Final Research Project
The Salem witch trials were an event that took place in Massachusetts 1692–1693. Experts attribute the widespread fear to a number of things. However, the fear of the devil, group think, and the presence of hallucinogenic molding rye bread played an enormous part in the trials and killings that took place during this period.
The first case of “Witchcraft” was first documented when a puritan minister by the name of Samuel Parris noticed that his daughter and niece had been experiencing uncontrollable body spasms. With the help of a local doctor, it was ruled that the pair were suffering from influences of witchcraft. Then, eyes were turned towards a woman named Tituba, she was a Caribbean slave who frequently babysat the two and later admitted to practicing witchcraft. This wove the notion that there were demons amongst neighbors and would lead to widespread panic and fear as the town attempted to deal with this issue. Now, what were the immediate responses that we know of? Well, to start, the testimonies of children were taken as undeniable proof of the devil being present and acting maliciously in their town. The acceptance of these testimonies are linked to the execution and imprisonment of many innocent citizens. “The Salem Witch Trials officially began in February of 1692, when the afflicted girls accused the first three victims, Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, of witchcraft and ended in May of 1693, when the remaining victims were released from jail.” (Brooks)
An important thing to touch on while discussing what was present in 1692 Massachusetts would be the unfair power dynamics between citizens alongside group hysteria and extremely strict beliefs. Something that struck me as noteworthy was that out of the 20 killed, 14 were women. “Across New England, where witch trials occurred somewhat regularly from 1638 until 1725, women vastly outnumbered men in the ranks of the accused and executed according to author Carol F. Karlsen’s “The Devil in the Shape of a women” 78% of 344 alleged witches in New England were female. Even when men faced allegations of witchcraft, it was typically because they were somehow associated with accused women. As historian John Demos has established the few Puritan men tried for witchcraft were mostly the husbands or brothers of alleged female witches.” (Marshall) It appears that the puritans thought of women strictly in the sense of being subservient to their husbands. However, it was widely believed that women were more likely to be tempted by the devil.
Rye bread may actually have been the catalyst for the Salem witch trials. I realize this may sound ridiculous and without the bread it is possible for both fear and suggestibility to grab hold of a large town but according to historians they generally agree that the climate was perfect for a type of mold called ergotism. “The behavior exhibited in 1692 fits the bill of rye-induced ergotism. Ergotism forms in rye after a severe winter and a damp spring — conditions that Caporael and other historians claim were present in 1691 and therefore affected the rye harvested for consumption in 1692.” (Lohnes) Due to the limited medical knowledge of this time period, it is believed that the bread went under the radar and the effected young girls who then, under the stress of the situation chose to run with the diagnosis of witchcraft from the doctor. This sparked the hunt for the devil and witches living what was believed to be just a few doors down. This event shaped the following year and could be a primary source in the deaths of 20 people and the imprisonment of 200. This illustrates how important it is to have our modern medical knowledge and the dangers that can be associated with large groups of people whose actions are based on fear and ignorance.
Based off of the Salem witch trials, I would argue the major causes of hysteria present stemmed from widespread fear of the devil, strict religious and social views with pressure to follow along with what was being said as well as moldy bread that may have caused the convulsions initially observed by the doctor to be witchcraft. I would go on to say that fear and unhealthy group thinking can be extremely detrimental to a group of people or society, especially if the individuals making these decisions are fearful, egotistical, and powerful while also being completely out of their mind on moldy ergotamine infested rye. much like what was witnessed here in Salem. Looping back to the major argument, the event can be oversimplified by saying that the spoiled rye bread that caused convulsions, delusions, crawling sensations, and, in some cases, severe hallucinations were the real danger to the people of Salem. Had the people of 1692 been able to analyze more than going off of fearful emotions could this event have garnered a different approach altogether? Or, Instead, even with the knowledge we have today, would treading through fearful, unfamiliar territory lead their most qualified individuals to again agree to deal in absolutes that no, the cause of the problems are witches and nothing else and anybody who opposed this widely accepted ideology was in fact an enemy to the people and to god.
Reflecting on the course I feel the most important thing that I have learned would be the analytical strategies we have studied. I note this as the key takeaway as they are not only strategies that can be applied to historical study but every piece of writing you encounter. Questions I still have would be geared primarily towards learning more about the archival process, in particular the procedures one must follow and variety of sources that can be found was something I found to be extremely interesting. I really appreciated the level of care and careful planning that went into this course. This class has been as good as an online course can get. I would like to also take this chance to express how thankful I am for the flexibility and willingness you have shown to all of your students while you yourself are dealing with the pandemic as well. I’ve had professors this term who show up on late Sunday afternoon to post which assignments were due that day and that was quite literally the only interaction that was had, so, a class structured like this one went a long way for me personally in not feeling overwhelmed.
Melissa Davenport Berry Ancestry Archives “A letter from Robert Pike to Judge Curwin Salem Witch Trials 1692” February 22, 2017.
Project Director: Benjamin Ray, Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive published by the University of Virginia. 2018.
Academic Secondary Sources
Samir S. Patel “Salem’s Lost Gallows” February 2017. Archaeology Magazine.
Rebecca Beatriz Brooks “History of the Salem Witch Trials” August 18, 2011. History of Massachusetts Blog.
Rebecca Beatrice Brooks. History of Massachusetts Blog “What Options Did an Accused Witch Have in Salem?” February 29, 2016.
Additional Secondary Sources
Kate Lohnes. “Encyclopedia Britannica: How Rye Bread Might Have Caused the Salem Witch Trials” 2017.
Rebecca Beatrice Brooks. History of Massachusetts Blog “Timeline of the Salem Witch Trials” January 4, 2014.
Rebecca Beatrice Brooks. History of Massachusetts Blog “Salem Witch Trials: Primary Sources” July 7, 2018