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A Look at the Salem Witch Hunts
False allegations of witchcraft in 1692
Joan Dawson (joanied40)     Print Article 
Published 2008-10-31 14:30 (KST)   
A statue of Roger Conant, who founded Salem in 1626
©2008 Joan Dawson
"[It is] not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, [witches] should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex." -- Judge Nicholas Remy, c. 1595
From the 1400s to the 1700s, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or even millions, of people, mostly women, died in the witchcraft hysteria that swept the European continent. Since records were not always kept, or were lost, and many of those charged perished in jail, the exact numbers will never be known. The history of the witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, however, has been preserved and, perhaps, since it was smaller in scale, is better understood. I visited "Witch City" earlier this year while on a trip to Boston.

Typical shops in Salem
©2008 Joan Dawson
Derby Square in Salem
©2008 Joan Dawson
The Witch Dungeon
©2008 Joan Dawson
To be honest, I was expecting a village. I was surprised to find that Salem was a small town, complete with paved roads, commercial businesses and a pleasant, friendly feel to it. It was more commercialized than I expected -- exploiting its tragic history -- but then again I would have been disappointed if the witch hunts were not in some way memorialized. If it need be done in private, for-profit museums and tacky gift shops, so be it!

Salem Witch Museum, the one I visited
©2008 Joan Dawson
©2008 Joan Dawson
I went in to the Salem Witch Museum in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the witchcraft hysteria. A narrative played while a spotlight scanned life size figures displayed on an overhead stage. The story began in the kitchen of the Parrises; Elizabeth and Abigail, just young girls, would talk with a slave woman, Tituba, to break the monotony of their studies. Sometimes Tituba discussed voodoo, a superstition she carried with her from her homeland of Barbados. Later, it turned out, the girls developed strange symptoms. These symptoms would be attributed to witchcraft.

While being "vigorously" questioned, the girls would accuse Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, the latter two being unpopular women in the community. As the story unfolded, we were shown a courtroom typical of the trial proceedings that found community members 'guilty.' Even outstanding community members like Rebecca Nurse could be accused. It seemed no one was immune. Lastly, a re-enactment of how Giles Cory was crushed to death with heavy rocks for his refusal to enter a plea, guilty or innocent, was demonstrated. I thought the museum presented an informative and sensitive overview of the witch hunt.

Certainly, in 1692, when the Salem witch hunt occurred, life for the early settlers in America was difficult: religious intolerance, literature on the devil, conflict with the Indians, crop failures, harsh weather conditions and disease, coupled with a belief in witchcraft and superstition, all contributed to an atmosphere that could fan the flames of hysteria. Other theories that have attempted to explain the cause of the witch hunts looked at the skills of midwifery (trying to control births), class (land disputes) and gender (misogyny and patriarchal beliefs that women were subservient to men).

Salem was different from the European witchcraft hysteria in several other aspects, too; one being that young girls made the accusations in Salem. During these times, young girls, as well as boys, were to be seen and not heard. In contrast to boys, though, girls were given more tasks. A strict upbringing in the Puritans' households, the conflict with the Indians, as well as a theory that hallucinogenic mushrooms might have played a role, provide possible explanations as to why the girls appeared "possessed" and accused innocent community members of witchcraft.

Indeed, the girls first got attention when they suffered from epileptic fits. Ministers would come and try to purge the evil spirits from their thrashing bodies. The fits continued. They would scream, throw things, complain of being pinched and crawl under furniture. Most of the community were convinced it was witchcraft. The ones who questioned it ran the risk of being accused themselves and were silenced by fear or fled the village.

"Spectral evidence," the testimonies of those "afflicted" by witchcraft was permitted in court, despite the recommendations of a committee of ministers to do otherwise. The community had so much faith in this method, they even took the young girls to nearby towns to help rid other communities of their witches. Finally, when Governor Phips returned home from a trip, he disbanded the court, pardoned everyone who was in jail and granted amnesty to those who had fled.

In all, over 400 people were accused. One hundred and fifty were jailed. Nineteen victims were hanged and one was pressed to death. The convicted "witches" who were hanged were excommunicated from the church and buried in shallow, unmarked graves.

At least five people later died from conditions related to their imprisonment. Since young girls, pregnant women and the elderly could be among the accused, the harsh conditions of jail sometimes claimed their lives. Moreover, countless individuals probably suffered from emotional breakdowns leading to negative consequences on their quality of life, if not quantity of years.

The Burying Point is the oldest cemetary in Salem and second oldest in the country.
©2008 Joan Dawson
Judges were buried here but not the witches - they were buried in unmarked graves
©2008 Joan Dawson
Surprisingly, there are parts of the world, particularly in Africa and India, where people still believe in witchcraft. In Ghana, for example, there are witch camps, where women, mostly elderly, have been sent to carry out their lives in isolation and poverty. The threat of violence keeps them from returning to their communities. In Kenya, women have been burned alive by villagers. These persecutions and others, like those of yesteryear, are often based on bias and fear. Education is needed to overcome beliefs like these that lead to such injustice.

Salem's museums attempt to educate us on fear and intolerance. I felt more enlightened on this chapter in our history and hope that the world will come to realize that there are no witches, except those immortalized at Halloween.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Joan Dawson

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