The Cause of the Salem Witch Trials

Updated on April 24, 2020
Bee Williams profile image

With a degree in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.

Witches

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Salem 1692: Rumblings of Witchcraft

Through the summer and early fall of 1692, nineteen people were convicted of witchcraft in Salem village and taken to Gallows Hill to be put to death. The hysteria over witchcraft had begun suddenly in the small Puritan village. On a cold February day in 1692 Betty Parrish, the young daughter of the new minister, and Abigail Williams, her cousin, became ill. Their behavior was irrational. They convulsed in pain, ran about the home diving under furniture, and complained of feeling fevered. Soon afterward, their friend, young Ann Putnam, also began displaying the same symptoms. Modern scientists reason the behavior was caused by ingesting rye that was coated with a fungus called ergot. However, to the Puritans, it was nothing less than witchcraft.

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An Evolving Community

Salem village in 1692 was a hotbed of change. A mercantile elite was developing during this time yet prominent citizens were unwilling to accept positions as town leaders. Adding to the unsettled climate, two families, the Putnams' and the Porters', were at odds with one another competing for control of the village and the pulpit. Further, a debate was raging regarding the independence of the agricultural Salem Village, in connection with the coastal Salem which was a center of sea trade. This instability fueled the fire of witch hunts. The combination of economy, personal rivalries, and religious temperament lead to the Salem witch trials.

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A Widening Economic Divide

Salem, a quickly growing farming area on one side of town and a flourishing seaport supporting thriving trade and commerce on the other, was becoming a prosperous urban center in the 1690’s. As such, there was a growing economic divide in the village that played a role in the events that soon unfolded. This economic disparity is illustrated in the conflicts of Reverend Parrish who was not well liked as he was harsh and overbearing. The conflict grew to the point that many in Salem, mostly the wealthier citizens (merchants), were trying to oust him.

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The Hated Preacher and Social Misfits

In the 1690 tax rolls, a survey was attached regarding Pro or Anti-Parrish. The Anti-Parrish group exceeded the Pro-Parrish group in wealth by a full shilling. It is unsurprising that Parrish’s servant Tituba was one of the first to be accused of witchcraft. Also accused was a beggar woman by the name of Sarah Good, who was considered a social outcast. In a town with a quickly developing social elite, it is foreseeable that the first to be accused of witchcraft were a servant from an exotic location, and a beggar woman who was a social misfit.

Sarah Osborn, the third to be accused, was an old curmudgeonly woman, who had not attended church for some time. It was the family of Ann Putnam who had brought charges against these women. The Putnam’s were a very affluent and prominent family of Salem, members of the social elite on the agricultural side of town.

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The Putnams' and the Porters'

The Porters' were a wealthy merchant family from the east side of Salem. The Putnam family were wealthy farmers from the west side of Salem. They wanted the boundaries redrawn to separate the village. The Porter family did not. As affluent and prominent as the Putnam family was, the Porter family was wealthier. Further, the Porter family was heavily involved in politics. Their friends were equally as wealthy and powerful.

It was rumored that the Putnam family was envious of the Porter family, leading the families, and their friends, to dislike one another. Fueling the conflict between the two families, was the contested separation of Salem Village and Salem Town. If the two were split, then the Porters', who relied on the farms of the west side, would lose money. The Putnams', who did not rely on the merchants of the east, would become wealthier. The Putnam family had brought Reverend Parrish to Salem, and he was their biggest supporter. Further, most of the girls afflicted by “witchcraft” were friends of the Putnam family or Putnams' themselves. As the hysteria dragged on, most of the people they accused, other than the poor and outcast, were the Porters and their friends.

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The Puritan Ideal

Despite the conflicts within the community, the Puritan ideal is that community is more important than oneself and an adherence to strict religion. Considering the escalating conflicts, the community would naturally see evil forces at work . Religion and Reverend Parris were in the spotlight. “We have been thus particular in relation to the settlement of Mr. Parris at Salem Village, it being one of the causes, which led to the most bitter parochial quarrel, that ever existed in New-England, and in the opinion of some persons, was the chief or primary cause of that world-wide famous delusion, the Salem Witchcraft.”

