The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials are not simply the most famous “witch hunt” processes in North America. This phenomenon is also a unique example, significantly different from the same “witch hunt” in medieval Europe. In the Old World, the Inquisition, who was hunting the witches, was cheered by superstitious fear of the population, namely the Inquisition took denunciations and organized inquiry and trial, and largely determined the sentence. In the case of the witches of Salem, apparently, people were faced with a mass psychosis and a power teenage cruelty. This distinctive feature made Salem witch trials different from the numerous similar cases. The fact that people conducted the trials over innocent points out on the cruelty of the society. In addition, the trials had the significant effect on the future since this term has become a modern-day metaphor. For extremely moralistic Puritans in Salem, daily life was an unceasing struggle between God and Devil, and witches and their craft primarily reflected Satan and his doings. Therefore, the laws of New England recognized witchcraft as a crime that was more terrible than the murder and arson; in addition, such trials made it easy to write off common society’s problems of contemporary Western Europe.

The Case Overview

In January 1692, a few girls, including the daughter and niece of the priest of the village of Salem, began to behave in a very unusual way. They cried for no reason, babbled some nonsense, made strange noise, took unnatural posture, and hid under the furniture; in general, they behaved abnormally (Wilson 22). It was impossible for their families to understand what was happening as it was not possible to make medical diagnosis. However, in those days very religious Puritans believed that evil forces were able to cause harm with the help of magic. Family members of the priest turned to the dark-skinned slave Tituba, who was brought from Barbados and served in his house, because she allegedly could cast some spells to resist evil. Tituba performed some rituals, but the girls were not getting better. In fact, few other girls and young women had similar symptoms. The village rumors said that it was the work of witches, and soon the girls told the priests and officials that images of various women from the village came to them in a dream to torture girls. Three women named by girls were soon arrested and the legendary Salem witch trials began.

For about eight months, dozens of girls and young women aged between nine and twenty kept the entire bay neighborhood in fear: the court decided to accept their testimony as true and on this basis to sentence people to death as witches and wizards (Wilson 39). The evidence base was simple – if in the presence of the accused “victims” began to behave as epileptic, it was considered an iron proof. As a result, in September 1692, approximately twenty people, including a former priest of the village, were hanged, and an old farmer, the husband of one of the “witches” was tortured to death, a dozen of people have died in prison (Wilson 42). Overall, more than a hundred people were accused because of lies. In the end, the residents of the village suspected that such great number of “victims” means that the number of witches in a small district was incredible. Finally, in October 1692, the process was stopped. The remaining alive defendants were pardoned, five years later the judge admitted their mistakes, and ten years later, all the sentences were deemed illegal (Wilson 43).

Meaning

Salem process in 1692 was not the only one witch trial in New England in the 17th century. Puritan colonists brought the belief in the existence of witches and their ability to cause harm to people and their property using supernatural forces (so medieval law defines witchcraft) to New England from Old England, where witch trials were frequent (Gildrie 17). Therefore, for the colonists witchcraft was real and serious crime similar to theft or robbery. In 1641, the death penalty for witchcraft was established in Massachusetts. Right before the Salem process, in 1688 in Boston, Massachusetts, after a dispute with the Irish washerwoman Goody Glover, children of her owner Martha Goodwin started to behave very strangely. Glover was arrested and charged for bewitching Goodwin’s children (Rosenthal 55). Here, the question why the Salem trials became a metaphor for unfair judgment arises. The answer is one – it is the biggest and the most absurd.

The very fact that victims’ strange movements in the presence of a suspect were the solid evidence for the death penalty confirms all irrationality and superstition of the court. What is more, no one could say for sure whether the victim really experienced an attack or not. One hundred and forty people were put into jail under suspicion of practicing magic. Perhaps, the overwhelming majority of them were imprisoned because of lie. One of the theories for Salem trials causes is that girls-victims were only checking how they could manipulate the judges (Rosental 209). Therefore, the Salem trials became the symbol of “inevitable consequences of an ill-advised action” (Adams 24). This is because everyone every minute could be announced a witch or a wizard. The witch trial became an instrument to dispose the enemies or offenders. The real intention of “witch hunt”, i.e. exposure of real “witches”-offenders, was distorted to the process of undesirable and the weapon of revenge.

The Salem trials also reflect the human tendency for finding someone responsible for a particular event. The point is that sometimes this strive for justice results in finding a person, who can be accused and, unfortunately, in an overwhelming majority of cases the offender is innocent (Adams 25). That is why the Salem trials are also a widely known metaphor for finding a glutton for punishment, albeit not to such great extent. Every slight mention of this case is connected with false accusations and something that is often called “a grim business.” In addition, due to the most frequently defined cause of the trial, it can be called a manipulation case.

In the 20th century, the name of the phenomenon obtained a different meaning, not related to the parent historical period. However, the roots of this modern notion can be derived from 17th century. It was used as a generic for crusades to discredit any social groups or individual for political or other reasons (for example, political opponents, business rivals, revolutionists, and even ethnic groups, such as Jews or Gipsies) having no proof and proper evidence base. Typically, such campaigns are the means of achieving certain policy objectives and manipulating public opinion through the media. In fact, a particular group of people or a person was casted in a negative light intentionally and (for the most part) undeservingly and the society began to mob and “hunt the witch.” It is very convenient for accusation of political delinquents or dissidents. This way is rather convenient since it does not require following legal regulations – it can be done outside of them.

Salem witch trials are a shameful page in the American history. It is associated with unfair judgments, false accusations and manipulation. Moreover, such disgraceful experience became a metaphor for modern people. However, unfortunately, distorted notion of “witch hunt” is still used nowadays for punishing opponents and descendants, having no evidence base to prove their fault. This fact and the scale of Salem witch trials make this event meaningful for the American people and metaphoric for the description of all false accusation cases.

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