January 20, 2017
Hoist Them Up
Torture and its influence in Witchcraft confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries
“Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture you will be put to…” (Levack 201). These words, quoted from a letter written by Johannes Junius, were spoken by the executioner who entreated Junius to falsely confess to the accusation of witchcraft. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, torture was a common method of acquiring confessions from prisoners accused of witchcraft. Although the amount of torture varied from country to country, the methods used were typically the same. Records of confessions throughout this time period make it clear that torture was an important factor in gaining confessions, acquiring names of other possible witches, and adding demonic details to charges of maleficia.
Four common types of torture for witches included thumb-screws, bone-screws, the use of pincers, and the use of the strappado. First, thumb-screws were used to slowly crush the victim’s thumbs or fingers, leaving them without the use of their hands. Junius complains in his letter that after experiencing the thumb-screws that “for four weeks I could not use my hands” (Levack, 201). Similarly, bone-screws could be placed around larger bones of the body, slowly crushing the bone as it was tightened.
Next, heated pincers were used to crush body parts while simultaneously burning the victim. In the case of Arkipko Fadeev, he was “burned with pincers and crushed in his secret places with pincers” until he confessed to using evil magic (Levack, 217). Lastly, the strappado included tying the prisoner’s hands behind their back and hoisting them up by the wrists, causing the shoulders and elbows to dislocate.
"Six had confessed against me at once...all false...They were forced to say it, just as I myself was."
Torture methods such as these forced prisoners to confess or greatly changed the details of their confessions. There are several examples of the accused claiming innocence up until torture was used. For instance, Francatte Camont, accused of harming several people through witchcraft, denied all charges during her initial trial. However, after being “racked severely” multiple times, she admitted to being seduced by the devil (Levack, 183). In other cases, confessions did not include details about the devil or gathering for the witches’ Sabbath until after torture had been administered. Collette Du Mont, convicted of witchcraft in Guernsey, admitted she was a witch, while also refusing “to specify the crimes which she had committed” (Levack, 186). However, after being taken to the torture chamber and questioned she added details to her confession of the devil visiting her in the form of a cat or dog, and using black ointment to carry her to “the place of the Sabbath” (Levack, 187). Several other cases followed this same pattern of mentioning the devil, black powders, and flying to the Sabbath after experiencing torture. A woman recorded only as N. N. made a similar confession. Once she was lifted by the strappado, she confessed to being a witch. When she was not let down, she continued to create a story of how she had intercourse with the devil, and he gave her “a green powder and a black ointment…which she used on man and beast” (Levack, 205).
It is not surprising that those put under torture would fabricate stories in the hope of stopping the pain. However, adding information did not always benefit the prisoner. In Germany, the accused were allowed to be tortured only three times as long as their confession was consistent. Unknowingly, many victims prolonged their torture when they added details they thought the jailors wanted to hear.
Torture not only gained confessions, it increased the list of names. Referring once again to Germany, torture was not allowed to end until the prisoner had named accomplices. Under torture or threat of torture, the accused were forced to name their neighbors and fellow townsfolk as witches. Junius, who was arrested in Bamberg, Germany, was forced to go street by street naming the names of numerous others or else be tortured again (Levack, 202). Likewise, those who had accused Junius “were forced to say it, just as I [Junius] myself was” (Levack, 202). Due to the practice of forcing the accused to name others, the number of convicted witches skyrocketed. The unnamed woman, N. N. alone named 45 other people while she was tortured (Levack, 208).
No other evidence was needed once a prisoner had confessed to crimes of witchcraft, and with very little proof outside circumstantial and spectral evidence, confessions became the focus of witch trials. Many times, torture was the key to not only gaining the confessions, but acquiring the demonic details the courts viewed as proof of heresy and conspiring with the devil. Hundreds of innocent men and women were executed under the application of torture, creating whatever stories required to end the torture, even going as far as to accuse the people they knew. Due to the use of torture, the number of condemned witches multiplied, increasing the frenzy of witch hunts and assuring the execution of anyone unfortunate enough to be accused.
January 27, 2017
The Devil is in the Details
How Witches Came to be Associated with Demonic Pacts
Many are familiar with the stereotypical witches of popular culture. They are ugly hags who fly on broomsticks wearing pointed black hats. They use spells to curse their enemies, conjure spirits, and inflict disease. Where do these witches get their powers? According to movies, books, and cartoons the witch must make a pact with Satan himself in order to gain her powers. Only after signing his black book can she begin her evil practices. However, the idea of signing a contract with Satan was not always associated with witches.
Before witchcraft became a crime punishable by death, magic was a part of a country’s cultural knowledge. Although some magic may be used for harm, not all of it was seen as evil. In fact, the person later described as a witch for using spells and potions, was originally viewed as a healer using herbs and helpful talismans. Only after the introduction of organized Christianity did magic become a crime associated with the devil.
Cunning Folk and Magic
Early practitioners of what would later be called witchcraft were known as cunningfolk. These individuals were people within a community who had special knowledge of herbs and magic. They were seen as highly valued members of society with the ability to heal.
