Salem Witch Trials And Hysteria Essay

The Salem Witch Trials have long been an intriguing event in American history. Many historians have studied the witchcraft trials in order to determine what caused the afflicted girls to behave how they did. There have been several theories that have come about to explain their behavior. Among these theories is poisoning from food. Along with this, some think that the girls acted out of simple boredom or that they suffered from a mental illness. In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris, Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and Abigail Williams, fell ill.

At first, they began to act slightly off, but then began to suffer from symptoms that included convulsions and screaming fits. Reverend Parris called in the local doctor, William Griggs, who diagnosed the girls with bewitchment. Soon after, other girls from the town started to behave in the same manner. Among these girls were Ann Putnam Jr. , Mary Warren, Mary Walcott, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Mercy Lewis. Two of the afflicted girls, Betty and Abigail, blamed their bewitchment on the Parris’ slave, Tituba, who was then arrested.

A woman named Sarah Good and another woman named Sarah Osborn were also accused and arrested. During their questioning, Tituba confessed and described how Good and Osborn talked with the devil. Tituba also confessed to telling the girls stories of witchcraft and that she had been “taught in her own country how to find out a witch; but she denied her being one herself. ” (Hutchinson) A chain of accusations persisted after these events and more than twenty people were put to death while numerous others suffered in jail. Most people in Massachusetts at the time were Puritans.

The Puritans’ belief in witches is what sustained the hysteria surrounding it. The Puritans believed in the Devil and much as they did God. They also believed that Satan chose weak individuals such as children and women to spread evil, which explains why the afflicted were mostly females. Witches were considered to be anyone who followed Satan rather than God. Witchcraft was also considered to be one of the worst sins to commit and was punishable by hanging. Other than becoming bewitched, there are several other theories to explain the girls’ behavior.

The first of these theories is that the girls suffered from a type of food poisoning. During this time, rye was a commonly grown grain in Salem. The rye may have had a type of fungus that causes ergot in humans and even some animals. Individual grains of rye become replaced with the fungus, which at the time were likely thought to be darker grains rather than a fungus. The residents of Salem would have baked this rye into bread to be eaten. Ergot poisoning results in symptoms such as hallucinations, convulsions, feelings on being pinched or poked, and vomiting. Caporael)

The noting of all these symptoms in the girls can be found in records from the time, but those records also show that the conditions for ergot to grow were present during the crop growing season of 1691. The following growing season there was a drought, so no fungus would be expected to grow which is why the illnesses stopped. (Public Broadcasting Service) The rye was harvested and eaten in the winter of 1691-1692, which is when the symptoms first began to be reported. Ergot poisoning is also a plausible theory due to how grain was distributed among people in Salem.

The Putnam family owned a large amount of farmland on which rye was grown. Of the afflicted girls, three of them lived in the Putnam household. The exposure of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams is also possible. A portion of Samuel Parris’ salary was paid in portions of rye grain, so it is likely that they could have received portions of ergotinflicted rye. On the other side, one of the other afflicted girls would not have had access to this grain. Mary Warren, a servant in the Proctor household, would not have eaten the rye from the Putnam land. Proctor had his own farm and would not need to get food from anyone else. Caporael) Another explanation for the girls’ strange behavior is that they were bored.

This boredom could have been caused by several factors. Their Puritan upbringing was based around simplicity which resulted in most forms of entertainment, even for children, to be forbidden. Toys were seen as sinful and as a distraction. The only entertainment the girls had were reading books and gathering to tell stories, which sometimes were about witchcraft because of the stories they heard from Tituba. The Puritan values were also very strict. The girls’ jobs were to help their mothers around the house.

They were also expected to show little to no emotion and would be disciplined for doing so. Due to the strictness of their lifestyles, the girls may have been what is known as malingerers. Malingerers fake illnesses to receive a reward or attention. Even some people in Salem believed that the girls were simply bored due to the “apt about some of the antics” that the girls would engage in. (Starkey) According to Charles Upham, the afflicted girls were likely to have been faking their symptoms in order to gain attentions from those who came to observe them.

In response, the girls were likely “stimulated to vary and expand” the behavior they displayed. (Upham) Another possible theory to explain the behavior is that the girls suffered from some form of mental illness. There are several symptoms that the afflicted girls experienced that are consistent with certain kinds of mental illnesses. Due to the time period and lack of understanding, if the afflicted girls had mental illnesses, they would have gone undiagnosed or have been diagnosed with another illness (such as bewitchment).

The two types of psychological illnesses that may have affected the girls are hysteria and schizophrenia. Hysteria, the first of these two, is a common theory that could explain the behavior of the girls. This illness belongs to a group of disorders called psychosomatic disorders. The symptoms of hysteria include silent states followed by screaming fits, hallucinations, and frequent crying spells. Hysteria is described as a psychosomatic disorder because it is a process in which the psychological symptoms have an influence on the physical well-being of the sufferer.

Some of these physical symptoms are vision problems, seizures, inability to speak, and convulsions. The diagnosis of hysteria can also explain the marks and bites that the girls reported came from the ones they accused. A common psychosomatic symptom that can be found with hysteria is skin lesions, which can look similar to bites or other marks. The second possibility, schizophrenia, is also consistent with some of the girls’ symptoms. Schizophrenia can cause hallucinations, disordered thinking, strange behavior, and delusions.

While this does not account for the physical symptoms, it is possible that a combination of schizophrenia and resulting hysteria could be an explanation for at least one of the girls’ behavior. All of these psychological and physical symptoms were recorded as symptoms the afflicted girls experienced. According to Marion Starkey, a psychological disorder could be a possible explanation because Ann Putnam Jr. ‘s mother was known to have had some form of emotional problems, so it is possible that it may have been passed on to Ann Putnam Jr. Starkey) The development of a mental illness may also have been due to the principles of the Puritan lifestyle.

The Puritans believed that children were sinful and that the only way to prepare them was by physical punishment and denial of things such as toys and games. (Clarke) Due to being repressed, the girls likely desired the freedom to do more than they were allowed to do. The girls often listened to stories of witchcraft from Tituba and as a result they developed hysteria because of the conflict between what they were expected to do and the desire to rebel.

The causes of the Salem Witch Trials have long been researched and studied. However, it is more than likely a combination of a number of factors such as illness and religious practices. One theory is that the girls suffered from poisoning from a fungus that grows on rye grains. Some suggest that the girls did not suffer from anything at all but instead that they were bored with their everyday lives. Lastly, some people believe that the girls may have suffered from a psychological illness that caused them to behave erratically.