Digital History>eXplorations>The Puritans>Witchcraft

Activity 2: Witchcraft

In the 17th century, most people believed in the existence of witches. When people suffered from fires, floods, windstorms, droughts, and epidemics, there was a tendency to blame these problems on the Devil or on those human beings who had sold their soul to the Devil.

Before 1692, prosecution of witches had been sporadic and few were executed. Before 1692, New England prosecuted 93 witches but executed only 16. In 1692, in contrast, formal charges were brought against 38 men and 106 women from 22 towns. Prosecutors obtained 54 confessions, and executed 14 women and 6 men.

Exploration 1: Accusations

Pre-adolescent and adolescent girls were those most likely to make witchcraft accusations; older women were those most likely to be accused. Why might this have been the case?

Exploration 2. Explanations

Many explanations have been advanced to explain the Salem Witch Scare. Social explanations focus on the tensions between farmers and merchants. Medical explanations assert that ergot poisoning caused hallucinations and paranoia. Feminist interpretation suggest that the witch hunters sought to punish assertive, aggressive, and quarrelsome women.

Which of these explanations make most sense to you?

Exploration 3: Current Events

What political, social, military, and economic events were going on around 1691-1692 that might have contributed to the witch scare?

Exploration 4: Implications

What lessons can we draw from the Salem Witch Scare?

a. Were the Salem Witch Hunts a one-time event, or have their been other episodes of mass hysteria in American history?

b. What might the Salem Witch Hunts tell us about whether innocent people might confess to crimes they never committed?

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