Salem Witch Trials

In 1692, what seemed like mass hysteria swept through Salem Massachusetts. Hundreds of men, women and children were being accused of participating in witchcraft. Children as young as nine years old and people well into their eighties were being accused. According to Douglas Linder (2001), by the time all was said and done hundreds were accused, nineteen convicted witches were hanged, a minimum of four people died in prison and a man was pressed to death.

There is no doubt these people were not witches. Then why did this happen in Salem? There is no single answer, only a mixture of conditions that led to this misfortune. One has to look at their religious and cultural background and physical and mental well being to understand what led people to accuse others of being witches. However, there needs to be one common factor for this many people young and old alike to be accused of being witches. One common factor during this time was an outbreak of ergotism. This most likely produced symptoms that led the town to jump to conclusions. Psychological reasons were also an issue, however, this was not known at the time.

Childhood curiosity was not forgiven during the trials, portrayed by the case of Elizabeth Parris. She was the daughter of Salem Village minister Reverend Samuel Parris and her story is one of the first in the trials. Chadwick Hansen (1969) explains that at nine years of age, she was curious to know whether she would be getting married in the future. She and her cousin Abigail Williams curiously experimented with fortune telling. This was not acceptable in the Puritan culture, and this led to accusations of witchcraft.

What we would consider normal behavior in our society today, was not viewed the same in 1692. Sarah Osborne was the widow of Robert Prince. Law required that his property be given to their two sons. However, Osborne attempted to keep the property for herself and her new husband, Alexander Osborne. This violated the social norms at the time and resulted in accusations of witchcraft by their neighbors. Sarah Osborne died in prison on May 10, 1692 (Ray).

Professor Benjamin C. Ray (2002) at the University of Virginia explains that Martha Carrier also disturbed the social norms for women at the time. She was often referred to as a “rampant hag” and the “Queen of Hell” because of her unsubmissive behavior as a woman and having an “independence of mind.” This time it was not because of witchcraft, but simply being different. Carrier was only accused two years after an outbreak of smallpox and this was blamed on her. Cotton Mather decided this was enough for her to deserve execution and she was killed on August 19, 1692.

Gary and Barbara Wuertz (1995) believe that many of the women that were being accused somehow upset the social order and rules of the time. A few of the accused had prior records of criminal action, but others were faithful church members and people of high status in the society.

Martha Saxton (1994) explains that Puritans believed that women were to be submissive to men and were the property of their husbands. They warranted this by the explanation that Eve came from Adam and was made after him. Fred Pelka (1992) writes that Puritans believed this justified restricting the ministry to men and that the worship of satan was managed by women. A woman’s basic role at this time was to have children and to take care of them (Saxton, 1994). Because of this, any women who showed power or independence may have been suspected of witchcraft. Suspicion was especially aimed at a woman without some form of male direction. It is no wonder that Martha Carrier was viewed as odd. Any good Puritan woman would follow the rules, be submissive and under her husband’s control. When Carrier was not submissive and somewhat different from “normal” women at the time, the Puritans probably viewed this as the devil working within her.

The Puritans who settled in New England were a strict religious and political group. They were very literate and loved to read the Bible and the Almanac. Puritans believed in being very educated. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (1974), authors of Salem Possessed, explain how Puritans believed in visible sainthood, the cosmic battles on earth and the need to be very humble. When they believed they were one of God’s elect, they announced this in front of the Church and the members had a chance to tell everyone why they should or should not be a Visible Saint. The engine of Puritan Activity motivated the Puritans. If they felt they were one of God’s elect, they probably started feeling sinful because of their pride. They would question their salvation, feel helpless and eventually try to appear saved again. The public would recognize one’s salvation and one would feel confident enough again to be one of God’s elect. This is the underlying motivation of their behavior.

The Puritans believed in transference. This was a time when they believed that God and the devil were at war on earth. God would help his own and punish evil people. The devil would also help his own, and aggravate the good people. Puritans believed that God made bad things happened to bad people, and Satan made bad things happen to good people. Herbert Schneider (1958), author of The Puritan Mind says that Puritans felt that the more they flourish, the more probable it was for the devil and his demons to harass the community. Puritans believed that the devil was working through their own people using witchcraft. Since many of these people were members of the church, the community believed that they were actually working for the devil. God would not do bad things to good people. Being so finely attuned to good and bad, it is no wonder they were always looking out for the devil among each other.

In recent times, a physiological reason for the witch trials has been debated. In nature, fungi, animals, and plants utilize toxins for protective as well as offensive purposes. Humans sometimes become accidental sufferers of these toxins, which cause such diseases as tetanus, botulism, and frequent food poisoning. (Blazes, Lawler & Lazarus, 2002). According to Irvin Liener (2002), other symptoms of these mycotoxins include respiratory problems, asthma, dry cough and headaches.

