Lessons from the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials

Halloween is right around the corner, and it might remind some of supposedly scary items, such as carved pumpkins, candle-lit skulls, and elaborate spider webs. For others, it may remind us of actually scary events in our nation’s history, such as the events of the Salem Witch Trials. This harrowing part of American history is truly eye-opening and many lessons can be learned from it.

During the colonial period, in the year 1692 to more exact, hysteria began sweeping through the Village of Salem, located near Boston, Massachusetts. This Puritan community living there was brought to their knees — literally in prayer with a new pastor — after going through a recent smallpox epidemic, several attacks from Native Americans they had fought with, and a devastating drought leaving many citizens in dire need of food.

Enter Samuel Parris, the new pastor of the major congregation in Salem, and who everyone was looking to as their spiritual leader. He had a lot on his shoulders trying to quickly build trust among his congregation, yet he did not have the best reputation in the community due to his early-on disputes regarding his salary, money, and how those funds were used towards the work of the church.

Around mid-January of 1692, two local girls named Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams started having uncontrollable fits and would begin screaming for unexplained reasons. After the local doctor William Griggs examined them, he concluded that their symptoms were the result of witchcraft. Strangely enough, one month afterwards, there were three other girls in Salem showing these same symptoms, namely Mercy Lewis, Ann Putnam Jr., and Mary Warren.

Mercy Lewis had became an orphan after several attacks from the Native Americans near her home in Falmouth, Maine. After her parents and closest relatives died there, she was moved to Salem to become a servant in the house of Thomas Putnam. As a result, she was in close quarters with Ann Putnam Jr., and the two girls quickly became friends.

Ann Putnam Jr. was one of the witnesses during the trials and she ultimately wound up accusing a total of sixty-two people of witchcraft. Mary Warren was just eighteen years old during the trials and was the oldest in the group of girls. She was a servant to John and Elizabeth Proctor and accused many people of witchcraft, too, including the entire Proctor family. Ironically enough, she herself was accused of being a witch on April 18, 1692, as well.

These three girls played a huge part in the Salem witch trials, and the judges at trial believed their stories even without having physical evidence that the so-called witches attacked them.

All along, the new minister, Samuel Parris, actively encouraged the witch hunts and was heavily involved as a prosecutor throughout the trials. Ironically, what started off the trials was when his Caribbean-born slave, named Tituba, was accused of being a witch. She along with two other women in the community, namely Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn, were the first to be on trial for witchcraft in court. Tituba was the only one of those three women, who confessed to being a witch though. She claimed there were others, too, who were working with her in service of the devil against the Puritans there.

These accusations continued as other “witches” kept pointing to others in the community in order to place blame on someone else. Eventually these wrongful accusations piled up until the local justice system became completely overwhelmed. Neighbors and friends ended up turning against each other, even with no hard evidence to suggest that these people were actually witches. Soon, the accusations even went beyond Salem’s borders — and spilled into other neighboring communities.

The first convicted witch of the Salem Witch Trials was Bridget Bishop, who was targeted because she was a poor, widowed, and elderly woman, many said. She had actually been accused of being a witch many years earlier, but those charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence. Ten witnesses testified against her in Salem, though, and she was sentenced to death. Near the Gallows Hill, she was hanged on June 10, 1692.

One of the top reasons convictions started happening was due to “spectral evidence” — or evidence based on dreams or visions — where witnesses vividly described their ghostly visitations from the supposed witches to the court. These witnesses would suggest that each witch had visited them in their spiritual form and caused them bodily harm, all in the name of the devil.

One of the convicted witches, Sarah Good, was sentenced to die just like Bishop had earlier. On July 19th, Good was executed along with Rebecca Nurse and Susannah Martin. The accusations, the trials, and the convictions continued. In the end, there were twenty executions that took place because of the Salem Witch Trials.

It was not until ten years later, in 1702, the Salem Witch Trials were deemed unlawful. In 1711, all who were convicted as being witches were finally exonerated. Way too late for those twenty people executed, of course.

The events that unfolded due to the Salem Witch Trials show that we need to support our fellow neighbors, even today. These early communities in New England were beaten down and sorely persecuted because people decided to keep placing blame on someone else who went on to blame someone else again. Accusations against neighbors grew more and more rampant, which led to distrust and years of grief, even after the trials were over. Twenty innocent people were killed due to the mere accusations of their neighbors and descriptions from their dreams to the courts.

With the Halloween holiday season approaching very soon, may we seek the best in others and strive to serve one another as best as we can. Stay safe and enjoy a very Happy Halloween, Lintonians!

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