The phenomenon of the Salem witch trials is one of the most dramatic periods of the United States’ history. People who came to the new unexplored lands were in a constant fear of the unknown real and mythic things. The Salem Village is a good example of making some attempts to establish the domination through a religious belief and legal violence in a growing settlement. The combination of fear and religion had caused numerous deaths in Europe starting from the middle Ages. The colonists were of the European attitude of mind. The reason is that it was their original homeland. Therefore, the Church had conditioned villagers’ thoughts and actions. The fear of the Devil as a contradiction to the God and the church had led to the strong belief in witchcraft, which was expected to be dangerous for every religious person. Since the Salem witch trials remains a dark spot in the American history, its general facts, the prosecution procedure as well as its origin, and the accusers’ motivation should be considered and analyzed more closely.
The witchcraft hysteria took place in February 1692 and had lasted till May 1693 . Two girls related to the village minister Samuel Parris showed the signs of suspicious behavior. Their complaints of having spontaneous fever and pain together with the behavior classified as bizarre implied the necessity of having an examination by a local doctor. The religious based mindset of the medical employee and the lack of professional knowledge in the field of mental science typical for this historical period had resulted in the witchcraft based diagnosis . According to the belief that a person can be bewitched only by another unreligious individual, the girls had faced pressure from the society for revealing the actual names.
Slaves were the most vulnerable layer of the American colonial society. It is fairly predictable that the first person accused of witchcraft was the slave who had worked for the family. Tituba was the perfect candidate for witchcraft accusations because of her origin and the rumors based on her native folklore tales . Thus, the girls simply could have followed the public mood. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn were also among the first accused women. In the same manner as Tituba, they were on the lowest social tier.
Personal reasons based on the fear of villagers’ accusations and actions were the reason for Tituba’s confession in a personal relation to the Satan and witchcraft. In addition, she pointed to other women including Osborn and Good as her occult practice companions . By confessing the fact of sorcery, Tituba had triggered the chain of the following dramatic accusations and executions. On the other hand, she became a live example that the confession can spare the life of a prosecuted person or at least save some time for developing an individual saving plan.
The worsening of the situation was caused by the growing number of afflicted girls to seven and improvement of their mutual accusation performance. All accusations and trials were based on the spectral evidence. It is a claim of unwilling personal facing the specter of a suspect. At the beginning of trials, the accused women were considered as disreputable characters by the society; however, the hysterical aggravation made respectedfemales convicted as well . Moreover, any person could be connected to witchcraft and prosecuted despite gender and age.
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In total, nineteen women were hanged, and one man was pressed to death. Moreover, the unknown number of people died in prison; and about two hundreds of individuals were accused of performing occult practices .
The generally admitted evidence during the Salem witch trials, except the accusations of afflicted girls, included assertions that could not be supported by the facts, gossips, personally biased assumptions, and others. Judicial proceedings involved five types of evidence: passing a test, physical evidence, witness testimony, spectral evidence, and confession . The first evidence implied passing the test, in terms of which the accused person had to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes, the afflicted girls made distractions in the courtroom by their bewitched attitude such as screaming during this exam. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the accused villagers had failed to pass it successfully. The second evidence required a close physical examination of the accused individual as it was believed that a witch must have special marks on her body. These could be, for example, some strangely shaped birthmarks, moles, and other natural skin blemishes .
The witness testimony as the third type of evidence could involve some statements of any villagers despite their inability to provide a factual background or facts that could truly support accusations. Spectral evidence was the most controversial one. The reason is that this type was based mostly on the afflicted girls’ testimony . Obviously, the spectrum of the accused person could not be seen by anybody. It was only a figment of their imaginations or intended false testimony. In fact, it is difficult to say if the majority of accusers testified due to personal disaffection or because of their belief in doing the right thing.
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The final type of evidence was the public confession in all accusations in spite of their absurd nature. The confession by itself implicated that the convicted individual admitted the guilt of being involved in a relationship with the Satan as well as recanting and repentance. The trials showed that the confession was the only way that could fully guarantee sparing life . The first accused in witchcraft person was an Indian slave named Tituba who came to Salem from Barbados with Parris’ family. As it has been mentioned above, she confessed in all attributed to witchcraft actions and had managed to survive the entire trials period with imprisonments and executions.
Despite a widespread belief that the Salem witch trials were caused by religious fanaticism, there were other more obvious reasons. They included such as personal disfavor and rivalry for financial domination . On the other hand, as a personal assumption, it can be said that the Salem witch trials hysteria had spread and evolved into mass imprisonment and executions because of people’s willing to ignore the real problems. Therefore, mass witchcraft excitement was the unconscious distraction from epidemic diseases such as smallpox and a constant threat of being attacked by the Indians. The continuous emotional pressure experienced by the Salem citizens and the fear of the unknown had resulted in the essential necessity to visualize an abstractive enemy. This foeman had to be rather easy to deal with for establishing dominance in this conflict. It made women who could not protect themselves as the best targets.
The most vivid motivation of accusers was having the political and financial bias. In fact, many accused people had a better financial condition (for example, a tavern owner Bridget Bishop) than the majority of individuals from the accusing side. Therefore, jealousy and a desire to improve the personal wellbeing had played the similar or even bigger role as a religious fanaticism. This statement can be supported by the fact that some accusing families tried to gain property from the accused ones and their convictions.
The motivation of the afflicted girls remains unsolved because it could originate from any side of their lives. The trials were held during the time of utter male dominance. It made the social role of females insignificant and vulnerable. Claiming of being bewitched had brought the girls on one of leading positions in their society and made them famous in a short term.
The primary reason that made Parris and Williams to accuse three women in the violent witchcraft can be based on domestic child abuse or fungus poisoning known as convulsive ergotism. This disease has the symptoms associated with the vivid changes in a mental and physical activity (for example, hallucinations, anxiety, vomiting, etc.) . However, as one more personal proposition, it can be mentioned that both girls were connected by genetic inheritance. It leads to the hypothesis of having a latent psychopathy. Other afflicted girls could simply be mirroring their actions to gain the similar social attention.
Taking into account all information stated above, it should be said that the Salem witch trials are a highly important part of the American history. The combination of inner and outer difficulties artificially created the new ones that could be dealt with more easiness than fighting serious diseases or violent attacks by Native Americans. The trials disguised as the good versus evil struggles were mostly the attempts of gaining social power and fame in the eyes of villagers. Religious narrow-mindedness always has had an impact on the people’s worldview; however, the faith in the God and the Devil is only a part of each personality.
The Salem witch trials had brought a valuable contribution to the United States legislative and judicial systems. After realizing that many people were wrongfully accused and executed without the strong evidence, the authorities saw that the prosecution procedure had to be modified. Thus, these trials had led to the idea that it was better to lose a guilty person than to imprison or put to death the innocent one. Today, many aspects of the Salem witch trials continue to be a mystery for researchers. However, it is a good reminder for the modern society about the importance of justice and tolerance.
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