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Witchcraft at Salem: Were some of those witches real?

In the summer of 1692, 19 persons were hanged at Salem allegedly for witchcraft and a twentieth crushed to death under a pile of rocks for standing mute at his trial. The scale of these executions was so small that they barely deserve a footnote in the history of Western witchcraft, but perhaps for that very reason they have always commanded a special place in the American imagination.

The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread through colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases. Bringing us more on this topic is Perspectoverse’s Hiba Riaz.


Belief in the supernatural, specifically, in the devil’s practice of giving certain humans the power to harm others in return for their loyalty had emerged in Europe as early as the 14th century, and was widespread in colonial New England. In addition, the harsh realities of life in the rural Puritan community of Salem village included the after-effects of an Anglo-French war in the American colonies in 1689, a smallpox epidemic, fears of attack from neighbouring Native American tribes and a longstanding rivalry with the more affluent community of Salem town. Amid these simmering tensions, the Salem witch trials would be fueled by residents’ suspicions of and resentment toward their neighbours, as well as their fear of outsiders.

In ‘Witchcraft at Salem,’ Chadwick Hansen, a professor at the University of Chicago, has done an unusually effective job of freeing the historical record from the deposits that have formed around it. He begins by telling readers about the cultural landscape of the 17th century, noting first that the belief in witchcraft was an accepted part of its folklore. He argues that some of the accused really were guilty of witchcraft in every sense that the 17th century understood the term. Most interesting of all, he cites both ethnological evidence on witchcraft and medical evidence on hysteria to prove that many perplexing events of that trying time may have had a perfectly natural explanation.

While the Massachusetts authorities responded with every caution known to the age-and in general, the American experience with witchcraft was more restrained than that of any other country in the Western world. This then, is the substance of Hanson’s thesis. It undermines the work of generations of American historians who could make sense of the witchcraft trials only by seeing evidence of fraud, malice and the harsh moral politics that marked Puritanism at the end of the 17th century.The displaced citizens created a strain on Salem’s resources. This aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on culture.

In January 1692, 9-year-old Elizabeth Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams (the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, minister of Salem village) began having fits, including violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming. After a local doctor, William Griggs, diagnosed bewitchment, other young girls in the community began to exhibit similar symptoms including Ann Putnam Jr, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren. In late February, arrest warrants were issued for the Parris’ Caribbean slave along with other two women whom the girls accused of bewitching them.

The three accused witches were brought before the magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne questioned, even as their accusers appeared in the courtroom in a grand display of spasms, contortions, screaming and writhing. One of the three women (Tituba, an enslaved worker in the house of Reverend Parris) confessed. Likely seeking to save herself from certain convictions by acting as an informer, she claimed that there were other convictions acting alongside her in service of the devil against the Puritans. As hysteria spread through the community and beyond into the rest of Massachusetts, a number of others were accused, including Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse - both regarded as upstanding members of church and community.

Like Tituba, several accused ‘witches’ confessed and named still others, and the trials soon began to overwhelm the justice system. Presided over by judges including Hathorne, Samuel Sewall and William Soughton, the court handed down its first conviction, against Bridget Bishops, on June 2; she was hanged eight days later on what would become Gallows Hill in Salem town. Five more people were hanged that July; five in August and eight more in September.

Although it still remains unclear today: Were those girls genuinely afflicted by something? Or were they faking it?

Modern theories about what was afflicting the girls have ranged from epilepsy to boredom to ergot poisoning. Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem state university and an expert on witch trials, says it’s possible that a few of the accusers were purposely faking their symptoms. However, he says that his ultimate conclusion after years of studying the events is that they were actually suffering from psychological ailments. Foremost among them is something called Mass conversion disorder, a psychogenic disorder that ironically made a suspected return to the Salem area more than 300 years later.

Dr.Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist in New Zealand who has collected more than 3000 cases on conversion disorder, says the Salem witch trials were undoubtedly a case of the psychogenic condition in which ‘psychological conflict’ and distress are communicated through aches and pains that have no physical origin. He also stated that it arises from long-term stress which results in disruptions to the nerves and neurons that send messages to the brain. According to Baker, examples of what could be on conversion disorder includes a repressive family of post-traumatic stress disorder. He also noted that several of the afflicted girls were refugees who had lost their home and family members in King Williams’s war.

He pointed that after Samuel Parris’ daughter and niece began showing symptoms, the next two girls to become afflicted by the fits were the niece of the town’s doctor and the daughter of the wealthiest man in town which proved his statement that mass conversion tends to be most common in teenagers and starts out at the top of the social borders.

Behavioral scientist Linda Caporael proposed the elegant theory in 1976: A contaminated rye supply introduced ergot poisoning to Salem, causing conversions and hallucinations in the accusing girls. Caporael soon noticed another link between the strange symptoms reported by Salem’s accusers and the hallucinogenic effects of drugs like LSD. LSD is a known as the derivative of ergot, a fungus that affects rye grain.

But could ergot actually have been the culprit? Did have the means and the opportunity to wreak havoc in Salem?

Ergotism caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea which affects rye, wheat and other cereal grasses, contains potent chemicals such as ergot alkaloids, lysergic acid(LSD) and ergotamine. Toxicologists now know that eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a convulsive disorder characterised by violent muscle spasms, delusions, hallucinations and a host of other symptoms, all of which Linda Caporael noted are present in the records of the Salem witch trials. Debunked, revived and debunked again, Caporael’s theory nevertheless continues to pop up in articles about Salem. We would finally have a diagnosis for what might have caused a Salem girl to complain of prickling skin, to fling herself across a room, fall into a trance and even report that she could see a fellow parishioner perching in the church beams above the congregation's heads. The tenacity of the theory makes sense. Although, if we could write down the whole crisis, down to ergot, we would at long last have a simple explanation for a host of oddities.

The myths of burning at the stake in Salem are most likely inspired by European witch trials, where execution by fire was a disturbingly common practice. Medieval law codes such as the Holy Roman’s empire ‘’Constitutio Criminalis Carolina’’ stipulated that malevolent witchcraft should be punished by fire, and church leaders and local governments oversaw the burning of witches. In the 20th century, artists and scientists alike continued to be fascinated by the Salem witch trials. Additionally, numerous hypotheses have been devised to explain the strange behavior that occurred in Salem in 1692. In August 1992, to mark the 300th anniversary of the trials, Nobel Laureate Elie Weasel dedicated the witch trials memorial in Salem.

Written by Hiba Riaz

Illustrated by Anushka Doshi


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