Salem Village 1692

Memorial to Rebecca Nurse, a devout Christian woman of 71 years, hanged on July 19, 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts.
Memorial to Rebecca Nurse, a devout Christian woman of 71 years, hanged on July 19, 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts.

In March 1692, Rev. Samuel Parris wrote in the Salem Village church record book that “The Devil hath been raised amongst us, & his Rage is vehement and terrible, & when he shall be silenced the Lord only knows.” The strange events and widespread witch hysteria that first occurred in the Rev. Parris’s own Salem Village home had spread to Salem Town, Andover (now North Andover), Beverly, Topsfield, and many other towns by the fall of 1692. Over 150 people were arrested, examined, and sent to prison. Of these, fourteen women and five men were hanged in Salem Town for the felony of witchcraft. One man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death under heavy stones for refusing to enter a plea. Another five died of insufferable conditions in prison awaiting trial and sentencing.  

There were three degrees of witchcraft recognized in Massachusetts at that time. The first degree was white magic, defined as using charms or spells for benevolent purposes. This included carrying a rabbit’s foot and nailing a horseshoe over a door for good luck. White magic was of no concern to public officials. Many New England pastors, however, rebuked such practices because they relied on unbiblical supernatural forces. 

The second degree was black magic, defined by its malicious use to harm people, animals, or property. Black magic was considered a direct appeal to occult powers and a very serious civil and religious offense. Fortune telling was on the borderline between white and black magic, depending on whether it was a game or a serious attempt to know the future by means of occult powers.

The third degree of magic involved a pact with the devil, which went beyond charms and spells to a belief that one had actually contracted with the devil to obtain occult powers.

Samuel and Elizabeth Parris owned two Carib Indian slaves—John Indian and his wife, Tituba. It was Tituba who watched over the Parris’s 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth (Betty), and their 11-year-old orphaned niece, Abigail Williams, during most of the day. Tituba often entertained Betty, Abigail, and several of their friends, including Ann Putnam, with tales of the supernatural. Ann was the daughter of neighbors Thomas and Ann Putnam who were important members of Salem Village Church. In fact, nearly half of the 53 members of the church bore the name Putnam. Ann Putnam Sr. was often incapacitated by tortured bereavement over the loss of several children and believed because of dreams and visions that their deaths were caused by witchcraft. This branch of the Putnams was engaged in a bitter long-term feud that had begun over a land dispute with the Porters, and Salem Village (now part of Danvers, Massachusetts) was divided between Putnam and Porter factions.

One day in March 1692, the girls were playing an English fortune-telling game, where an egg was broken into a glass of water. The shape it took was supposed to indicate the occupation of their future husband. Young Betty participated with some anxiety, knowing it was forbidden conduct. Her egg seemed to take the shape of a coffin. 

Shortly thereafter, she exhibited signs of extreme hysteria. These signs were frightening and unworldly. The hysterical signs quickly spread to Abigail, Ann Putnam, and three other girls. They were pronounced by a local doctor as being “under an evil hand.” Under some duress, Tituba soon confessed to being a witch and gave a colorful and convincing description of the devil. She also created a sensation by saying that there were many more witches in Salem Village, and a fanatical Witch Hunt commenced.  The “afflicted” girls, including Mercy Lewis, a 17-year-old orphan living in the Putnam household, and two 17-year-old friends, Elizabeth Hubbard and Mary Wolcott, became the primary accusers, and Parris and the Putnams were its most avid sponsors. Parris, however, placed young Betty in the home of Stephen Sewall in Salem Town to remove her from the terrifying environment. She gradually recovered after having confessed the fortune-telling incident to Rev. John Hale of Beverly, who had come to believe that the evil lay in the “afflicted” accusers rather than the accused.  

White magic practice was common in New England, and many Puritan pastors considered it to be the doorway to more serious delusion by the “Prince of Lies.”Black magic was practiced by a few, especially by such means as sticking pins in images to harm enemies.  At least one and probably a few more Salem witches hoped to wreak some personal vengeance on neighbors by means of black magic. One of the accused Salem witches apparently thought she had actually contracted to serve the devil. None of the accused witches demonstrated any provable success with occult powers, but the very fear of witchcraft often caused symptoms of hysteria in its victims. The vast majority of those executed were completely innocent of any black magic or attempted deals with the devil.

In fact, most of those who were executed were later recognized as being substantially more pious than their accusers, who were often acting for reasons of envy or vengeance. One of the great problems with the trials was that those who confessed to witchcraft, often under duress of torture and bullying, were not executed, but those who were convicted but refused to confess to such crimes were executed. The Puritan judges reasoned that confession of sin deserved mercy. The actual result of this reasoning, however, was that many confessed to crimes they did not commit to save their lives, but  the more noble and heroic accused, who would not “belie themselves” and insisted on telling the truth no matter what the consequences, were executed.

Another horrible miscarriage of justice was the use of “spectral evidence” against the accused. This was warrant for arrest and used in both the preliminary examinations and trials.  If an accuser claimed that a ghostly apparition of the accused was torturing them, it was counted as evidence. This type of evidence was only allowed to convict in Salem, where all who were tried were convicted. This practice was condemned by civil magistrates and clergy everywhere else.

During the Trials and on other occasions, about eight young girls aged 11 to 20 created havoc by  falling into fits, contorting their bodies, screaming, howling, growling, and claiming to see evil spirits and witches. Anyone who contradicted their hysterical claims was likely to be the next accused. Most who witnessed this bizarre scene were frightened. Fear reigned in Salem because people began accusing their neighbor to save themselves.  Historical research suggests that these girls were under the influence of adults with whom tragedy, mental illness, envy, and revenge were strong factors. One author suggests that narcotic chemistry was involved, but there was enough enmity between neighbors to brew a cauldron of lies, fear, and judicial murder.    

The Salem trials were strongly opposed by most civil magistrates and most clergy in Boston and many surrounding towns. However, Massachusetts was temporarily without a governor, and under the decentralized government of Congregational churches, there was no clerical authority to interfere with the churches in Salem and Salem Village The trials were not stopped until a new Governor, William Phips, accompanied by the influential Puritan Divine Increase Mather, arrived from England and exercised his authority to halt the madness.

Had the Devil been raised in Salem, as Rev. Samuel Parris wrote in 1692? Considering that large numbers of people believed fantastic lies about innocent people and used ridiculously ignorant and unjust rules of evidence and hysterical unvetted and un-provable testimonies for their judicial murder of the accused, I believe the matter merits serious contemplation.  

But our contemplation should dwell not so much on Salem past, but on where do we see the dominance of hysterical lies and their resultant malevolence and injustice now, in our own society? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pointed out in his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, that great evil occurs when people forget God. In other cases, the evil occurs because people have lost the truth about God and distorted his nature and image. My own observation is that political correctness, which is a form of anti-truth, contains the same seeds of hysterical evil that was demonstrated on a smaller scale in Salem.

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