The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Time of Fear and Confusion

Imagine, just for a minute, living in a time and place where you are not free to practice your own religious or spiritual beliefs and you are forced to live in fear because of persecution by the church and everyone around you. Persecution back in 1692 in Salem Massachusetts was a very real, very serious thing. Those persecuted were hanged, burned, and even pressed against rocks if found guilty of witchcraft. The Salem Witchcraft Trials stands as one of the darkest times in American history of religious tolerance.

The Salem Witchcraft Trails were caused and continued by various events and people. Diseases, natural catastrophes, misfortune, and deaths seemed to be around every corner for the people that lived in Salem. Instead of writing these events off as bad luck people in Salem blamed these horrible things on the Devil. The people of the town believed that the Devil recruits witched and wizards to do his work for him. As soon as something bad happened, the God-fearing people of Salem were quick to blame it on a witch or wizard.

Anything a little out of the ordinary like children claiming to see things that someone else could not was blamed on a witch. The people seemed to be always out to find a witch in hopes of stopping their misfortunes. They believed that once the witch was executed all the bad luck they were experiencing would disappear. Since their bad luck never disappeared their witch hunt would not soon be satisfied. The whole tragic trials were apparently started when several young girls were found playing with a ball made of crystal.

Only trying to escape their punishment, they claimed to have been forced to do so by a witch. The church tried to seek out and punish the witch or wizard responsible for tormenting the girls and thus started this whole out of control event. The minister of the town, Samuel Parris, not only didn’t help the problem, but added fuel to the fire by telling the town that witches were everywhere and that no one could be trusted. Since people were allowed to testify in court about spirits talking to them, everyone backstabbed each other in order to financially gain another’s property.

If you were convicted of being a witch the only way to escape death was to confess. Approximately fifty people did confess, but they only escaped death, not punishment. The symptoms exhibited by some of the young girls of the town claiming to be under the influence of a witch were convulsive seizures, screaming, and trances. Slowly the symptoms that the first few girls showed began to spread to other children. This worried the town’s people and when doctors couldn’t find a cure or explanation for the behavior, they declared that the girls were under the influence of a witch.

A current theory says that the girl’s symptoms could have been as a result of a cold winter followed by a moist spring and summer prior to the witchcraft hysteria. These weather conditions are perfect for the growth of ergot fungus in rye. The colonists probably ate this due to a combination of crop failure and harsh weather conditions. Ergot fungus contains toxins that if ingested cause convulsions, hallucinations, and other symptoms similar to those reported by the children and other witch accusers. A key player in the whole trails of Salem was a man named Cotton Mather; in 1689 he wrote a book called, Memorable Providences.

In this book he wrote about cases of supposed witchcraft that had occurred in Boston, much of his writing showed us what we now know today about the trials. Mather’s sermons and written works only increased the hysteria in Salem. One of the most memorable cases Cotton Mather wrote about was the hanging of George Burroughs who was a former priest. Before he was hanged, Burroughs as a last request recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, this was suppose to be impossible for a witch to do. To calm down the confused and questioning people watching the execution, Mather told the people that sometimes the devil is transformed into an innocent person.

He later said nearing the end of the witch hysteria “It were better ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned. ” The horrible events in Salem finally ended only after doubts grew. People doubted all the accusations being thrown around after wealthy and well respected people of the town started being accused, among them was the wife of Governor Phips. This event stands to remind us that in a new and scary world people can easily create invisible monsters such as witches and demons when none really exist.

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