Cunningfolk and other early witches used several types of folk magic. Four examples of folk magic include healing, divination, destroying magic, and countermagic. First, healing magic could be used to relieve pain and sickness. Second, divination was the practice of seeing into the future or finding lost items. This could be done in several ways. For example, a witch may crack a raw egg into water, put a candle behind it, and use it as a crystal ball. Next, destroying magic could be used to inflict harm on others. This could be accomplished through the use of poppets, more familiar to many as voodoo dolls. Last, countermagic could be used to reverse a spell back onto the witch who cast it. In order to accomplish this, the hair, blood, or urine of the victim had to be burned.
Folk magic differed depending on the country. For instance, Scandinavians believed in the existence of luck and love magic, shapeshifting, and flygjurs. Flygjurs were a form of guardian spirit which took the shape of an animal. Whichever animal shape it took was seen as a reflection of the owner. Although forms of folk magic varied across geographic region, and some forms of magic may be more harmful than others, it was not viewed in the same negative light as later descriptions of witchcraft. Instead, folk magic was a form of cultural knowledge which could serve as a benefit to others.
Christianity and Witchcraft
As organized Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, began to influence different countries, the outlook on magic changed. At first, magic and religion coincided and were not seen as inconsistent with each other. Witchcraft was mainly viewed as a crime associated with pagans who the church wished to punish. In the 12th century, however, the official church stance shifted from witchcraft being associated with paganism to a demonic crime associated with heresy. Finally, starting around 1350, the church declared all magic as evil and derived from the devil, listing witchcraft as both a criminal and heretical offense.
As the church’s opinion transformed, so did the characteristics associated with witchcraft. Whereas early accusations may have only included making someone sick or harming crops, later trials added on charges of meeting with the devil, flying to his Sabbath, and having intercourse with him. For example, Niclas Fiedler’s confession in 1591 included details such as being approached by a “black man” who commanded him “that he should swear adherents to him (the devil) and help with murders as well as to renounce Christ crucified” (Levack, 176). Another accused witch, Isabel Bequet, confessed to flying to the devil’s Sabbath, making a “special compact to be faithful to him,” and that she “danced with him back to back” (Levack, 189). Claims of ritual pacts with the devil became more and more common as witch trials progressed. Several other confessions included further descriptions of dancing with Satan, signing his book, and kissing him on the buttocks.
Magic began to be punished by death only after the introduction of Christianity and the organized church. Originally, cunningfolk and witches were appreciated for their ability to heal and see into the future. Even when the magic went wrong, the witch would more likely be exiled rather than killed. Under the rule of the Christian church, witchcraft became a heinous offense, no matter whether it was being used for good or evil. Common cultural practices became associated with the devil, and soon the once-known healers were transformed into Satan’s accomplices, doomed to burn for their crimes.
Information taken from lectures by Wendy Lucas.
February 3, 2017
Kids Say the Darndest Things: The Importance of Children's Testimony in Cases of Witchcraft and Possession
Many of us are familiar with blockbuster films, such as The Exorcist and The Conjuring Two, that depict the demonic possession of children. These movies may seem farfetched despite their claims at being based on true stories. Despite our skepticism towards these horror flicks, accounts of possessed children are all too real. Several true accounts of the possession of children (although none can say if the demons or the magic used to summon them were real) often include accusations against suspected witches.
Throughout time and in multiple countries, children have played an important role in witchcraft accusations. Despite the young age of the accusers, their testimony was taken seriously and was often enough proof to convict a suspected witch. Many of these cases involved demonic possession. Several children, ranging widely in age, accused others of sending demons to inhabit their bodies and torture them. It was believed by many that witches had the ability to control demons and cause the possession of individuals, including the children who made the accusations. In order to understand how these allegations came about and why they were taken so seriously, we must examine several cases.
One famous case of children accusing others of witchcraft occurred during the famous Salem witch trials. In 1692 a group of young girls began to accuse local women of torturing them with their specters, pinching them or causing them to have fits. The girls continued to have fits during the trials, screaming in pain while the accused were being questioned, leaving little doubt that they were truly being tortured by witchcraft (Levack, 224). Many believed the children, and their claims directly resulted in the execution of several individuals.
Several cases involving children centered around demonic possession. These cases were blamed on witches who were accused of sending the demons to attack a child and take over their bodies. In order to understand these circumstances, we must address what constituted possession.
Possession was defined as a case where an individual’s body was inhabited by a demon that could cause the person to act in different ways or inflict pain to the host. Symptoms of possession are surprisingly close to what is depicted in the horror films we first described. Brian Levack (231) sums up the symptoms of possession as:
“Bodily contortions and convulsions, the ability to perform great feats of strength, temporary loss of memory, sight, and speech, lesions on the skin, the vomiting of nails or other foreign objects, insensitivity to pain, a transformation of the victim’s personality, knowledge of previously unknown foreign languages, speaking in strange voices, and hallucinations.”
One case of possession of a child occurred in 1598 when Loyse Maillat was supposedly possessed by five different demons. She accused a poor woman named Francoise Secretain of giving her “a crust of bread resembling dung,” and after consuming it, the eight-year-old child fell under the power of demons (Levack, 240). This account also made note of other cases of possession after an individual had eaten food given to them by a suspected witch (Levack, 242).
