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The Salem Witch Trials: Causation and Continuity

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    The Salem Witch Trials:  Causation and Continuity


                The Salem Witch Trials have consistently fascinated scholars dating from their immediate aftermath in 1692 when a number of personal and academic commentaries were published up until contemporary times.  This fascination, in turn, has tended over the course of the past three hundred years to be rooted in a sense of disbelief that religious people and neighbors could treat each other so unjustly and so horrifically.  To be sure, some of the written commentaries in the immediate aftermath attempted to defend and to justify the trials on the grounds that witchcraft was real, that it constituted a grave threat to the social stability of the community, and that the only way to preserve the spiritual purity of the community was through a purging of threats such as witchcraft and magic.  One of these defenders was Cotton Mather, a judge who presided over the Salem Witch Trials; he argued, for instance, that although the evidentiary methods through which guilt or innocent were determined were imperfect in certain respects that the spiritual and ethical needs of the community were properly served through the conduct of the trials.  The majority of scholars and commentators, on the other hand, have characterized the Salem Witch Trials in less flattering terms.

    They have been described, respectively, as constituting “one of the nation’s greatest disasters” (Callis 196) and as “the only example of a mass witch hunt in American history” (Latner 137).  The overwhelming majority of scholarship therefore agrees to the extant that the Salem Witch Trials were and remain a unique phenomenon in American history and that they were destructive and misguided.  This does not mean, however, that these trials were irrational within the context of American society and culture in the seventeenth century; quite the contrary, it has been argued that while “the Salem trials need never have happened at all” (Callis 191) they did in fact happen and there are persuasive reasons for arguing that these trials were a natural manifestation of the religious orientations and world views of many Salem residents in the seventeenth century.

                A review of the academic literature, for example, strongly suggests that these trials were a leftover result of certain religious preferences from England and institutional constraints which attended the embryonic developmental stages of a new nation which was not yet formally in existence but which was struggling to form a uniform type of identity despite the increased religious and political diversity that attended new settlement patterns in the American colonies.  Tensions arose that threatened the political and religious preferences of certain individuals and religious organizations; as a result of these tensions, and fears of becoming subordinate politically and spiritually, conflicts emerged and the Salem Witch Trials were nothing more than a particularly egregious type of conflict consistent with this battle for a dominant influence in the development of a new American identity.   Although there are hundreds of different academic interpretations regarding the precise causes underlying these trials, the evidence suggests that the truest causes included a Puritan fear of non-Puritan influences, an immature legal system that allowed unfounded accusations to easily result in criminal convictions for witchcraft, and a residual English-based belief that witchcraft was real and threatening even though the particular methods and events associated with the Salem Witch Trials were eventually condemned.  In support of this thesis, that causation was fundamentally the product of fear, institutional immaturity, and a belief in the actuality of witchcraft, it is necessary to examine the facts underlying the Salem Witch Trials objectively and to analyze the conflicting scholarly interpretations of causation in order see how the unifying threads ultimately relate to fear, weak institutional development from a legal perspective, and the pervasive belief in witchcraft.

    Background Facts and Consequences

                As an initial matter, because too many academic accounts have uncritically characterized the Salem Witch Trials as being the product “of ‘panic,’ ‘contagion,’ ‘epidemic,’ and ‘hysteria’ to portray a society out of control” (Latner 137), it is first necessary to state the historical context and the facts objectively so that the theoretical thesis as it relates to causation matches the underlying facts rather than deviating from the established facts as some interpretations seem to do.  Academics generally agree regarding certain underlying facts while disagreeing about other alleged facts.  They agree, for example, about the ethical and religious orientations of the people in Salem at the time, the statistical information regarding the punishments issued for witchcraft convictions, and the evidentiary methods employed at the trials in order to determine guilt or innocence.  In terms of the ethnic and religious orientations of the people in Salem, it is well-established that New England was home to a variety of religious organizations and that these organizations were frequently in conflict as their leaders battled for spiritual supremacy.  Originally, the Puritans were dominant in the region; eventually, however, “By 1670 Baptist, Presbyterian, and Quaker congregations all could be found in New England, often in competition with the old Puritan Congregational churches” (Butler 43).  Because the Puritans were responsible for carrying out the Salem Witch Trials it is important to note that their traditionally dominant influence in the region was being threatened by other religious sects.  In addition, the Puritans were essentially from England and there were a number of non-English immigrants to the region in the 1680s.  The Puritans were therefore being challenged both in terms of religious doctrine and in terms of ethnicity.  Their dominance was threatened.

