Salem Witch Trials
- Tanya Katre
Young Europe was filled with growing ideas, rumors and assumptions about the supernatural that soon began influencing its neighboring regions including America as well. One of the rather popular beliefs was in the devils practice of giving certain humans the power to harm others in exchange for their loyalty, namely witches. As people's belief in the demons, devils and witchcraft began getting stronger, their fears and thoughts manifested themselves in real life, one such instance being that of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. The trials and executions of witches in Salem came about as the result of a combination of religious fanaticism, psychological distress, and hysterical children. All of which unfolded in a vacuum of political authority that ended up leaving its dark legacy behind for years and years to follow.
The Salem witch trials began in the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls claimed that they had been possessed by the demon and further accused several women of witchcraft. The girls, including minister Samuel Parris's daughter and niece, showed symptoms including fits, violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming. In a desperate attempt to curb their violent tendencies, a court hearing was called against the Parris’s caribbean slave, Tituba, and 2 other women accused of bewitching the girls. During the hearing, the two women pleaded not guilty; however, Tituba confessed to the crimes and added that there were more witches alongside her working against the puritans of Salem.
Over the next few months, several accused witches confessed to the crimes, in exchange of the promise of freedom, and went on to name others supporting them in the act; it was their confessions that fueled the basis for more accusations. However, one major flaw in the judicial system that the then Massachusetts Bay government had set up was the fact that those who confessed to the crimes were often sentenced to life imprisonment but those who pleaded not guilty were forcefully convicted for the felonies and charged with a death penalty. Many experts think this is one of the reasons most accused confessed instead of denying the crimes, although a confession did not guarantee survival, it did prevent an immediate death sentence. Soon, the amount of cases began to overwhelm the judicial system. Due to this, the recently elected governor established a special ‘Court of Oyer and Terminer’ to make decisions regarding cases on witchcraft and possession in Suffix, Essex and Middlesex counties.
Presided over by well-educated judges, the court’s first case was against Bridget Bishop accused of witchcraft. She was tried and convicted on June 2nd and hanged a week later at what came to be known as the Gallows hill. The irony here is in the fact that despite being well educated, the judges chose to continue with these unfair persecutions based on lack of actual evidence, desperate accusations and increasing paranoia. Today, the court system in the United States assumes innocence until proven otherwise; the courts in Salem however appear to have assumed the opposite. Over the next few months, about 200 were accused of witchcraft and over 30 found guilty by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. According to paper reports, 19 were executed by hanging at the Proctor's ledge, 5 who succumbed to the miserable conditions of jails and 1 who was crushed to death.
Though the then minister, Cotton Mather, had warned time and time again of the dubious value of spectral evidence including dreams and visions, his warnings went unnoticed among the growing anxiety and paranoia in the village. By October 3rd, his father, Increase Mather, joined him in asserting the need for proper evidence; that was mandatory for convicting other crimes but not so for crimes like witchcraft. They believed that “It would be better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.” By October 29th, the governor's wife was accused of witchcraft, which was when he took the decision to halt the proceedings of the court of oyer and terminer and in its place established a superior ‘Court of Judicature’ which did not acknowledge spectral evidence. The trials continued till January and February of the next year however out of 56 accused only 3 were convicted. By May 1963, they including everyone held in custody was pardoned and slowly these trials came to an end.
Over the years, the Salem Witch Trials have gained a lot of popularity with several subtle references in movies, tv shows and music. Fiction as recent as the classic witch/wizard thriller ‘Harry Potter’ as well as the famous supernatural drama ‘The Vampire Diaries’ both include Salem and its witch trials as a mention or a part of their storyline itself. The play ‘The crucible’ by Arthur Miller is majorly based on the real life incidents that took place in Salem. These instances are more than enough to emphasize how much the trials have influenced literature, screenplay and lyrics of today.
The witch trials left a lasting impression on the early American colonists, and consequently provided the generations and generations of American citizens a cautionary tale about the dangers of persecution, intolerance, and bigotry. However, more than religion/ belief; local disputes, misogyny, anxiety, political turmoil, family feuds and church politics seem to have contributed more to the atmosphere surrounding the Salem witch trials. Moreover, the convictions based on personal accusations, quite questionable ‘witch tests’ and on a random dream/vision makes the entire event even more suspicious. Now, whether the trials were really established to prosecute so-called ‘witches’ or just another cover up to hide something bigger... I guess we’ll never know.