In a second case, taking place in 1603, fourteen-year-old Mary Glover accused Elizabeth Jackson of sending demons into Glover’s body. She showed signs of “convulsions, contractions, and distortions,” all common symptoms of possession (Levack, 251). However, as pointed about by Edward Jorden, a notable physician involved in the case, these symptoms also coincided with natural diseases such as “headaches, gouts, or epilepsies” (Leback, 251). Although Jorden was suspicious of Glover’s behavior, he refrained from accusing the girl of faking her symptoms. Whether or not she was truly possessed is still debatable today.
A third and final example is the possession of Christian Shaw in 1697. The eleven-year-old girl blamed a maid named Katherine Campbell for her possession. She claimed Campbell had sent demons upon her after having caught Campbell trying to steal milk (Levack, 267). Shaw’s symptoms included “violent pains,” losing the ability to talk or hear for periods of time, having her tongue “drawn out of her mouth,” and throwing up coal cinders, straw, and bones (Levack, 267-269). When ministers attempted to pray over her she would try to interrupt their prayers by screaming or singing (Levack, 270). In the end, Campbell blessed the girl and her symptoms lessened. In a final fit, Shaw screamed out that she would never renounce her baptism and prayed that “God almighty keep me from thy meetings,” meaning the witches’ Sabbath (Levack, 272).
It is worthy of note that there have been some cases of children being taken to a witches’ Sabbath. However, in these cases the blame was placed on the parents of the child. One specific case occurred in Sweden from 1668 to 1676 when several children admitted to attending the Sabbath (Levack, 113). James Hutchinson, a minister from Scotland, preached that the children were not culpable for the crime of attending the Sabbath. Instead, the parents were to be held responsible. He argued that taking a child to make “a covenant with Satan” was the same as taking their child to be baptized (Leback, 114). The parent was culpable for the faith and protection of the child.
Although it is hard to prove or disprove whether or not these cases of possession were real, or that the children involved were just playing an elaborate prank, the involvement of children in witchcraft trials cannot be dismissed. Children were often victims and witnesses, providing evidence to convict their accused tormentors. As a result of the testimony of children and the importance placed on that testimony by judges, many were sent to their deaths for the crime of witchcraft.
February 10, 2017
Witch Trials Under the Catholic Church v. the Church Of England
When one imagines the typical witchcraft trial they might picture unlimited torture as was done in Germany, elaborate executions like took place in Spain, or the general burning of hundreds of accused witches. These images focus on the violent cases and large panics that occurred in areas under the control of the Catholic Church. However, not all witchcraft cases followed this pattern. Trials looked very different in England. They were milder and resulted in fewer executions. These trials were different because the Church of England was in charge of prosecuting witches. The contrast between the two churches is well exemplified in the case of Scotland which, although separated from mainland Europe, followed the pattern of trials formed by the Catholic Church.
Witchcraft under the Catholic Church
In order to compare the two churches we must examine traditional Catholic witchcraft trials. Three factors contributed to the intensity of these trials. First, the Catholic Church focused on heresy associated with witchcraft. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the handbook used by several Catholic countries to hunt witches, witchcraft is described as “infidelity in a person who has been baptized” and that this is “technically called heresy, therefore such persons are plainly heretics” (Levack, 59). By associating witchcraft with heresy, the Catholic Church increased the severity of the crime. Second, the church believed that all witches “swear allegiance to the Devil” in order to gain their powers (Levack, 100). Again, this made witchcraft a serious crime against the church itself. Last, the church used papal inquisitors who were given large amounts of power to prosecute witches. For instance, Pope Innocent VIII ordered the removal of “all impediments by which in any way the said inquisitors are hindered in the exercise of their office,” giving the inquisitors unlimited power to convict the accused (Levack, 121).
Trials in England
However, under the Church of England, trials were restrained and not nearly as extreme. This was for five reasons:
1. England had an incomplete concept of witchcraft. The church was late to arrive in England and folk magic was still prevalent in much of England. Unlike the Catholic Church, England did not use a witch hunting guide like the Malleus Malificarum which clearly defined witchcraft. Without a clear definition, judges were more cautious in what they deemed as magic.
2. There was an absence of papal inquisitors. Unlike the Catholic Church, England was not as concerned with the threat of heresy and did not associate acts of witchcraft as always being heretical.
3. England had a different idea about the witches Sabbath. The Catholic Church described the witch’s Sabbath as a gathering where the witches would “dance completely naked” and participate in a “demonic coupling” with the devil (Levack 105-106). The witches would fly to Sabbath whether by rubbing ointment on themselves or flying up through their chimneys (Levack, 84-85). However, England did not reference anything about flying and viewed the Sabbath as a night of simply dining with the devil.
4. England used torture sparingly. In England, torture could only be used if it was authorized by the Privy Council and only if it was a matter concerning the welfare of the state. Because torture was not used often, there were not the same amounts of confessions in England as there were in places like Germany and Spain.
5. There was a trial by jury. In England, in order to convict a witch, the jury must reach a unanimous decision. This drastically decreased the amount of convictions.
Under these conditions, few witches were executed in England. When executions did take place, the method used was not the same as the Catholic Church. Catholics believed in the burning of witches because this method did not leave blood on the hands of the church and it was believed to destroy all of the witch’s magic. However, due to religious beliefs, the Church of England did not share this view point. The English would hang the convicted and never used burning as a form of execution.
Trials in Scotland
Scotland is a special case concerning witchcraft trials. Although closely related to England and separated from mainland Europe, the trials were more intense than those in England due to outside influences, including the Catholic tradition of convicting and punishing witches.
