Witch Hunting in Salem
Early New England : Conform or be Cast Out !
The Salem Witch Trials of seventeenth century Massachusetts quintessential example of scapegoating. Fear combined with traumatic or tense situations can cause people to seek the comfort and answers to problem by placing the blame of solely on individuals who can not defend themselves. Fear of demonic creatures and the devil was a serious terror for the colonist of early New England. A real fear of supernatural evil trying to invade and ruin Christian communities fed the logic of puritan Salem witch hysteria. The added isolation of the wild mysterious landscape, animals and native people of their ‘new world’ set up the perfect stage for the dramatic events that caused over two hundred people to be accused of witchcraft and twenty people to be convicted and executed in 1692.
These were dark times. Though Cotton Mather wrote his accounts of The Salem Witch Trials in the 1690’s in his The Wonders of the Invisible World, that ‘the New Englanders are a people of God settled in those,which were once the devils territories:’(Norton 151), scapegoating innocent people for things you can not explain continues to be a method used by powerful charismatic leaders throughout American history. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 have become synonymous with fear mongering.
Mather paints a vivid imagery of the dark, shadowy,gloomy wilderness.With menacing trees branching wickedly across rivers that coiled like serpents in the far western areas of Massachusetts. Places no one would want to venture out on their own. Independence and individuality was seen in Puritan terms as dissension from the rigid ideology of their values.”the devil thus irritated,immediately tried all sorts methods to overturn this poor plantation so much of this the church ,as fled into this wilderness,immediately found the serpent cast of of his mouth a flood for carrying it away.’(Norton 151) Mather is clearly using fear and damnation as a way to manipulate the community from even thinking of expanding beyond the safety of their church. Stay within the safety of our walls he suggests, this is where God wants you
During the Witch Trials, in August of 1692, Mather used this murky demonic manipulation to once again compel the readers to conform to the subject of witchcraft and the cimmerian belief in devil possession. Even though he himself questioned the evidence, Mather remained silent and made no public acknowledgment of it. As far as he was concerned things were going wrong in the Salem settlement and witchcraft was more than acceptable explanation for it. Who needs science or facts when everyone believes it and agrees with it ,it must be true.Besides so many townspeople might be inclined to stay with the Christian faith if they feared the ‘devil would get them.’if they did not heed the word of God. Address people’s fear, give them someone or something to blame , and instant scapegoat is made, Mather absorbed this and used it to promote his agenda, keep Salem compliant.
Sarah Abbots’ cows got severely ill and so did her husband Benjamin. They had no explanation for either one,but they were sure Martha Carrier was behind it. Since she had cussed off Mr Abbot for stealing her land and called him out on it, in a threatening manner, ‘these words were heard by others besides Abbot himself ;who also heard her say,she would hold his nose as close to the grindstone as ever …he was taken with a swelling in his foot,and a pain in his side,and exceedingly tormented. ‘ (Norton 154) V. ‘John Rogger also testified that upon the threatening words of this malicious Carrier,his cattle would be strangely bewitched;as was more particularly then described.’ (Norton 154). Cotton Mather figured these were ironclad reasons for witchcraft being the blame for all these sick cows and swelled husbands.
When in reality a number of real factors were actually behind the stress and agitation of Salem. A recent smallpox epidemic, power struggles between families within the colony, a constant threat of attack from nearby Native-American tribes, and a recent invasion of strangers trying to escape King William’s war with France in Canada and upstate New York combined with a new Kings and Queens in England threatening religious upheaval with a new imperial perspective from abroad, the Puritans felt out of control. They needed to blame someone or something they could focus their fear on, Poor Martha Carrier and many others accused were part of the political solution to the unrest.
Mather vehemently went over the reasons these people like Martha Carrier needed to confess and save their souls but even if they did not the rest of the township had to look out for their souls. In Carriers case her bold unfeminine unchristian behavior singled her out as an outcast. She would not settle down and resume her place as a quiet good-wife of Salem. Confession of her own family were used to condemn her. Never-mind that they were probably tortured for those confessions. ‘Before the trial of this prisoner, several of her own children had frankly and fully confessed not only that they were witches themselves, but that their mother had made them so. This confession was made with great shows of repentance and much demonstration of truth.’(Norton 154) This was a seventeenth century version of ‘alternative facts’.
Of course, there were critics of the witch trials. Not everyone in Salem believed in witchcraft. A local farmer named John Proctor accused the young girls who did the all finger-pointing at the victims of being scam artists. He felt they were manipulating their power and growing popularity to condemn people they did not like or were encouraged by adults to call them out, this of course got John himself accused. Conform or be cast out.
“This rampant hag, Martha Carrier was the person of whom the confession of the witches,and of her own children among the rest,agreed that the devil had promised her she should be Queen of the Hebrews”(Norton 155) wrote Cotton Mather. By name calling and asserting that her own family believed the accusation , witchcraft was a reasonable solution to the unanswered fears of the community. Only ‘true believers’ and true Christian would be rewarded with a happy soul in Salem.
This all happened about four hundred years ago.However the classic practice of witch-hunting has manifested into many forms throughout American history. From the Salem Witch Trials, The Japanese Internment Camps of 1940's,McCarthyism of the 1950’s, Civil Rights movements and the assignation of Martin Luther King Jr, The Muslim bans since 911, Mexicans are ‘Bad Hombre’ and the ‘Fear Mongering’ continues to march on. The faces change but the ideology is the same, take fear mix it with misinformation ,stir up with blame and finger-pointing and you have a witch’s brew of hate. When do we learn from this mistake?