Possessed: The Salem witch trials

On the 330th anniversary of the Salem witch trials, historian Kathleen M. Brown discusses the stories, theories, and contemporary parallels to one of America’s stranger chapters in history.

Historical rendering of a courtroom in the era of the Salem witch trials.
In many ways, the witch hunt fit in with New England folk beliefs and theology, says Kathleen M. Brown. The idea that the devil had a hand in human affairs and “could seduce you away from God” was a very normative belief, she says.

“It begins in the house of a minister,” says Kathleen M. Brown, the David Boies Professor of History. Samuel Parris’ 9-year-old daughter, Betty, begins to exhibit strange symptoms. The doctor watched her violent fits and suggested supernatural causes. Stranger still, the illness seemed to be contagious. Parris’ 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, was beset by fits, followed by two others: 12-year-old Ann Putnam and 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard. By March 1, 1692, three women were accused of witchcraft: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, an Indigenous woman from Barbados, who was enslaved by Parris. Thus began the Salem witch hunt, one of the stranger episodes in American history. By its close, 10 girls and young women claimed to be afflicted by witchcraft, resulting in the deaths of 20 people, one of whom was accidentally killed during torture.

One of the reasons that the Salem witch trials are “still very fascinating to people in the present day,” says Brown, is that 17th-century Puritan New England was a highly codified patriarchal society. “This is not a society that ordinarily provides girls and young women with speaking roles.”

The young women seem to “be on the same page for reasons that nobody really understands, even to this day,” Brown says. The young women may have dabbled in fortune telling to ease their anxieties about their marriage prospects, which determined their futures along with their financial stability. Several of the women were servants and nieces, who may have experienced heightened anxiety about dim marital prospects due to lack of money and family connections. Many of them were orphaned during skirmishes with Native Americans on Massachusetts’ northern frontier and were not only displaced but had recently experienced bloodshed, loss, and trauma, Brown says.

Violence occurring on the northern border created a sense that the colonists were losing control, Brown says. People were dying. The Puritan leadership was unable to “keep residents of the larger settler community safe from Native Americans,” who the Puritans often associated with the devil, Brown says. The leaders of the colony, all Anglo-Saxon men used to being in power, used to protecting their families, and charged with a sense of religious purpose, were feeling “that they’re impotent in the face of this challenge from Native Americans, who may be working through the power of the devil to afflict the larger colony,” Brown says.

The year 1692 was one of general unrest. “Just to make it even more complicated, part of the political conflict that’s occurring on the brink of the Salem outbreak involves a loss of autonomy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” says Brown. In 1689, the British crown inserts its own appointee as colonial governor, and the colony ejects the appointee on the grounds that he doesn’t represent their Puritan leadership.

Meanwhile, traditional Puritan leadership, along with the population of Puritans, “has been shrinking,” Brown says. By the “1690s, New England is a much less Puritan place than 1630s.”

While lots of explanations exist as to why something happens in 1692, “it seems that no explanation really gets at all the factors,” Brown says. “Why are young girls and young women feeling that they’re possessed by the devil and are cursed and tormented by older women and men in the community?”

The afflicted girls begin by accusing people with marginal social status, most notably Tituba, who confessed under torture. They strike out at women that represent failure in the eyes of the community, Brown says, including Sarah Good, who was reliant on charity after her father, a prosperous tavern owner, committed suicide, leaving no will.

The Puritan leadership supported the afflicted girls in these accusations. “This outbreak resulted in the executions of accused witches because local magistrates and clergymen pour gasoline on the fire,” Brown says. “The elite leadership of very learned clergymen and local magistrates of the courts were definitely on board with this.” Otherwise, the accusations would have remained just that—accusations, with local people “baking witch cakes and putting little locks of hair inside a frying pan of urine to see if somebody really was a witch or not,” Brown says. “But you wouldn’t have had people tried; you wouldn’t have the gathering of testimony; you wouldn’t have all the documentation, if all of the legal apparatus and the expertise of clergymen hadn't been brought to bear.”

As the afflicted girls grew in confidence, their accusations became more ambitious, and they targeted prosperous and established members of the community. “At the very end of the accusations, when Governor Phips of Massachusetts calls a halt to the whole thing, it’s because they’ve accused the governor’s wife,” Brown says. “They do overreach themselves.”

By October of 1692, several authorities also begin to question the veracity of spectral evidence, which had been central to witchcraft trials. “If somebody says in court, ‘I saw John Proctor and he was flying through the sky, and he flew to so-and-so’s window at night,’ this would be entered into the courtroom as spectral evidence that John Proctor is in league with the devil and is a witch,” Brown says. Questioners began to wonder, “if the devil can make somebody fly, could the devil make you think that you saw them flying?” she says.

The last of the Salem witch trials was held in May of 1693. In total, between 144 and 185 people were accused of witchcraft. Fifty-four confessed—"if you confessed, you could save your life,” Brown says. Nineteen people were executed, 14 women and five men. An 81-year-old man was accidentally killed, pressed to death by stones during torture. All the accused were pardoned by the end of 1693.

In many ways, the witch hunt fit in with New England folk beliefs and theology, says Brown. Puritans, along with many other Protestants, were strong believers in Providence, “the working out of God’s will on Earth,” she says. Providence was also the purpose behind “a test or an ordeal that it suited God to set before an entire population of people to test their spiritual mettle.”

In the 1690s, there was a general sense within the Puritan community that they were slipping away from their values, Brown says, just a razor’s edge from straying. Meanwhile, the devil lurked.

She says that the idea that the devil had a hand in human affairs and could “insinuate himself into your heart and your thinking and try to seduce you away from God,” was a very normative belief. “You can never be so certain that you’re on the right side of things” in Puritan culture, Brown says. There was a sense that it “would be very easy to slip into some kind of really harmful—in the sense of your own soul and in the sense of your larger community—relationship with Satan.” Idle hands do the devil’s work, as the saying goes.

While the Salem witch hunt happened under particular conditions at a particular time, there have been other parallels in American history. “Famously, Arthur Miller made the analogy to the McCarthy hearings,” with ‘The Crucible,’ a play based on the Salem witch trials, says Brown. “The one part of that book I think is still very powerful in the present day is the notion of the fear of something that’s beyond your knowledge and ability to control and the sense that the threat or danger is multiplying. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

During the Red Scare, America had the notion that every secret communist was engaged in the “robust production and recruitment of new communists, that it was happening everywhere, and that, unless there was some kind of really bold intervention, the numbers of communists would grow exponentially, and the whole country would come crashing down,” Brown says. While communism and witchcraft are not similar, the mechanism whereby the accused are encouraged to accuse others in a court of law without solid evidence fuels a similar snowballing effect, she says.

“I want to be careful about drawing too-easy parallels to the present day,” Brown says, but for her a more contemporary reference was the QAnon conspiracy and the false accusations directed at Hillary Rodham Clinton and her inner circle. Brown says, “there’s no way to corroborate it, and there’s no way to completely debunk it in the minds of the accusers.”

In the end, she says, it all comes down to a question of belief.