Witchcraft trials began in 1563 when Mary Queen of Scots created a law claiming witchcraft as heresy and declared death by burning to be the punishment. Her ideas of witchcraft were formed from her Catholic background and experiences living in continental Europe while being married to the Dauphin of France.
These outside influences continued to affect the belief of magic in Scotland. During the first panic in the 1590s, King James VI authorized torture as a means of gaining confession. Like other cases under the Catholic Church, the victims confessed to dancing with the devil, committing the obscene kiss, and doing the devil’s bidding. The Catholic idea of what witchcraft was and its relationship to the devil influenced these confessions heavily. Do to this influence, three witches were executed in Scotland for every one executed in England. Like other European nations, certain individuals were given large amounts of power to convict witches in Scotland. For instance, magistrates were given commission to try witches without supervision from a higher court, and the clergy was much more involved in the trials than the clergy in England.
By examining the differences in trials conducted under the Catholic Church and the Church of England, it becomes clear that the church made the difference. The Catholic Church’s focus on the pact with the devil and heresy resulted in more convictions and executions whereas an absence of church influence, less focus on the devil, and more caution during trials under the Church of England meant fewer executions for the crime of witchcraft.
Men and Magic
“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
These words, written by Arthur Miller in his play “The Crucible,” are spoken by the character John Proctor. Proctor was a real man, accused of witchcraft in Salem, but he is among the few male witches many are familiar with. Typically women were the ones accused of witchcraft. Although Proctor was accused in Salem, we will instead focus on men accused of witchcraft in Europe.
Men were accused of separate types of magic than women. Although there were several countries where women were the ones accused most often, men were convicted more often in Scandinavia and Russia. Who was accused was affected by how magic was conceived in each country.
The profile of an accused man typically looked something like this:
1. Related to a female already suspected of being a witch.
2. Had been accused during a mass panic and when witchcraft was equal to heresy.
3. Typically accused of hurting crops or livestock.
4. Shepherds, blacksmiths, and ministers were more susceptible to accusations.
5. Men were more likely to flee and therefore were executed less often.
6. Male magic was seen as being used for good while female magic was seen as evil.
Although the profile above is typical of several countries, men’s magic differed across time and geographic location depending on the culture. One country that fit the given profile was Spain. In Spain, men were accused of masculine magic, a type of “high” magic that required formal knowledge of astrology, the Cabala, or esoteric books from Muslim mystics. Many of the men who were accused of witchcraft defended themselves by claiming their studies were a quest for scientific knowledge and were released. Women on the other hand, were accused of love magic and disrupting the free will of men by bewitching them to fall in love. These women did not get off as easily as the men.
Magic was defined differently in Scandinavia. Trolldomr, the word for magic, could be used for luck, love, divination, shape shifting, or for summoning guardian spirits called flygjur. It was believed that trolldomr could be used equally by men and women. The key to this form of magic was the spoken word, because of this, men tended to be accused more often due to their greater speaking power in public. Although the typical profile of a man accused described men being accused mostly in mass panics in places like Germany and Spain, women in Scandinavia were more often those accused during large panics.
Men were also accused more often convicted and accused in Russia. Here, a witch was defined as a person of either sex that could mysteriously inure another person through porcha, the Russian version of maleficium. This could include taking life, maiming, causing illness, depriving of reason, impotence, or crop failure.
Often, it was a male star that began the witch hunts. These hunts began due to political disagreement and power moves to get rid of political opponents. For example, during the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Boris Godunov accused the Romanov family of witchcraft and the whole family was exiled. Later, Michael Romanov initiated three separate investigations of his inner court, accusing individuals who threatened his power. Lastly, Tsar Aleksi, in response to the fear that his wife was being poisoned by witches, passed a law in 1653 that condemned dangerous items such as roots potions, diving dice, and written spells.
Although many of the men accused were within the royal court, several other men were also convicted of witchcraft. This can be seen in records from a Russian witch-trial at Lukh in 1657. One man, named Terentei, was accused of casting a “shrieking curse” on a woman (Levack, 214). Several other men were accused of afflicting women with bewitchment, instead of the typical case in other countries where women were accused of bewitching men. One man even confessed to bewitching the townspeople in mass by bewitching salt and sweeping the salt through town (Levack, 217). The women accused at Lukh were the wives of the accused men, an inverse of the typical profile of men accused being related to a female witch (Levack, 215-216).
Although women were most often accused of witchcraft, there were some cases of men making up the majority of the convicted. Masculine magic was inherently different than female magic and was often seen as a higher form of magic used for good. However, in places like Scandinavia and Russia where the definition of magic was different, the typical profile of men accused was reversed.
The Devil in the Woods: How Fear of Native Americans Influenced the Salem Witch Trials
In the dark, unfamiliar wilderness of New England, anything could be lurking. The danger of the devil was as real as the danger of being attacked by Native Americans. In the Puritan mind, these two fears were inextricably linked. Puritans were highly afraid of Native Americans and “many colonists were convinced that Indians worshipped the Devil and practiced witchcraft” (Godbeer, 17). Indians themselves were often referred to as devils. The Puritans believed that the devil had made New England his home base. Cotton Mather, a famous Puritan minister, lamented that
“there never was a poor plantation more pursued by the wrath of the Devil than our poor New England”
(Godbeer, 48). He went on to describe how Indians had tried to enlist the help of the Devil and use “all their sorceries to molest the first planters here” (Godbeer, 48). This fear of Indians, along with other fears, were expressed largely in the witch trials the occurred in Salem.
