family in this particular prosecution seems as if they were just trying to get vengeance on the man since he had owed them money.
If this were the only circumstance in which the family seemed to have underlying motives it could be viewed as a coincidence, however it is not. Rebecca Nurse’s litigation was analogous to that of the Reverend’s. According to Brooks the family was her main accuser, maybe due to her long time feud with them over property border lines and disapproval of the Putnam’s close friend Samuel Parris being appointed as minister. Each litigation in which this family initiated seems to have a backstory that could potentially be the real intent of why they turned them in during this time of delirium.
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As acknowledged previously, the testimonies of the Salem Witch Trials were heavily based off of the spectator’s word. Thomas Brattle a, a well educated, prosperous man who was a part of an intellectually elite Royal Society wrote a letter criticizing the trials due to the legal procedures involved in them (“Important Persons”). The University of Virginia provides the original letter where he says, “ When any man is indicted for murthering the person of A. B. and all the direct evidence be, that the said man pistolled the shadow of the said A. B. tho’ there be never so many evidences that the said person murthered C. D., E. F. and ten more persons, yet all this will not amount to a legal proof…Now no man will be so much out of his witts as to make this a legal evidence; and yet this seems to be our case; and how to apply it is very easy and obvious,” (Brattle). This analysis of the in-depth investigation that must go on to convict a person of a serious crime, that could potentially lead to execution, puts into perspective how loosely the decisions of these trials were made. There are many witnesses that attest to the behaviors of these supposed “witches”, but their spectral evidence can only hold so much weight in court. With that being said it is likely that the accusers have little validity in there testimonies against the blamed individuals. Such insubstantial authentic proof led to the execution of many potentially innocent people during these proceedings.
While there are many reasons to believe that the Salem Witch Trials were actually not a product of the Devil’s magic, there are some cases deeming the offender a witch that seem to hold some plausibility. In this particular trial George Burr was indicted for witchcraft. He had five or six victims testifying against him as well as eight previously confessed witches accusing him of, “being an Head Actor at some of their Hellish Randezvouzes, and one who had the promise of being a King in Satan’s Kingdom,” (“The Tryal of G.B.”). If perhaps the people who had earlier admitted to being witches were indeed what they claim to be, this would be a hard allegation for him to overcome due to the individuals who have already incriminated themselves speaking against them for they have nothing to lose by telling the truth. However, this all plays back into the legitimacy of the spectator’s word. Nobody is able to truly say whether or not their accusations were authentic thus it is hard to use them as proof.
One of the original cases involving Tituba Indian, slave who served Samuel Parris, is also one that raises suspicions that the Salem Witch Trials may have really been a result of witchcraft. During her examination she says, “The devil came to me and bid me serve him,” and hurt the children and last night there was an appearance that said kill the children and if I would no go on hurting the children they would do worse to me,” (“Records of Salem Witchcraft”). Tituba’s case was very long and had convinced the people that the Devil had in fact invaded Salem. It did seem that Tituba was honest about what had happened, since she incriminated herself, she later came out and retracted her statement admitting she had lied to protect herself. Her lies not only contribute greatly to the idea that people will lie under oath for their own good, but also that nobodies eye-witness accounts can be fully trusted, no matter if they are being used to lay blame another being or to “confess” to accusations.
The Salem Witch Trials were undoubtedly a time of widespread hysteria which makes it difficult to believe that any of the “witches” were actually practicing black magic. While the series of court cases are called “witch trials”, it seems there could have been many more accurate names such as: The Lying Games, The Blame Thy Neighbor Phase, The Invasion of Ergot, and The period of “I Have No Strong Evidence but We’re Going to Execute you Anyways” just to name a few. It is worth noting the era may have really been one of witchcraft, however due to the possibility of ergot poisoning and the natural human instinct to deceive, it’s not very likely.
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