Erogotism is a kind of mycotoxin that is contracted by eating grain, grain products, or grasses infected with ergot fungus (Blazes, Lawler & Lazarus, 2002). These toxins may also begin in cow’s milk from the intake of vegetation known to have toxic substances or feeds infected with mycotoxins (Liener, 2002). Animals were affected with this during the Salem witch trials and a couple cows died at this time. Ergotism is now a known veterinary dilemma among grazing animals. Ergotism can cause retarded development, abortion, stillbirth, lameness, and gangrene. (Woolf, 2000).

The New England colonies depended heavily on grains because their crop failed in the autumn of 1961. They were forced to live on a supply of infested rye. It was also a very mild and wet planting season, which makes a nice breeding ground for toxins (Woolf, 2000). Many of the colonists in this area were farmers and it is likely this is one reason for the outbreak. In fact, three afflicted girls lived on Putnam farm. Rye carrying the ergot fungus may have thrived here. The infected or “accused” people lived along roads (Woolf, 2000) and they would have been the first to receive rye from supply routes in the town.
When Elizabeth Parris and her cousin were accused witchcraft, a neighbor suggested that the girls eat a “witch cake” to see if they were in fact witches. A “witch cake” was made of rye grain and the accused girls’ urine (Woolf, 2000). The rye grain in this cake could have easily been carrying the ergot fungus. According to Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (1974), authors of Salem Possessed, upon feeding the cake to the dog, if it experienced similar symptoms as the girls, it was assumed the girls were in fact witches. Since ergot poisoning was known to affect farm animals, it could easily affect the dogs as well.

Could ergot poisoning affect pregnant women as well? There was at least one “monster birth” at this time. That is, a child born with a birth defect. This was thought to be the work of the devil carried out by the midwife assisting the birth (Schneider, 1958). However, birth defects could have been due to the mother passing the ergot fungus to her unborn baby.

Most of the witch trials happened around this same time, suggesting that there was an outbreak of ergotism. Puritans did not have an advanced medical knowledge that would have led them to investigate this probability.

Some symptoms that led the community to believe one was a witch included feelings of pricking, pinching, or burning skin, fornication, animal imitation, abnormal contortions, pretend flying or diving, paralysis and stiffness, anorexia, and physical assaults or verbal insults (Woolf 2000).

Symptoms that the accused suffered ranged from loss of speech, sight or hearing, loss of memory, a choking sensation, hallucinations, feeling bitten and pinched, or loss of appetite (Hansen, 1969).

Convulsive ergotism is associated with dizziness, headaches, excruciating muscular contractions, mania, delirium, and visual and auditory hallucinations. Persistent ergotism has been associated with progression of seizures and dementia (Woolf, 200).

It is easy to understand how many of the symptoms of ergotism could be mistaken for symptoms of being a witch. Abnormal contortions could have been muscular contractions, physical assaults are often times associated with seizures, and verbal insults could have been due to auditory hallucinations or delirium.

Even though physical symptoms were present, often times the doctor could not come up with a cause for the symptom. Since the community believed so much in demons and knew so little medically and psychologically, they assumed there was no other reason for this behavior than being a witch. Someone who is sick with ergotism most likely has a breakdown of immunological defenses that would inhibit their psychological functioning as well.

It may have taken more than just an outbreak of ergotism to make the people jump to conclusions that one was a witch. There may not be one single answer for every person that was accused. Some may have been affected by ergotism, and some may have been accused because of their deviant, unsubmissive behavior in society. In addition to this, there were probably some underlying psychological problems in the community and also in the people being accused. No matter what, the Puritans were trying to find any abnormal behavior as a reason to accuse someone of being a witch.

This community of puritans was made up of highly paranoid people. They were extremely religious and continuously trying to show others how righteous they were, and at the same time, trying to pick out all the bad traits in others. People who are highly paranoid see themselves as blameless and often ascribe evil motives to other people. Many paranoid people are quick to act with anger and bear grudges (Carson, Butcher & Mineka, 2002). Would a puritan who tried to become a visible saint hold a grudge against someone who had tried to persuade the members that they should not become a visible saint? People diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder are overly sensitive and are always on guard for perceived attacks from others (Carson, Butcher & Mineka, 2002).

However, is it possible that the devil did play a part in the trials? Could the devil use religion, or the Salem witch trials to do his work? There may not have been one witch but could the devil possess people with so much paranoia that they started doing evil? Marc Aronson (2001) describes in his article Unholy Wars, the spiritual warfare going on at this time and how it seems like Salem’s efforts to implement puritan rules, and to combat the lowest wickedness, could turn into a “delusion of Satan.”

Even though it is possible that these people lived in a community of paranoid people, it is also likely that the accused “witches” were the ones with a psychological problem. Hansen (1969) believes that the accused were suffering from hysteria. Hysteria is now commonly known as conversion disorder. This is a somatoform disorder where physical breakdown or loss of control becomes apparent without any basic organic pathology (Carson, Butcher & Mineka, 2002). Many of the afflicted made complaints of bodily pain, which is common in these disorders.

Another possible explanation for the accused would be a schizoaffective disorder. This is a mood disorder accompanied by at least two main symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations, confused speech, disorganized or catatonic behavior, delusions, little speech or little essence of ideas contained in speech (Carson, Butcher & Mineka, 2002). The catatonic type of schizophrenia often includes atypical posturing of the body in awkward or uncomfortable positioning (Carson, Butcher & Mineka, 2002).