The fear of Native Americans intensified due to violence between tribes and settlers. There were two major waves of Indian attacks before the witch trials began. The first occurred from 1675-1676. During this period, the Wampanoag tribe reacted violently to the execution of three of their own by a court in Plymouth. This conflict, named King Philip’s War after the chief Metacomet (also called King Philip by the English) who lead the war, was devastating for the colonists (Godbeer, 16). The second attack occurred in 1689 under the influence of the French, increasing Puritan anxiety (Godbeer, 17). Soon after in 1691 a smaller group of “Indians attacked communities in western Massachusetts, and the panic intensified” (Godbeer, 17).
The link between the Devil and Native Americans is exemplified in the way they were described. The Devil was often depicted as a black man. Within the trials, the affected girls claimed that they could see a “black man whispering” in the ears of the accused (Godbeer, 57). Native Americans were also described as “black.” Mary Rowlandson, after being captured by Indians, described them as mourning “with their black faces” for their losses in the attack, but rejoicing “their inhumane, and many times, devilish, cruelty to the English” (Godbeer, 46). The link continued in the trials when “accusers and confessors described the Devil as appearing to them in the shape of an Indian man” (Godbeer, 17).
The violence between the Native Americans and the Puritans influenced the accusers in the trials. Some of the afflicted girls “were orphaned refugees from Maine” whose families had died in Indian raids (Godbeer, 17). One example is Mercy Lewis, who lost most of her family. Lewis went on to help the other afflicted girls accused several men and women including Goodwife Corey, John Proctor, Bridget Bishop, and Dorcas Hoar.
Some of the accused shared links with Indians that helped to condemn them for the crime of witchcraft. First was Tituba, the slave woman who lived in Samuel Parris’s house. She was described as being an “Indian” from Barbados. Being identified as Indian lumped her together with the Native Americans that the Puritans so feared (Godbeer, 81). Her association with the occult only cemented her fate after she baked the urine cake to try and identify the witch afflicting the girls in Salem (Godbeer, 82). One of the first to be accused, the girls “cried out of the Indian woman, named Tituba, that she did pinch, prick, and grievously tormented them” (Godbeer, 52).
George Burroughs was also accused due to the fear of Native Americans. He had survived Native American raids is Casco, Maine two separate times, once before living in Salem and then again after moving away from Salem. The fact that he had survived twice was highly suspicious, suggesting to some that he may have had league with the Indians and their supposed lord Satan (Godbeer, 129). Ann Putnam Jr. accused him of having “bewitched a great many soldiers to death” in a battle against the Native Americans (Godbeer, 139). Abigail Williams even described him as “a little black minister,” harkening back to the imagery reflecting both Satan and Native Americans (Godbeer, 130).
The Puritan fear of the Devil and the unknown translated to fear of Native Americans across New England. This fear of Indians increased due to raids and conflict between the two groups. Some of the accusers at Salem were directly affected by these raids, and the link between the Native Americans and witchcraft continued to be a strong theme in Salem. This fear influenced the trials by condemning those associated with Indians such as Tituba and George Burroughs.
The Devil Made Me Do It
In October of 1692, Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer and the witch trials in Salem Village came to an end. In the aftermath, 40 people were dead- 19 hanged, one crushed to death, and 20 more who died in prison.
In the years following the trials, many of those involved made public apologies, and others tried to explain why they occurred in the first place. Among all of these statements was one constant theme- that the judges and the afflicted girls had not been at fault for the conviction and hanging of the innocent victims. Instead, the devil was responsible for clouding their judgement, making them ignorant, and deceiving them by making them believe the accused truly were witches.
Much of the witch scare began in the minister’s house. Samuel Parris, having preached against the accused during the trials, changed his tone after they ended. He instead began to preach a message of peace. In a 1694 sermon, he stated that “the grand enemy of all Christian peace has of late been most tremendously let loose in the diverse places hereabouts,” referring to the devil as being in Salem Village (Godbeer, 168-169). He tried to appear humble by noting that members of his family were involved in the trials, and took the events as punishment from God, who had “been righteously spitting” in Parris’s face (Godbeer, 169).
He went on to excuse his, and his family’s, part in the trials by insisting that
“God sometimes suffers the Devil to afflict in the shape of not only innocent, but pious persons, or so to delude the sense of the afflicted,” (Godbeer, 170).
In his mind, it was not the fault of the afflicted, for they had been deceived by the Devil. Although the court did allow spectral evidence, and used this evidence to send 19 people to their deaths, he again excused the mistake by saying that the Devil had fooled everyone. He did not outright apologize. Instead, he said that he sympathized with the victims, and begged for God’s forgiveness and the pardon of the congregation.
After the trials ended, some of the jurymen came together to publish a public apology. Like Parris’s, this apology lacked taking personal blame. Instead, the blame was placed upon that invisible enemy, Satan. They did “confess that we ourselves were not capable to understand nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness,” but this did not mean taking responsibility (Godbeer, 175).
