Most people in the early modern world believed in the existence of witches who gained supernatural power by signing a pact with Satan. The Salem witch trials were not a unique event. In continental Europe, where witch hunts were much more common than in America, thousands of people were executed, often isolated and impoverished older women who were regarded as a drain on community resources. As late as 1787, outside of Independence Hall where the framers were drafting the U.S. Constitution, a Philadelphia mob killed an accused witch.
In the half century before the Salem trials, more than 80 people were put on trial for witchcraft in Massachusetts and Connecticut alone. During the seventeenth century, some 32 people were executed for witchcraft in the American colonies.
What was unique about the Salem witch trials was the number of people who were accused and convicted. In previous witch trials, judges had imposed high standards of proof which resulted in a majority of the accused being acquitted. But when England revoked Massachusetts's charter in 1685, it threw the judicial system into disarray. The special court set up in Salem allowed the use of "spectral evidence": testimony from victims of a vision that they had of the person who was tormenting them. Further, the court permitted the use of psychological pressure and even torture to obtain confessions and ruled that anyone who confessed, identified fellow witches, and repented would go free.
The Salem witch scare had complex social roots. It drew upon preexisting rivalries and disputes within the rapidly-growing Massachusetts port town: between urban and rural residents; between wealthier commercially-oriented merchants and subsistence-oriented farmers; and between Congregationalists and other religious denominations: Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers. The witch trials offer a window into the anxieties and social tensions that accompanied New England's increasing integration into the Atlantic economy.
For the educated Puritan elite, there was double irony in the fact that the witch scare erupted in Salem. The word "salem" means peace, and the town's founders had hoped that Salem would be a village of peace. Further, they had drawn the word salem from Jerusalem, hoping that this new village would serve as a foundation for a new Jerusalem.
In this selection, written a year after the Salem episode, Cotton Mather (1663-1728), one of New England's leading Puritan theologians, defends the trials, depicting New England as a battleground where the forces of God and the forces of Satan will clash. But guilt over this grizzly episode gradually ate into the New England conscience, and in 1697 Massachusetts held a public fast to mourn the blood that had been unjustly shed.
A descendant of one of the witchcraft judges, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), dwelt in his writings on hidden guilt--sexual, moral, and psychological. In an early tale, he wrote: "In the depths of every heart, there is a tomb and dungeon, though the lights, the music, the revelry above us may lead us to forget their existence, and the...prisoners whom they hide." One might speculate that his preoccupation with the complexities of human motivation and his lack of faith in progress and human perfectability stemmed in part from his awareness of his ancestor's involvement in the witchcraft affair.
The New Englanders are a people of God settled in those, which were once the devil's territories. And it may easily be supposed that the devil was exceedingly disturbed when he perceived such a people here accomplishing the promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesu--that He should have the utmost parts of the earth for His possession....
The devil is now making one attempt more upon us; an attempt more difficult, more surprising, more snarled with unintelligible circumstances than any that we have hitherto encountered; an attempt so critical, that if we get well through, we shall soon enjoy halcyon days, with all the vultures of hell trodden under our feet. He has wanted his incarnate legions to persecute us, as the people of God have in the other hemisphere been persecuted; he has, therefore, drawn his more spiritual ones to make an attack upon us. We have been advised by some credible Christians yet alive that a malefactor, accused of witchcraft as well as murder, and executed in this place more than forty years ago, did then give notice of a horrible plot against the country by witchcraft, and a foundation of witchcraft then laid, which if it were not seasonably discovered would probably blow up and pull down all the churches in the country.
And we have now with horror seen the discovery of such a witchcraft! An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the firstborn of our English settlements. And the houses of the good people there are filled with the doleful shrieks of their children and servants, tormented by invisible hands, with tortures altogether preternatural. After the mischiefs there endeavored, and since in part conquered, the terrible plague of evil angels has made its progress into some other places, where other persons have been in like manner diabolically handled.
These our poor afflicted neighbors, quickly, after they become infected and infested with these demons, arrive to a capacity of discerning those which they conceive the shapes of their troublers; and notwithstanding the great and just suspicion that the demons might impose the shapes of innocent persons in their spectral exhibitions upon the sufferers (which may prove no small part of the witch plot in the issue), yet many of the persons thus represented, being examined, several of them have been convicted of a very damnable witchcraft. Yea, more than twenty-one have confessed that they have signed unto a book, which the devil showed them, and negated in his hellish design of bewitching and ruining our land....
Now, by these confessions it is agreed that the devil has made a dreadful knot of witches in the country, and by the help of witches has dreadfully increased that knot; that these witches have driven a trade of commissioning their confederate spirits to do all sorts of mischiefs to the neighbors; whereupon there have ensued such mischievous consequences upon the bodies and estates of the neighborhood as could not otherwise be accounted for; yea that at prodigious witch meetings the wretches have proceeded so far as to concert and consult the methods of rooting out the Christian religion from this country, and setting up instead of it perhaps a more gross diabolism than ever the world saw before. And yet it will be a thing little short of miracle if, in so spread a business as this, the devil should not get in some of his juggles to confound the discovery of the rest.