                In addition to agreeing about an increasing type of religious and ethnic diversity leading up to the Salem Witch Trials, academics are also in general agreement regarding the statistics regarding the effects of the trials.  It is generally agreed, for example that either nineteen (Callis 187) or twenty people (Latner 138) were given death sentences after being convicted of witchcraft; that roughly one hundred and forty one people were sentenced to imprisonment; and, that the reputations of many other people were damaged or destroyed as a consequence of private accusations and gossip.  In a comparatively small community the convictions and the damage to reputations were pervasive and substantial.  Although Salem is the main topic, recent research has also demonstrated that these types of accusations and convictions also occurred on a much smaller scale in other areas of New England; indeed, it has been documented that “Mary Beth Norton, for example, traces the episode ‘daily and weekly,’ and significantly expands her focus beyond Salem Village, placing the witchcraft crisis ‘in the broader context of Essex County and northern New England'” (Latner 140).  Thus, academic interpretations suggesting that these types of trials were isolated or peculiar to Salem are not supported by the recently documented empirical evidence.  It is true that the most substantial witchcraft trials took place in Salem, but an objective analysis demands an acknowledgement to the effect that similar events occurred on a much smaller scale in other areas of New England as well.  This is probably because fears of witchcraft and trials for witchcraft were culturally and historically rooted in the British traditions from which the Puritan colonialists evolved.  It is true that “witch trials were uncommon in England after 1645” (Butler 43); this fact, however, does not diminish the fact that the Puritans in Salem and New England more generally imported many of their ideas regarding witchcraft and trials dealing with witchcraft from England and applied them in a colonial context.   This further supports a thesis to the effect that what happened in Salem was neither isolated nor unique; it was a continuation of religious concepts previously developed and applied in similar ways in England prior to 1645.  Finally, virtually all scholars, and even the Puritan judge Cotton Mather, agree that the legal and evidentiary mechanisms used to determine guilt or innocence were flawed and not entirely reliable.  This naturally placed the accused at a disadvantage and inadvertently allowed for those with vendettas to falsely accuse rivals or enemies in order to secure ulterior objectives through witchcraft trials which could not otherwise be attained.

    In sum, a review of the facts clearly and unequivocally demonstrates that the Puritans were being threatened by competing religious sects and different ethnic settlers, that the Puritans were heavily influenced by previous English practices, and that a weak and immature legal system effectively condemned the accused to a conviction.  Interpretations that characterize the Salem Witch Trials as the product of an impulsive hysteria or an irrational panic are therefore flawed because they ignore the aforementioned facts.  The trials, by contrast, were predicable if not inevitable and they were also rational from a Puritan mindset.

    Conflicting Scholarly Interpretations and a Best Interpretation

                A bewildering body of interpretations exists, with respect to causation, in the academic literature addressing the Salem Witch Trials.  This is hardly surprising given the fact that these trials occurred more than three hundred years ago and that so many people suffered unjustly.  One scholar notes this diversity of opinion by stating that “In recent years, scholars have variously emphasized intra-community group conflict, religious tension, demographic competition, failures of leadership, gender concerns, psychological relationships, and frontier Indian clashes as central to the Salem outbreak” (Latner 137).  Some academics adopt narrow analytical frameworks whereas others attempt to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach using modern academic disciplines such as sociology and psychology.   These conflicting interpretations can be harmonized to a certain extant if the onset of the Salem Witch Trials is viewed primarily as the consequence of Puritan fear, a weak legal system, and the patterns of resort to accusations of witchcraft to explain unknown or confusing behaviors transplanted from England to Salem.