Instead, they went on to say they were used “ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord, the guilt of innocent blood” (Godbeer, 175). Although they had been the ones to accept spectral evidence and convict the accused based on this evidence, they claimed Satan was the one at fault. Like Parris, they asked for forgiveness from both God and the people of Salem Village, but did not apologize for the innocent deaths.
One of the afflicted girls, Ann Putnam Jr., apologized in 1706 during her confession to become a full member of the church. She herself had made 53 legal complaints against the accused witches in Salem Village. She took her confession as an opportunity to apologize for her part in the trials, however, like the jury and Parris, she blamed the Devil alone for her actions.
She claimed that she “desire(d) to be humbled before God” for what occurred in 1692 (Godbeer, 176). She went on to say that she had been used as an instrument to accused innocent people of witchcraft. Instead of taking responsibility for the accusations, she said that she believed the specters she saw were part of “a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time” (Godbeer, 176). Although it may be true that she did not do any of it out of “anger, malice, or ill-will to any person,” she still did not say she was sorry for accusing members of the village (Godbeer, 176).
Out of those who made public apologies, only one man took responsibility without blaming Satan. Samuel Sewall had been one of the jurymen during the trials. In his apology he stated that he “desire(d) to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God…would pardon that sin” (Godbeer, 174). Nowhere in his statement was the Devil even mentioned. Instead, he took full blame for his part in the trials.
With the exception of Samuel Sewall, those involved in the trials, whether as accusers or jurymen, failed to truly apologize for their participation in the deaths of 40 people. Instead, they laid the blame at the feet of Satan and excused themselves with claims that the devil had deceived them. Due to these inadequate apologies and the horror of the trials themselves, it took years for Salem Village to heal.
The Salem Obsession
"Granted that, uh, you guys here in Salem are all into these black cats, and witches, and stuff…"- Max Dennison from Hocus Pocus
Max might have said it best. When we think about Salem we think of black cats, witches, and other stereotypical things associated with witches. Why are we still so obsessed with the trials that occurred in Salem Village? I believe there are a few reasons for our fascination.
1. It is hard for us to imagine from our modern point of view how the village could be so convinced of witchcraft that they hung 19 people. We want to explain away what happened at Salem.
2. Because we struggle to understand how these people could be convicted, we are obsessed with the idea of proving their innocence.
3. We study Salem for the same reasons we study witches in the first place. Many of us have been fascinated from a young age with the idea that we could somehow have magical powers (especially those of us who read Harry Potter). These individuals were accused of having occult powers and a part of us is interested in what these powers could be and what affect the magic had.
Our obsession with Salem can be seen in the multiple pieces of popular culture that reference the trials. These stories and films play off our fascination with the trials in order to attract our attention and create a story based off our familiarity with Salem Village.
For instance, there are several films aimed toward children that use the Salem witches in their plot. Two examples are Hocus Pocus and Scooby-Doo! And the Witch’s Ghost. In Hocus Pocus, Max Dennison and his little sister awaken the Sanderson sisters, three witches who were hung in colonial Salem. Much of the film is humorous and does not mention the tragedy that occurred in the real trials. Instead, the movie feeds into our inherent fear of witches- the idea that they can harm us and we cannot stop them. The sisters are depicted as real witches who steal the lives of children; the sisters are evil creatures without remorse. Of course, those accused of Salem did no such thing. In truth, the film places us in the same place as the frightened residents of Salem Village- cheering when the witches are defeated because they can no longer threaten us or the heroes in the movie.
Scooby-Doo! And the Witch’s Ghost does something similar. Scooby-Doo and the gang visit historic Salem for fun, and end up in an adventure in which they must defeat the ghost of an evil witch named Sarah Ravencroft. Sarah’s descendent in the film tells the gang that his ancestor was an innocent healer who was falsely accused and hung as a witch. This holds some semblance of truth since the women in Salem Village were falsely accused and cunningfolk, people who acted as healers, were often among the accused in Europe. However, in the end, Sarah turns out to be a true witch who tries to destroy Scooby-Doo and his friends. Again, the movie plays off our fear of evil witches.
Others have used the trials as a way to make a political point. A great example of this is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Miller used the trials to make a political statement against the Red Scare that occurred in the United States in which several people were accused of being communists. The Red Scare, much like the trials, used circumstantial evidence and many innocent people were accused. Miller made several changes to the story of the trials including John Proctor’s age and adding in that he had an affair with Abigail Williams. These changes reflect Miller’s goal to entertain while making his point, not what actually occurred in Salem Village.
Lastly, some shows have used the trials not only to gain the audience’s interest through our fascination, but to make a connection to the religious fervor that gripped Salem Village and contributed to the trials. Criminal Minds is one such example. In the sixth episode of the show’s ninth season, the team of behavioral analysts track down an unknown subject who is killing women he believes are witches. The unsub believes he, the descendent of one of the judges at Salem Village, is responsible for purging his town of witches. He bases his judgment off the Bible and the history of the trials. His actions echo the religious aspect of the trials as well as the panic and urgency that many of the villagers felt.
Salem Village and the trials that took place continue to fascinate us for several reasons such as our lack of understanding, our want to protect the innocent, and our interest in magic. In addition, I believe we still study Salem because it cannot ever fully be explained. There is no simple explanation as to why the events happened. It is a complex issue that still requires more research, and it may never have a complete answer.
