Term Paper: Salem Witch Trials While in New England

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Salem Witch Trials

While in New England laws and religion aimed at undermining the "Great Enemy of God and Mankind," in England there was considerable tension between King and Parliament, tension which would result in warfare. In England, against this background of mounting tension, hundreds of witchcraft accusations were made; between 1645 and 1647 over two hundred witches were executed. However it was in the summer of 1645 that the greatest human slaughter took place when Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder General was "at the height of his campaign to find witches." In fact, the decade between 1637 and 1647 was the bloodiest in English history in terms of hangings with 42% of indictments resulting in execution. Outbreaks followed in Scotland, 1643-50; East Anglia, 1645; Newcastle, 1648; Kent, 1652 and again in Scotland, 1661. Other such executions of alleged witches occurred elsewhere in Europe too; for instance, in Sweden in 1661 there was an episode of bewitched children which is considered to have represented an inspiration for the Goodwin case of 1688 and the Salem case of 1692. Salem has become the focal point of historical analysis of colonial witchcraft. The episode of 1692 has been separated from previous similar cases, and its origins established in the 1680s. In fact, there were around 100 incidents involving witchcraft before 1692, but there have been largely ignored by scholars.

The witchcraft trial that took place in Windsor, Connecticut in 1647 was the first of its kind in the colonies, and the first of nearly 100 witchcraft cases to come. As a result of these trials, 38 people were sentenced to death, with a few others who died in prison before being executed. The trials of Salem differed radically from previous witchcraft cases in terms of magnitude (and consequently, historical significance) and scope. However, there are also a number of similarities between Salem and the previous witchcraft episodes, such as the nature of the charges, the fits, the types of people concerned. Thesis: This paper looks at the historical development and significance of the Salem witchcraft trials, and argues that the Salem trials were pieces of a larger phenomenon, i.e. The system of belief of New England which integrated witchcraft. In doing so, the paper will consider the following aspects: the historical and social circumstances of 17th century Massachusetts, previous such episodes, the profile of the people executed on charges of witchcraft, as well as the effect of race and gender on the formulation of witchcraft allegations.

The Salem witch trials were preliminary hearings held in 1692 in several towns: Salem Village, Ipswich, Andover, as well as Salem Town, Massachusetts. The best-known such hearings were conducted in Salem Town and resulted in nineteen of witchcraft i.e. nineteen death sentences by hanging. One of the most interesting controversies ever associated with the Salem trials is that of the role of Cotton and Increase Mather in the trials in question. There have been countless speculations regarding the Mathers, ranging from accusations of propagating witch-hunt hysteria as a means of driving people back to church to open condemnation of being slow to speak out against spectral evident brought against the witches. Spectral evidence referred to the afflicted people's testimonies which incriminated the alleged witches; the afflicted claimed they saw apparitions of certain people who were causing the affliction i.e. witches. The most significant questions that arise when talking about the Salem alleged cases of witchcraft are, why did so many cases occur?, and secondly, what common traits can be identified among these cases? In order to be able to answer these two questions, one must turn their attention to several factors such as religious ideology, political and social context, as well as the profile of the accused and the accusers, and last but not least, what these accusations entailed and how they were responded to.

The profile of the 'witches'

The witches were mostly women, predominantly married or widowed, aged 41-60. With only a few exceptions, most of the young women belonging to the group of witches of Salem were also part of the families of the middle-aged witches. "In fact this pattern conformed to an assumption then widely prevalent, that the transmission of witchcraft would naturally follow the lines of family or of close friendship." In fact, as pointed out by modern anthropological analysis, in 17th century New England, young girls were frequently subject to the control of older women in their families which could account for the fact that witchcraft was considered to be passed down from generation to generation of women. This has been referred to as a "structural conflict" i.e. tension generated by the ways in which the older members of a community arrange the lives of the younger members; in fact, this conflict may have given rise to a powerful resentment on the part of the latter.

Those accused of witchcraft were regarded as having failed in resisting sin. Once Puritans decided that redemption through God's grace no longer applied to an individual, the concept of 'original sin' would start working against the individual in question with devastating effects. Furthermore, it was believed that the next logical step in the degradation of the person in question was a covenant with the Devil. Evidence supporting accusations of witchcraft was accumulated in three ways: by confession, by searching for witch marks and by collection of testimonies of witchcraft (spectral evidence) but the first two alone meant automatic proof of guilt followed by execution. In the case of Elizabeth Knapp, the accusers were concerned with the discovery of witch marks on the bodies of the accused. The seven accusers claimed they had seen them, and this was sufficient evidence that led to the girl's execution. Moreover, because Mrs. Sataplies - the woman whose house Elizabeth was employed in - did not believe Knapp was guilty of witchcraft and found no witch marks on the girl's body after the latter was hanged, she was also suspected of being a witch. The girl's accusers claimed she had had the marks, and that it was enough to convict and execute her.

There is one more important aspect to consider as far as the lives of the 'witches'. Their alleged meetings frequently included feasts, i.e. The witches' "main form of self-indulgence," but as opposed to their European counterparts, New England witches were not associated with any kind of sexual activities. In fact, this aspect accounts for the difference in how the witches were perceived in New England compared to continental Europe in the sense that in America they were seen as victims of their own aggressive impulses, whereas in Europe their impulses were considered "libidinal."

The role of race in New England witchcraft

In this section of the paper we will look at the influence of race on the perception of witchcraft and 'evilness'. In this discussion we will refer to African-Americans as "Blacks" and to Caucasians as "Whites" in order to utilize the same terms as the writings of the 17th century, as well as modern anthropological studies of the phenomenon in question.

Blacks were considered by Whites as "true witches in the anthropological sense." This meant they were viewed as inherently evil creatures who were unable to control their aggressive impulses which were though to be the result of satanic influence. Unlike Blacks, white people who were accused of witchcraft were considered perverted in the sense that they had signed a sort of contract with Satan, and had agreed to become evil. In this sense, Whites considered other Whites to have a choice whereas Blacks were born evil. Moreover, Whites believed that the only way Blacks could be 'cured' of their evil was to become white which was obviously not possible hence they were doomed to remain 'evil'.

In colonial New England, Blacks were frequently accused of witchcraft and were powerless within society hence they could not prove their innocence because they lacked even the most basic rights. There was tension between Whites and non-Whites (Blacks and Native Americans) due to the fear of Native American aggression and Blacks' "evilness." However, it is interesting to note here that despite the fact that non-Whites had basically no rights whatsoever, it was the Whites who were accused of witchcraft that were punished far more severely. This could be explained by the fact that Blacks slaves and were considered valuable property which could not be destroyed. Secondly, the expenses of executing Whites were borne by their own estates whereas in the case of enslaved Africans, these expenses could not be recovered. Moreover, executing slaves meant serious capital loss for their owners which was highly undesirable, and can account for why owners never accused their slaves of witchcraft.

However, the most important factor which protected Blacks from being executed was, ironically enough, the preconception of Whites. Blacks were seen as morally inferior to white people, therefore the colonizers did not expect the same moral standards from them as they did from themselves. In addition, Whites feared the Blacks' magical powers. This… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Salem Witch Trials While in New England."  Essaytown.com.  February 28, 2008.  Accessed July 20, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/salem-witch-trials-while-new-england/2805630.