Schizoaffective disorder is usually very sporadic, having a moderately good prediction for individual attacks and often with relatively clear periods between episodes (Carson, Butcher & Mineka, 2002). This may explain why some of the accused could explain their behavior at times and not at others. Many of the girls that suffered from this could not recall what had happened during these fits (Hansen, 1969).

Hansen (1969) writes about Reverend Deodat Lawson seeing girls in a fit. “Their motions in their fists are preternatural, both as to the manner which is so strange as a well person could not screw their body into; and as to the violence also it is preternatural, being much beyond the ordinary force of the same person when they are in their right mind.”

Reverend John Hale explained seeing the same girls. “Their arms, necks and backs were turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any epileptic fits, or natural disease to effect” (Hansen, 1969).

There was little knowledge of psychological disorders at this time in history. Doctors would not have been able to diagnose someone with a disorder. Even if they were able to do so, it probably would have been attributed to some kind of demon or the devil. While it may not be realistic that all of the accused suffered from one of these disorders, there may have been many similarities between the cases that would have led the town to believe all of the accused were actually witches.

Why would someone admit to the accusations? David Hall (1994) an author of Christian History explains that Puritans practiced the custom of Confession in church. Puritans felt that they needed to make their hidden sins visible and that this was a critical part in the process of salvation. When the accused were questioned about being witches, the ministers may have asked them to expose their secret loyalty to Satan. Since the Puritans took confessing sins so seriously, it should not come as a surprise that many accused admitted joining with the devil (Hall, 1994).

A few ministers, namely Cotton Mather, preached that the devil would become more active as the return of Christ became closer. He believed the presence of witches was evidence that the devil was planning to overthrow the kingdom of God (Hall, 1994).

There are more possibilities that would make someone admit to being a witch. Maybe at the time of trial, the accused was experiencing an episode of the schizoaffective disorder. A person under this condition would not be able to make sense of what was going on, and even if they could, they would not be able to vocalize what was really happening to them. If this person were experiencing a hallucination at the time, how would they know that it was a real trial, and not a hallucination? If the person was hearing voices or experiencing an auditory hallucination, maybe they were being told in their minds to go along with it. No one really knows.

If the town is so hell-bent on finding witches, they will believe what they want. It would be the accused’s word against the townspeople’s. The odds in winning a trial were not favorable for the accused. They probably experienced some depression during their trial and this may have led to learned helplessness since they did not have control over the events anyway. It is possible to experience depression at the same time one has episodes of these manic symptoms. People who are depressed often have recurrent thoughts of death or suicide (Carson, Butcher & Mineka, 2002), so it may not even bother the accused to fight for their lives.

Even of those who tried to fight for their lives, it probably came across hysterically. The first thought of an accused person would naturally be to beg for their life. How could an emotionally confused person possibly think coherently when they are facing a death sentence? If one tried to present evidence that they were not a witch, the accusers probably then accused them of being liars. How would the young children being accused even be able to understand everything that was happening to them? What about the older people who were being accused? Could they possibly be suffering from Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia?

What would motivate someone to accuse another of witchcraft? Aside from the obvious physical factors there are probably many more reasons. Since these people were so fine tuned to transference, they probably noted any odd behavior that someone did. Not liking someone, jealousy or being paranoid of being accused yourself may also play into it. If someone was accused because of a certain behavior and knew of someone else exhibiting that behavior, they probably wanted to take him or her down with them as well.

What seemed to be as quickly as the Salem Witch trials started, they stopped. Peter Winkler (1997) of National Geographic quotes Increase Mather, president of Harvard College at the time of the trials, and how he criticized the use of supernatural evidence. He stated, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned.”

Some believe that the accused were lying, while some believe that a physical ailment was the cause. Because it has been so long since it happened, the likely hood that a final decision on what caused these trials is slim.

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Boyer, P. & Nissenbaum, S. (1974). Salem Possessed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Carson, R. C., Butcher, J. M. & Mineka, S. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life. Boston, MA: A Pearson Education Company.
Hall, D. D. (1994). Witch hunting in Salem. Christian History, 13. 38-40.

Hansen, C. (1969). Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller Inc.
Levin, D. (1952). What happened in Salem? Documents pertaining to the 17th-century

witchcraft trials. New York: Twayne Publishers.

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Environmental Medicine, 12. 175-186.

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Saxton, M. (1994). Bearing the burden? Puritan wives. History Today, 44. 28-33.

Schneider, H. W. (1958). The Puritan Mind. Michigan: Ann Arbor Paperbacks.
Winkler, P. (1997). Salem Witchcraft Hysteria. National Geographic. Retrieved March 30, 2003, from the World Wide Web:
Woolf, A. (2000). Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials. Journal of Toxicology – Clinical Toxicology, 38. 457-500.
Wuertz, G. & B. (1995). Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on March 24, 2003, from

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