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The Role of Religion in Salem

“Let none then build their hopes of salvation merely upon this: that they are church members. This you and I may be, and yet devils for all that. (Matthew: 8:11-12)” Reverend Parris stated the above during a sermon in March of 1692 titled, Christ Knows How Many Devils There Are. He had forced his daughter to accuse a witch for her illness. At many sermons he preached about the devil being present and witches in the village. Reverend Parris testified during the trials against nine people.

Puritan religion was strict. Any behavior or event that did not follow the strict religious code was thought to be a sin and deserving of the wrath of God. Moreover, church was the cornerstone of society and the first accused were social outcasts. Women who did not fit the mold of the traditional Puritan. Accusations then expanded to merchants and tradespeople who, perhaps through modern expansion, also threatened Puritan values. This belief also influenced the conflicts between the Porter and Putnam families. The accused “witches” did not uphold the values of Puritan society and were accused by those whose own societal positions were well respected.

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The Devil Plays in Salem

Salem in the late seventeenth century was ripe with growth and change. A Puritan village whose good citizens lost their way and found the devil to be lurking around every corner. What likely began as a simple case of ingesting a hallucinogenic fungus growing on rye, soon became a witch hunt that spread like wild fire. However, it wasn’t the devil that brought about accusations of witchcraft. The combination of economy, personal rivalries, and religious temperament lead to the Salem witch trials. The growing economy split the town into the haves and have nots creating a widening gap between citizens. Two of the most affluent families were locked in a rivalry about town borders which affected the wealth of each. Religious doctrine pointed the righteous finger of blame squarely at the devil fanning the flames of dissent in the village and furthering accusations of witch craft. Neighbor turned against neighbor in the flurry known today as the Salem Witch Trials.

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The Aftermath

Nineteen people lost their lives and many more suffered in cells, subject to starvation and physical torture. In the end, only one person came forward and apologized for the part she played in in the madness. Ann Putnam Jr. publicly stated that her accusations had been lies. She was a child at the time and very impressionable. While it is very probable that the adults surrounding her coached her in what to say and who to accuse, namely, their enemies in town, Ann simply claimed to have been bedeviled at that time and begged forgiveness for what she had done.

Sources

Linder, Doug. "The Witchcraft Trials in Salem: A Commentary." An account of the Salem

witchcraft investigations, trials, and aftermath. Accessed March 14, 2018. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_ACCT.HTM.

"The Salem Witchcraft Site." Salem Village History. Accessed March 14, 2018.

https://www.tulane.edu/~salem/Salem%20and%20Village.html.

"The Salem Witchcraft Site." 1690 Tax Comparisons. Accessed March 14, 2018.

https://www.tulane.edu/~salem/1690%20Tax%20Comparisons.html.

Linder, Douglas. "An Account of Events in Salem." The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692.

Accessed March 14, 2018. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SALEM.HTM.

O, Roshni. "The Salem Witch Trials." Power: The Devil in Disguise. Accessed March 14, 2018.

http://people.ucls.uchicago.edu/~snekros/The%20New%20World%20News/Roshni_P_ background.html.

Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. "Reverend Samuel Parris: Was He to Blame for the Salem Witch

Trials?" History of Massachusetts. January 07, 2018. Accessed March 14, 2018. http://historyofmassachusetts.org/reverend-samuel-parris/.

Religious Aspects. Accessed March 14, 2018. https://msu.edu/~shahfaiz/Salem/religion.html.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Brandy R Williams

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    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      4 weeks ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Brandy, this is an interesting history of business, commerce, rivary, and industry. As such conflict may arise. The interesting thing to note is that it is all man made as depicted in the false accusation. Thanks for unearthing all these and sharing.

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