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Salem Witch Trial

Salem Witch Trial This is about witchcraft and is started like this: In the winter of 1691-92, several people in Salem Village, most of them young women, but eventually including a few men and boys, began behaving in a strange & unusual manner”, with an affect which was interpreted as illness. The town’s minister, Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece were among those with this odd affect, sought to cure the perceived problem with prayer; others, including a doctor of physic who was called in, felt that the people in question were afflicted with a witch’s supernatural curse, and this diagnosis came to be accepted as true. Friends and relatives prompted the afflicted people to name their supposed tormentors. On 29 February 1691/92, after over a month of acting oddly, the afflicted named three local women as witches. One of these women, a slave of Mr. Parris named Tituba, said, when questioned, that she was a witch, that the two others arrested were witches, and that there were two other women and a man from Boston involved.

Shrewdly or luckily, Tituba had realized that the best thing she could do in her situation was to tell the investigators what they wanted to hear. Thus the diagnosis — of affliction by witches — was proven to be correct, and at the same time the extent of the perceived problem expanded from three to who knew how many. The strange affect of Parris’s children and an increasing number of others continued, and these afflicted continued to supply names of supposed witches. By the end of the year there were about Fifty persons with the affect of being afflicted, nineteen people and two dogs had been hung for witchcraft, another had been tortured to death, five had died in prison from lack of proper food or shelter, and the jails were full with those awaiting trial. In 1768, Hutchinson published the first history of this witch panic. He considered whether the afflicted were under bodily distempers, or altogether guilty of fraud and imposture”, and decided in favor of fraud.

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In 1831 Charles Upham agreed: the afflicted had acted with a malicious disposition to wreak vengeance upon enemies In 1867, however, Upham was less certain: it was almost beyond belief that they were wholly actuated by deliberate and cold-blooded malignancy and it was hard to say how much may be attributed to such ‘bodily distempers’ ascredulity, hallucination, and the delirium of excitement”. In 1949, Marion Starkey had no doubts: the afflicted’s odd affect was entirely due to psychological ‘distempers,’ and she offered a pop-Freudian diagnosis of hysteria”. In 1969, Hansen agreed with Starkey that the afflicted had been hysterical, presenting his view with the scholarship and language of the academy. Starkey’s hysterical bobbysoxers diagnosis has entered the popular canon and school textbooks, while Hansen’s verdict of hysterical in the scientific sense of that term” has been accepted as true by the majority of scholars, Demos, McMillen, and even Karlsen, who treat the cause of affliction as settled and go on to other projects. While I see the cause as not settled, I will look instead at the way the same descriptions of affect have produced such mutually exclusive interpretations — fraud and illness — and suggest why fraud went entirely out of fashion, after being accepted for over a century, while hysteria came into fashion oddly, only Upham allows a mixture of fraud and illness.

I will suggest that these shifts in interpretation are not founded on any new knowledge or new theories of psychology, but grow out of changes in cultural and ideological attitudes, especially toward women, and that they are made possible by the ambiguities of historical documents, by inadequate analyses of the explanations that were available in 1692, and occasionally by poor reasoning on the part of the historians. According to Calef, afflictions at Salem first appeared as crawling under furniture, using sundry odd Postures and Antick Gestures and saying foolish, ridiculous things. Twelve years old Abigail Williams, for example, charged around the Parris house, flapping her arms like wings and crying Whish, Whish .She was, in other words, playing. In a society that sought to prevent physical spontaneity, such behavior would usually be seen as misbehavior. However, with a few exceptions such as John Proctor’s disciplining of his servant Mary Warren, the afflicted were treated as ill rather than delinquent.

In part this was because their actions were seen as involuntary: Lawson saw Abigail as being hurryed with Violence by unseen hands. In part it was because the afflicted mostly came from religious households, and the parents did not want to believe they had failed to produce properly religious children or servants. In part it was because women were seen as The Weaker Vessel and thus more susceptible than men to illnesses if it had been mostly males who were afflicted, likely they would have been seen as truants. There were two natural illnesses known at the time that could explain the fits or convulsions typical of the afflicted’s affect: epilepsy and the strangulation of the mother, or hysteria. At the time, both were wastebasket categories, less diseases than labels for sets of symptoms: epilepsy could refer to just about any kind of convulsive disease, while a diagnosis of the mother simply meant that the patient was a woman and the diagnoser was baffled or lazy.

Both were explicitly thought connected to the supernatural: Cotton Mather wrote in his 1724 medical treatise The Angel of Bethesda, that epilepsy can sometimes weaken the mind enough that evil spirits can Strangely Insinuate themselves into the Malady . . . Some of the Demoniacks in the Gospels, were Epilepticks In 1664, Thomas Brown wrote that the mother could be heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the Devil”. Natural explanations were linked with supernatural ones, but the natural diseases were generally untreatable: supernatural illness could be cured with prayer. Technically there were two kinds of supernatural illness: possession, in which evil spirits were inside the ill person, and obsession, in which they tormented the person from without. The evil spirits could have been sent directly by the Devil, or a “witch” could have sicced them on the afflicted person.

Practically, possessed, obsessed, and bewitched were often confused, and came very near to being synonymous”. As Abigail Hobbs and Mary Warren found out, obsessed victim and obsessing witch could also become all too synonymous. There was a growing disbelief among conformists in actual demoniac possession. Anyway, it was less daunting to deal with a supposed witch than the devil, so the diagnosis in Salem was of a malefic rather than diabolical affliction. This was a very scary decade that people suffer and where hanged being innocent it was sad to see how all those people that were innocent where hanged withought really done any crime but that’s how it was a few decades ago and there was no justice, they thought that the devil was there trying to take those people’s soul it was very interesting but also sad because the poor people who died. That was my opinion I wanted to give about my essay.

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