Reacting to the Past: Before Thoughts
What would you do if you could go back in time and interrogate those responsible for accusing the men and women killed in Salem Village during the witch craze? In this coming week, the class will have the opportunity to do just that while we participate in Dr. Lucas’s reacting to the past game entitled “Salem on Trial.” This short, three session long game will put the accusers, rather than the accused on trial. Those who are not participating as the characters on trial will decide whether or not the accusers should be convicted of either disturbing the queen’s peace, or criminal responsibility for the death of the accused witches.
I wanted to record my thoughts before we got too far into the game, that way I could compare them to my thoughts after the game has finished. I anticipate a few difficulties with this game. First, I admit that I find it difficult to sympathize whatsoever with the accusers. Next, I believe I will find it hard not to argue for or against someone’s guilt because my character, a judge, only has the ability to ask a question. Third, I am concerned over the balance of power in the court. Everyone is already assigned a faction, either guilty or not guilty. The jurors are the only characters who can vote on whether or not a person is convicted. If they are already assigned to factions, how could they possibly be convinced to vote against their faction? I am interested to see how this will play out in the game.
One of my biggest concerns is the burden of proof and how the verdicts will be decided. It is hard not to imagine that everyone on trial will be convicted of at least disturbing the peace. However, if we are to argue guilt, how do we prove the accusers are guilty of a crime? They could easily defend themselves by saying they were doing what they had to do, including reporting witches and protecting the village by eliminating this threat.
After the first session I have found myself wondering whether or not the existence of witches should even be discussed. The real villagers in Salem eventually came to a consensus that the women had not been witches, but that the girls, as well as the rest of the town, had been fooled by the devil (Godbeer, 168). Does this place the blame for the deaths on Satan? Can the accusers be presumed innocent even if the women were not really witches?
Another question raised in the first session of the game was whether or not the younger girls could truly be convicted. The student playing Abigail Williams pointed out that she was only a child, and it was the adults who took action and put the accused in jail, later deciding to put some of them to death by hanging. The girls only had as much power as the adults gave them. If the girls cannot be blamed, what about Ann Putnam Sr., a grown woman with greater influence due to her age? Can she be held responsible while the younger accusers get away without punishment?
Does the guilt even lie with the accusers? Is it not the courts fault for allowing spectral evidence? The courts in Stamford Connecticut did not allow spectral evidence and this resulted in the accused going free (Godbeer, 103). Could it be possible that the judges and jury of Salem Village were trying to avoid angering the villagers? Godbeer discusses the difficulties of navigating between what the people wanted, and what the court was required to do (Godbeer, 89). So could the judges have stopped the trials, or did the anger and confidence of the villagers force their hand?
Lastly, I have concern over how I will sympathize with my character, the Chief Magistrate William Stoughton. It proved difficult to get into his head space on the first day of the game. He is highly educated, having received theological training, and served in several political offices. He is also one of the men who allowed spectral evidence, something that I myself find ludicrous. It is difficult to do what we set out to do at the beginning of the semester and put myself into the shoes of a Puritan, someone who strongly believed in the existence of witches. It is hard to imagine the fear these people must have felt, believing that they were truly under attack. As Puritans they had set themselves to an almost unattainable standard to be that “City upon a Hill.” It must have been horrifying to believe that they could truly sacrifice their salvation if they sinned in the slightest.
Although I anticipate these challenges, I look forward to discussing the game after it has concluded. Everything comes together much more clearly after a reacting to the past game has ended and motivations become clear. Even though it does not seem clear to me now how the power of the jury will be balanced, I know that there must be some kind of a safeguard in place that will be revealed at the end of the trials.
Reacting to the Past: After Thoughts
After our trial sessions this week, I am surprised to say that my opinion about the Salem witch trials has changed substantially. The greatest reason for that, I believe, is that I was required to defend the accusers.
My character, Chief Magistrate William Stoughton, was a member of the “Not Guilty” faction in the game. My motivation came from the hope to spare myself any blame. Stoughton was the chief judge and the man who ruled spectral evidence was enough to convict the accused. If any of the accusers were found guilty, I too could have been implicated.
In the course of trying to prove the accusers innocent of disturbing the Queen’s peace or being criminally responsible for the deaths of the accusers, I found my opinion of the accusers, especially the afflicted girls, was changing. I will address my feelings before and after the trials for each of the accusers:
1. Samuel Parris: At first I believed that he was definitely responsible for the start of the witch craze. He allowed things to get way out of proportion. However, after the in-class trials I felt that Parris deserves a large portion of the blame. He pushed the girls to name names, and he acted too drastically based off of the diagnoses of only one physician.
2. Ann Putnam Sr.: I originally felt that as an adult woman she should have known better than to participate in these accusations and that, because she was an adult, was most likely targeting her enemies. Based on the testimony given in class, however, I feel like she very likely could have been manipulated by her husband.
3. Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., and the Core of Afflicted Girls: I will admit that for a very long time I believed much of the girls’ actions were fake. However, after having to defend the girls in class, I do not believe this is enough of an explanation. Many of them were young girls, with little to no power in the Village. The trials rest more on the men who put the women on trial.
