Madness, Paranoia, Blame: What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?
By Shannon Owens, Reference Department
On March 1st, 1692, three women were charged with practicing witchcraft by their neighbors in Salem Village, located in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The charges stemmed from an occurrence in the previous month in which two young girls (9 year old Elizabeth Parris and 11 year old Abigail Williams) were afflicted with strange fits and other odd maladies. A local doctor suggested the girls were suffering the effects of witchcraft and the children corroborated this claim. Mysteriously, this affliction spread to other children in the village, resulting in the madness and fear we know today as the Salem Witch Trials. In the end, 19 innocent people were executed on the basis of these flimsy claims.
Interestingly enough, how this madness over witchcraft became such a craze remains an utter mystery. One would think 21st century science and minds would be able to come to a more conclusive hypothesis about an affliction of this magnitude. Alas, we’re left in the dark, confounded as ever. There have been several suggestions about the cause, some more fascinating than others; some certainly more compelling than others.
According to records, witch hunts occur more frequently worldwide during cold weather periods. In her senior thesis at Harvard, economist Emily Oster pushed this theory and pointed out that the most prevalent period of witch trials in Europe coincided with a 400 year “little ice age.” Oster points out that during this time, scholars and popes believed witches were capable of controlling the weather, and since cold spells (no pun intended) led to low crop yields and general economic depression, witches made the perfect scapegoats. As a person who turns into an utter malcontent anytime the temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I can see Oster’s point.
In a less intuitive direction, we look to Native American Wars which reached an apogee during the 17th century. The front lines of battle were a mere 70 miles from Salem; many of the citizens of the village were refugees from the war and had witnessed certain horror. It’s not hard to imagine that this would lead to a certain amount of post-traumatic stress that would keep anxieties running high. Historian Mary Beth Norton has a slightly different take. With superstitions being what they were at the time, she suggests that the accusation and subsequent execution of ex-minister George Burroughs (who led several failed campaigns against the Native Americans) of witchcraft was symptomatic of the town officials’ attempts to shift blame from their own inadequate defense of the village to something more sinister.
More commonly we see the hysteria attributed to demographics. Many suggest that since this is a situation in which the accusers are prepubescents and the accused are adults, this might simply be a case of childhood rebellion (insert eye roll here). Personally, I find it hard to believe that a 9 year old would come up with this. In my opinion, it seems far more likely that the girls were egged on by their parents who may have held personal grudges against the defendants (something to the tune of Capulets vs Montagues or Hatfields vs. McCoys). Feminist historians have always viewed the trials as patriarchal oppression, given that most of the accused were women and more particularly, women who didn’t follow societal norms of the Puritan age. This is almost certainly a contributing factor, but cannot tell the whole tale since men were also executed on charges of sorcery.
The most individual (and fascinating) theory was put forward by behavioral scientist, Linnda Caporael. She suggests that some of the events in Salem may have been caused by ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that can grow on grains and causes hallucinations and spasms, which fit the symptoms of the afflicted. More studies have found that children and females are the most susceptible to ergot poisoning. Some historians have suggested that ergot poisoning was the chief cause of the French revolution (rather insane conjecture given the massive poverty and unyielding oppression the French citizens were dealing with, but I digress).
However, the most accepted cause is the psychological disorder known as “mass hysteria syndrome.” This is defined as “rapid spread of conversion disorder, a condition involving the appearance of bodily complaints for which there is no basis…psychological distress is converted into physical symptoms.” Perhaps living in such an insular and repressed community led to the manifestation of these symptoms.
In the end, there’s probably not enough evidence to support one theory over the next, but it’s entertaining to speculate. In all likelihood, a combination of contributing factors is likely the culprit. With few reliable resources of the time (outside of physical court documents), this is liable to remain an unsolved mystery. While education, law, and enlightenment have made this situation rather unimaginable in North America or Europe, we still see prosecution of witches in Africa. Interestingly enough, a 2003 study by Berkeley economist Edward Miguel showed that extreme rainfall (whether too much or too little) coincided with increased witch killings in Tanzania (typically the oldest woman in the household and she was killed by her own family.) Does this lend itself to the weather theory? The debate may never end.