Cara is a student at Florida Atlantic University working towards a BS in management information systems. She writes in her free time.
Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials exemplify the majority of moral panics and their ability to explode out of proportion and kill innocent people. The Bible bans any actions relating to vengeance, revenge, and even violence (unless for self-defense). In a quaint, rudimentary, and religious town like Salem, everyone knows each other well and feels comfortable enough to involve themselves in each other's business. In “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, characters such as Abigail Williams, Thomas Putnam, and Ann Putnam accuse the guiltless of ‘witchcraft’ as a way to avoid the Bible’s prohibition of vengeance while still satisfying their need for revenge.
Abigail Williams uses witchcraft as a way to take Elizabeth Proctor out of the picture. She accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft to try and reach out to John Proctor. She sets the stage for her brutal persecution of Elizabeth when she calls her a “bitter woman, a lying, cold, sniveling woman” who she “will not work for” (Miller 1240). Elizabeth realizes that Abigail plans to “kill [her], then take [her] place” (Miller 1281). She understands that Abigail will escape free of charge for her actions because they all fit under the guise of ‘disposing of witches’. The court does not have this same revelation and sees Abigail accusing Elizabeth as a perfect Christian girl following the orders of God. The only legitimate evidence that Abigail can produce is the needle found in her stomach. Another needle appears in a doll given to Elizabeth by Mary Warren. The doll serves as incriminating evidence for the case against Elizabeth Proctor because ‘witches’ would have voodoo dolls and by stabbing them, the witch would stab the person as well. Abigail says that “[Elizabeth]’s familiar spirit push[ed] it in” (Miller 1282). Even without this incriminating evidence, Elizabeth still would have ended up a ‘witch’ in the eyes of the town because Abigail uses the broad claim of the Bible to her advantage. One cannot strive for vengeance, but one can easily hunt witches.
Thomas Putnam, an opinionated and pugnacious man, targets innocent townspeople and accuses them of witchcraft for the purpose of taking their land and ending petty feuds. The people of Salem wrong Putnam many times. His brother-in-law “had been turned down as the minister of Salem” (Miller 1241). After this, he holds a grudge against any successors of the minister who won, including Reverend Parris. Thomas Putnam turns into a vicious and vindictive man who is dead set on ruining lives after he feels that “his own name and honor had been smirched by the village” (Miller 1241). The witch trials offer the perfect opportunity for Putnam to satisfy his need for revenge and he takes advantage of this by signing as a witness for many of the trials with supernatural testimonies (Miller 1241). Once he incarcerates the innocents, he purchases their land, since “there is none but Putnam with the coin to buy so great a piece” (Miller 1299). He understands how the town works and so he encourages Parris to “strike out against the Devil” so that “the village will bless [him] for it” (Miller 1243). Putnam knows that the exact opposite will happen and Parris will lose his pristine reputation which he works hard to gain. Thomas Putnam takes advantage of the witch trials, the Bible, and his high status in the town and convicts innocent people for the purpose of buying their land and winning a fight.
Rebecca Nurse is Accused
Ann Putnam, a pessimistic woman always quick to blame the supernatural, decides that Rebecca Nurse does not deserve the praise and love of the town and that she secretly practices ‘witchcraft.’ Rebecca delivers all eight of Goody Putnam’s babies (of whom only one survives), while she has never lost a child nor a grandchild. Goody Proctor accuses Rebecca of witchcraft for the sake of attaining vengeance and ending the life of the woman who ‘killed her babies.’ When her daughter, Ruth, comes home one night and “walks, and hears naught, sees naught and cannot eat,” Mrs. Putnam assumes her soul “is taken surely” (Miller 1241). Rebecca sees this differently and assumes “she is just not hungered yet” (Miller 1249). Her unworried tone and dialogue anger Mrs. Putnam, which makes it easier to fathom that Rebecca killed the babies with her ‘witchcraft’. She begins to express this anger and attacks Rebecca by saying, “You think it God’s work you should never lose a child, nor a grandchild either, and I bury all but one?” (Miller 1249). Mrs. Putnam’s anger for losing seven children all ends up directed at her hatred for Rebecca. She now sees Rebecca as a ‘witch’ and a villain. Mrs. Putnam uses the Bible’s allowance of the persecution of witches to her advantage and takes out her anger and need for vengeance on poor, uninvolved Rebecca Nurse, who dies because of it.
Revenge of the Privileged
When grudges and feuds continue for a long period of time, the ‘wronged’ people begin to conjure up images of those who wronged them. The paranoia and deep hatred that they hold within can cause them to make assumptions and accusations with no actual evidence other than their own belief. Abigail Williams, Thomas Putnam, and Ann Putnam all falsely charge innocents with witchcraft after they wrong them in any way. The three instigators might not realize it, but they truly do blame these people for witchcraft. In “The Crucible,” witchcraft does not only apply to making spells and curses as it does traditionally but rather affecting another person negatively. Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor’s wife, stood in Abigail’s way. The people of Salem betray Thomas Putnam and he vows to ruin their lives. Receiving their land acts as a bonus. Ann Putnam has nobody to place the blame on for her dead children and Rebecca never lost a child. All of the victims in each situation die after they find themselves caught in the middle of deadly feuds. In a moral panic, a group of people will try to purify the community by disposing of the malevolent people or ideas that haunt them. Under the guise of ‘witchcraft’, the people of Salem manage to rid themselves of the anger that they hold within as they kill their enemies. In less than a year, the citizens of Salem manage to execute twenty-plus innocent people after the men and women of high social status go on a vengeful rampage killing anyone who ever looked at them weirdly. The loophole they find in the Bible (the ability to fight for revenge without actually doing it) allows for accusations based on spectral evidence and past history rather than legitimate, incriminating information.
Miller, Arthur. “The Crucible”. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voice, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. Glenview, Illinois: Pearson Education Inc., 2002. 1230-1337.
© 2018 Cara Savoy