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Monday, February 25, 2019

February 25, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: Causes

[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On three (of the many) stages to how we’ve tried to explain a seemingly inexplicable event.
1)      Youthful (female) hysteria: Those initial accusations of Good, Osborne, and Tituba were leveled by two young cousins, Abigail Williams (age 11) and Elizabeth Parris (9). In January and February of 1692 they began to suffer various mysterious ailments, and when pressed for explanations eventually accused the three women—all to one degree or another outsiders—of bewitching them. While community members of every age, gender, and station would eventually level witchcraft accusations before the Trials ended, it was these young women who most directly set the events in motion, and other young women would continue to level similar accusations over subsequent months. So explanations that have focused on hysterical young girls are not without historical contexts—but nonetheless play into broader social and cultural narratives of female hysteria that are, at best, reductive and problematic (and frankly far too often contribute to witch hunts and the like).
2)      Wheat: For that reason among others, historians began to search for other explanations for the frenzy and horrors in Salem. In the 1970s, an enterprising college student (and future behavioral psychologist) named Linnda Caporeal discovered one promising possibility: ergot poisoning (or ergotism). As that second hyperlinked article notes, the ergot fungus affects rye grain, and could easily have contaminated Salem’s grain during the winter of 1691-1692; LSD is a derivative of ergot, and so ergot poisoning has many of the same physical and psychological symptoms as that hallucinogenic drug. Given that no one (not in their own era and not in the centuries since) had ever been able to diagnose the ailment that undoubtedly was affecting those young girls (and eventually many other community members) in early 1692, and given that a dry summer would likely eliminate the ergot and thus lead to an amelioration of those symptoms, Caporeal’s explanation for what was happening to Salemites remains a convincing one.
3)      Fear of others: But while ergotism might well explain what the residents were suffering from, I don’t know that it goes very far toward explaining why so many Salemites chose to accuse one another of witchcraft; even the concept of hallucinations wouldn’t mean they necessarily all hallucinated this particular cause, after all. If we don’t want to return to youthful female hysteria or fantasies or cliquish antagonisms (and I really don’t), we still need to explain why so many affected residents became accusers. And for this AmericanStudier, one likely factor would have to be the fear of those different from the Anglo settlers. As Tituba (on whom more tomorrow) indicates, by the late 17th century Salem (like every New England community) included slaves, who comprised one clear group of “others” to English Puritans. Nearby Native Americans of course comprised another (and witchcraft was often associated with the forests and the natives, as Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter reminds us). Moreover, Salem was a very small community, and its residents likely felt the fragility of their town and lives on a relatively constant basis. Which is to say, unique as they were in many ways, the Salem Witch Trials might also be an early moment in the battle between exclusion and inclusion in American history.
Next Witch Trials context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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