                First, there is no doubt that the Puritans of Salem felt threatened by an increasing religious and ethnic diversity that was occurring in the mid to late seventeenth century.  One academic noted in this respect that “in New England the number of witch trials rose dramatically between 1660 and 1690, prompted in part by a need for scapegoats to explain the decline of ʻtraditionalʻ Puritan values, the rise of religious diversity, and people’s resorting to magic” (Butler 43-44).  This fear of diversity is especially supported when one considers that the first accusation of witchcraft was made against an Indian slave girl rather than a white mainstream Puritan girl or woman.  Although later accusations would snowball in such a way as to entangle Puritans and non-Puritans in the witchcraft trials, the origins of the trials were rooted in a Puritan fear of non-Puritans and the first accusation was in fact made against the Indian slave girl.  Even relatively mild deviations from social norms, nothing more than strange acts or “merely innocuous” actions (Butler 44), would as the accusations and fervor increased become bases for convictions.  The first causative factor explaining the scope of the witchcraft trials in Salem relates to Puritan fear in the face of religious diversity, ethnic diversity, and deviations from traditional social norms.  Second, the so-called “hysteria” was to a certain extant caused and definitely exacerbated by the weak and immature nature of the legal system under which the accused were tried and convicted.  It is likely that the scope of the Salem trials would not have been so expansive had the initially accused women been adjudicated innocent or had there been more evidentiary safeguards designed to eliminate false, misleading, and irrelevant evidence.  Spectral evidence, for example, was a primary evidentiary technique used in Salem to convict the accused of witchcraft.  This simply required the prosecution to establish that some type of evil ghost had bewitched the accused (Callis 190).  The virtuous, however, were protected by God from seeing such an evil ghost and there was of course no way of disproving this type of proffered evidence.  There was also a type of evidence known as a sight and touch types of evidence; more specifically, “In this ordeal, the accused would be asked to look upon his accusers. If the accusers fell into fits upon eye contact with a suspect, that was believed to be indication that the accused was using eye contact as a conduit for black magic” (Callis 191); the same evidentiary test was used with touch.  The effect was that the evidence used to convict could not be subjected to any meaningful type of cross-examination, it was irrelevant, and witnesses tended to conform to Puritan expectations for fear of themselves being accused.  Third, these trials were to an extent predictable because they were a well-established feature of Puritan tradition in England prior to settlement in America.  Even those that condemned the trials overwhelmingly believed in and feared witchcraft and characterizations of the devil (Gragg 207). It was therefore a very natural and useful Puritan practice to resort to accusations of witchcraft when Puritan communities felt threatened or marginalized.  The best causative interpretation, regarding the onset and the conduct of the Salem Witch Trials, therefore must include a theoretical framework that incorporates Puritan fear in the face of diversity, weak legal institutions, and past English practices that informed and influenced Puritan behavior in Salem and New England.


                In the final analysis, the available evidence suggests that to a certain extant the severity of the Salem Witch Trials was predictable rather than an isolated event.  For a contemporary analogy, one might examine secret trials of terrorists today or consider potential future trials of illegal immigrants in states with draconian laws such as Arizona.  There are lessons to be learned from these old trials, lessons that counsel against uncritically succumbing to fear and diminishing the integrity of legal institutions, and it is hardly impossible that such types of atrocious trials and convictions might be repeated in contemporary times

    Works Cited

    Butler, Jon. Religion in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Questia. Web. 8 May 2010.

    Callis, Marc. “The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 33.2 (2005): 187+. Questia. Web. 8 May 2010.

    Gragg, Larry. The Salem Witch Crisis. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992. Questia. Web. 8 May 2010.

    Latner, Richard. “The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chronology and Collective Violence in 1692.” Journal of Social History 42.1 (2008): 137+. Questia. Web. 8 May 2010.


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