In 1692 the area of Salem town and Salem village became very vulnerable to conflict. Severe weather such as hurricanes had damaged land and crops, the effects of King Phillips War began to impact New England society, and colonists were being forced off of the frontiers by Native peoples. The Church and the government were in heavy conflict. And those residing in Salem began to grow suspicious of one another when some prospered and others hadn’t (Marcus, p13).
Suddenly people seemed very paranoid and soon residents were placing blame on one another and accusing each other of witchcraft. In a fifteen month period between 1691 and 1692 nearly twelve dozen people were accused of witchcraft in or near Salem (Norton, p8).
Although witch trials were not uncommon in Puritanical New England, none had reached such epidemic proportions as Salem. In 1691 the mass hysteria began when several young girls dabbled in witchcraft and began acting strange. When villagers took notice the girls were seriously questioned and so they began naming people, mainly woman, who had supposedly bewitched them (Boyer, p66). Several other who had been accused were woman displayed unfeminine’ behavior and those who
stood to inherit more economic power than most men in the area (Boyer, p66). By 1692 the young girls had continued to make false accusations of townspeople. Many of those accused were townspeople who were more prominent than others. Villagers, such as the young girls, who envied others, would often accuse people because of a personal abhorrence.
Eventually, those accused of witchcraft could be anyone regardless of social standing. Relationships between people and families seemed to crumble in the light of hysteria as children accused parents and friends pointed out friends (Boyer, p67). Some confessed to witchcraft and saved their own lives, others refused to tarnish their names and proclaimed innocence to their grave. The fact that these people did not have freedom of speech and were proven guilty without any tangible evidence caused even more hysteria throughout New England. People realized that at anytime anyone of them could be pointed out and so the society fell even more.
One can see the Salem witch trials as being an excessive representation of the social and economic changes taking place in New England at this time (Boyer, p67). Differences between those who accepted change and those who feared it are what divided the colony. The hanging of witches can be seen as the murder of difference or of change.
Perhaps if they had not been so insecure about their methods of governing the colony, the Puritans wouldn’t have felt threatened by the
slightest change. It took nineteen innocent deaths for the leaders of Salem to even begin to see the wrong doing in their trials. The Salem witch trials of the 1690’s had an immense impact on American history. These dark times cast a shadow that would forever haunt this country’s past, knowing that our fore fathers were not the brave and pious people they appeared to be, but rather frightened and impressionable which is what eventually led them to murder.
Boyer, Paul S., Clark, Clifford E., et. Al., The Enduring Vision: Ahistory of the American people. 5th edition. Volume I to 1877. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
Marcus, Robert ; Anthony, Eds. On Trial: American History Through Court Proceedings ; Hearings. St. James, New York: Brandywine Press, 1998, volume I
Norton, Mary Beth. “Witchcraft in the Anglo American Colonies,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, 17 (July 2003): 5-10.