4. Tituba- My opinion on Tituba is much the same as it started. She was a scapegoat, and she said what she said to save herself. Yes, she did open the door by claiming there were more witches. However, I do not believe she is the most responsible.
5. Dr. Griggs- Like Tituba, my opinion on Griggs is much the same. In my opinion, he played a minor roll. Parris is the one who acted on the diagnoses. Griggs had little to do with the trials.
Now I would like to readdress the concerns I spoke of in my previous post. First, it was not as difficult as I believed it would be to sympathize with the accusers. Like I have already mentioned, the in-class trials caused me to reassess that the younger afflicted girls may have been feeling real fear, and that passing them off as pretenders does not address the complexity of the situation.
Second, I was correct in my concern that only being able to ask a question would prove difficult. I constantly struggled in not being able to argue a point or remind the judges of a piece of evidence they failed to discuss.
Third, the balance of power, as I expected, was cured by a safety measure. Not all of the judges were assigned to the “guilty” or “not guilty” factions. Three judges were swing voters who relied only on the testimony given in court.
Finally, the burden of proof did prove to be a point of contention in the trials. A lot of time was spent debating over whether or not witchcraft was real. The fact that the jury could not come to a decision on this point complicated the rest of their decisions. If witchcraft was real, then the accusers had done Salem Village a service, if it was not real, then they were criminally responsible for the deaths of innocent people.
My final thoughts on the trial is this: no one deserves as much blame as the judges and jury. They were the ones who decided to allow spectral evidence in court. They let the girls sit in on the trials, giving them the opportunity to act out while the accused were being questioned. Finally, they are the ones who sentenced the men and women to death. Other courts, like the one in Stamford, Connecticut, did not allow spectral evidence to be used for convictions, and in these cases the accused were saved. Salem Village was not the norm, it was an unusual case, and this was due to the courts.
Three Sovereigns for Sarah: The Danger of Accepting a Single Theory
In the film, Three Sovereigns for Sarah, the happenings at Salem Village in 1692 are recounted from the perspective of one of the accused, Sarah Cloyce. She and her two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, were all accused of witchcraft. Although Sarah survived to tell her side of the story, her two sisters were among those hung.
While the film does address some of the complexities of the Salem witch trials, it interprets them from only one viewpoint. The theory put forth in Salem Possessed, a book written by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbuam, is the focus of the movie. Boyer and Nissenbaum hypothesize that Salem Village was a village divided.
They support their argument by addressing that the village was split into two camps: one that was for the appointment of Reverend Parris, and those who were against it. The pro-Parris faction was made up of mostly Putnams, those who acted as accusers. The anti-Parris camp was led by Porters, and those related to the Porters were among the accused.
Pulling from this theory, Three Sovereigns for Sarah interprets the afflicted girls as liars, manipulated by their parents to name the enemies of Parris and the Putnam family. Ann Putnam Sr. is shown manipulating her daughter into accusing Sarah and her sisters. According to Sarah, Ann Putnam Sr.’s mother had accused Sarah’s mother of witchcraft years prior due to a bad land deal.
Land continues to be a theme in the film. The Putnam’s are stressed due to loss of land and, by extension, power. They are also fighting a battle to support Parris, a minister who is widely unpopular in the village. These pressures seem to be alleviated when the afflicted girls give the Putnam’s the power to accuse their enemies of witchcraft.
Although it is tempting to accept the simplicity of this model, we must not be taken in by the movie. The situation in Salem Village was much more complex than what is portrayed in the film.
Mary Easty, Sarah’s sister, says it best in the film:
"I believe they are truly possessed…They are possessed, and yet, they are not."
What Mary is trying to say is this: the girls are not possessed by witches, and Mary herself certainly is not harming them. However, the girls are not simply liars either; they truly are possessed by something, some feeling strong enough to cause them to act afflicted.
Others in the film echo Mary’s sentiment, commenting that the girls were both possessed and possessing themselves. Again, this expresses the belief that the girls are not truly afflicted and are making false claims, but it is not so simple that their actions can be explained as pretending.
The idea that the girls were liars is attractive because it is simple and wraps up the mystery of Salem Village into one small, neat package. However, the truth resists simplicity. As mentioned in previous blog posts, the girls could have been influenced by a number of factors. Several were orphans, and may have been suffering from PTSD after seeing their families slaughtered by Native Americans.
Acting as accusers also gave them an opportunity to wield power they never would have had otherwise. Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave, comments on this power in the film, saying that she now has the ability to make the men in the village fear her because she has named other witches. Both Tituba and the afflicted girls have power because of their authority to name witches.
Although we cannot simply call the girls liars, this does not mean we should dismiss Boyer and Nissenbaum. Salem Village truly was divided over the appointment of Parris, and family relations and feuds between neighbors certainly played a role in the trials.
We must also, however, consider the theories of other historians. These include:
1. In the Devil’s Snare, Mary Beth Norton- Witchcraft accusations could have been about the anger toward felt Native Americans after the Indian Wars.
2. Entertaining Satan, John Demos- The girls were struggling for autonomy, and accusations were a way to maintain social order.
3. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Carol Karlsen- Accusations reveal gender roles; the afflicted girls are on the lowest rung on the social ladder.
4. The Devil’s Domain, Richard Godbeer- Religion played a role; the trials reflect both the common folk versus the elites, and clergy versus laypeople.