Early American Witches: Fueling the Fire
By Cathy Hartt, RN, CNM, MS
"You are a liar, not a leader." "You don't know how to walk like Jesus." "You always
get everything you want." "You are so different, you don't even know what different
is." "You are too powerful and making too much money."
These are words I, personally, encountered when I found myself the target of a
modern day witch-hunt several years ago. Words were spoken that wounded my
soul deeply and traumatically. My studies of the Salem witch trials (and my "witch"
ancestors) have helped me see what happened as part of a larger social event.
While the true witch-hunts of the Middle Ages died out in the 1700's, society can
and does recreate similar dynamics even in the new millennium. These dynamics
are the kindling that fuels the fires of the witch-hunt.
Fear is probably the most obvious common thread underlying the witch-hunt
dynamic. In Salem, people were fearful. Their charter with England had lapsed,
meaning they did not know if they could keep their property after the appointment of
a new governor. They were also fearful of being in a new land with so much
uncharted area surrounding their village - they probably felt very isolated. It is
notable that they feared the American Indians (who inhabited the nearby woods) as
a type of witch. They were also fearful that they would become like nearby Salem
Town - a place that had turned more worldly that the intensely conservative, Puritan
Salem Village. They felt that changing their values would separate them from God.
Further, they were a culture with a strong belief in good/evil where only so many
could get into heaven.
In addition, Salem Village had gone for a while without a minister to oversee the
spiritual direction of the community. During the year or two preceding the
witch-hunts, local church members entered into an embittered conflict in deciding on
the next minister. The front running candidate, Reverend Parris, was a failed
merchant marine/businessman who had never actually preached until he was
ordained for the Salem position. The battle was so "win/loose" in nature that the
church actually formed two committees - pro-Parris and anti-Parris. Money was tight
and Parris bartered with the parish over salary. He did eventually accept the
position, where he became a central figure in the witch-hunt hysteria.
Now add to this mix a group of village girls, many of who are in their adolescence.
On Sundays, they (being of the lowest status in the community) are made to stand
in the back of the church. It is not surprising that they wonder about which boy they
will marry and how this will influence their community status. Other New England
witch-hunts also involved groups of adolescent women who began to meet
separately to discuss these types of issues. Over time, they became the accusers,
and their social status was elevated beyond that of even a clergyman. Another
ingredient was Reverend Parris' slave, an Indian woman from Barbados, whose
cultural background included the use of voodoo to predict the future. The girls
gathered at secretly Reverend Parris' home to have Tituba foretell their future.
Witch-hunts have been likened to a state of social anxiety. Mob mentality is not too
strong of a word to help us understand why 19 people were executed in Salem - and
many more tried and jailed. Society's rules are suspended in a mob, so people feel
free to do whatever they want. Perhaps this was an unconscious rebellion of the
strict Puritan norms that governed Salem's culture. In a mob, people give up their
independence in favor of what is going on around them. The number one factor for
mob mentality is a feeling of lawlessness, or that something isn't right with the rules.
The girl's accusations have been likened to a sort of psychological test of the issues
of the adults in the community. It is interesting that in Salem, the adults provided
feedback to the girls when they pointed fingers at figures that threatened the
culture. There were occasions when they also saw God-like creatures and positive
images, but the adults largely ignored these. It is worth mentioning that the girls'
behavior could have been labeled witchcraft itself, so they had great motivation to
provide the adults with information to keep themselves safe from accusation and
Another factor that plays into witch-hunts is a reliance on local male authority figures
to bring order to the situation. It is easy for me to sit at some distance to even my
own witch-hunt experience and see a big picture. At the time, it felt like horrible
personal abuse. I can only imagine that others - those accusing and those judging -
were as caught-up in the moment as I was. We know from history that witch-hunts
tend to come to a close when authority figures with more distance from the hysteria
are called upon to manage the situation. The local judges see the all too-real
hysteria in (often young) community members and feel compelled to eliminate it,
generally by eliminating the witch figure. This is certainly true of Salem; as the crisis
grew beyond one or two witches to be executed, it also drew in authority figures from
outside the immediate community. They eventually put the trials and executions to a
Politics - it goes without saying - play a role. It is interesting to note that the
witch-hunts of New England also featured a male authority figure (in this case,
Reverend Parris) who was fearful of loosing his own status and exploited the
situation in order to gain/retain control. It seems almost common sense that none of
those on the pro-Parris committee were accused of witchcraft, whereas a large
percentage of those on the anti-Parris committee were.
There are many theories about what causes witch-hunts, especially those that grew
as large and deadly as the one in Salem. The purpose of this short column is not to
draw any final conclusions, but rather to point to the factors that seem to be
common denominators. I introduced this column with words I encountered as the
target of a witch-hunt. I chose those words not only because they were wounding to
me personally, but also because I believe they point to the presence of similar
themes in modern day witch-hunts - fear, jealousy, and a feeling that the cultural
values are being threatened. Our next column will look at how these features are a
stark contrast to creating healthy, quality-focused communities.
Fueling the Fire: Kindling
of the Witch-Hunt
Pearl Lake State Park