Essay on witchcraft at Gallows Hill

During the first six months of 1692, a small New England religious community was turned upside down and became the stage for a real-life drama that would be talked about for hundreds of years afterwards. That summer, nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft and hanged at Gallows Hill, near the Puritan settlement of Salem Village, Massachusetts. It was the Puritan’s strict religious customs and beliefs, along with the Puritan’s social culture that triggered the witch hunt hysteria that led to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Hundreds of villagers faced accusations of witchcraft, and dozens waited in prisons for their day in court. The Salem Witch Trials only lasted six months and twenty-two days. Then, in spring 1693, almost as quickly as they had started, the hysteria that spread throughout the Puritan village of Salem ended. Who would have known that nearly one hundred years earlier, thousands of English immigrants arrived in the US colonies seeking religious freedom? Religious freedom was not a consideration for the accused in Salem, Massachusetts.
Many new communities were established in Massachusetts around the coastal town of Salem. These new settlers from England called themselves Puritans, because they were seeking to break away from the Church of England and practice a ‘pure’ form of Christianity. Puritan beliefs were very strict and all members of Puritan society were expected to follow a very rigid and inflexible moral code. Any behavior or idea contrary to this code was considered a sin and required punishment.
A core belief of the Puritans was that the Devil was as real as God. Life was viewed as an ongoing struggle between God and Satan. This belief made Puritans very aware of and suspicious of supernatural forces in their daily lives. If lightning struck a church house, it was interpreted as an act of the Devil. If the local Indian tribe became sick, it was viewed as the will of God. It was believed that the Devil needed to find people who were weak or not strong in the faith to carry out his will. ‘Satan would select the weakest individuals’women, children, the insane’to carry out his work.’ Any person viewed as working for the Devil was viewed as a witch, and anyone found to be a witch would be punished under Puritan law as trying to carry out the will of Satan.’
The nineteen men and women convicted of witchcraft during the Salem witch hunt of 1692 were viewed as failing to uphold Puritan values, making themselves easy targets for carrying out the Devil’s work. The Puritans adhered to a strict moral code and believed that the Devil could easily influence people. This misguided assumption provided the religious leaders of Salem Village justification to convict and then execute nineteen innocent people. This justification was needed to rid their ‘pure’ society of those who posed a threat or challenged the leaders of Salem, either in church or in business. As opposed to having actual evidence in the courtroom, the accused women and men were condemned to death based on their positions in society and the testimonies of several teenage girls. In the late summer and early fall of 1692, the silhouettes of bodies swaying from ropes on Gallows Hill became an all too familiar sight. Prior to this infamous summer, the suppressed Salem teenage girls appeared to be looking for adventure and excitement in their lives.
There were not many pastimes suitable for Puritan youth who lived at the foot of Gallows Hill during this time. Almost all fun activities were banned, especially for girls. Girls were expected to be trained in homemaking skills and would spend most of their time indoors ‘ unlike boys, who would explore and hunt outdoors. Reading books was an acceptable pastime, but the majority of girls weren’t interested in books that were religious or academic in nature. Many girls were interested in reading about prophecy and fortune telling. It was common for girls to practice divinations and fortune telling they learned from their readings. These exploratory games helped young girls pass time during the cold and boring winter months when they were forced to stay indoors. These supernatural and mysterious taboos associated with witchcraft were appealing to the young girls of Salem, and these games enticed them to fantasize and create an imaginary world of intrigue and the supernatural.
On a cold January morning in 1692, two bored young girls created a game to help identify their future husbands. Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris, pastor of Salem Village, dropped the white of an egg into a crystal glass. Their housemaid, Tituba, who was from the West Indies, taught the girls how to carry out this ritual. Tituba was from a country where black magic was widely practiced and, therefore, it was assumed she would know how to conduct such a test. As they peered at their homemade crystal ball they tried to interpret the shapes made by the dripping egg. Elizabeth and Abigail tried to learn the identity of their future spouses. However fun this game must have been, both girls must have realized that engaging in this type of devilish practice of fortune telling was strictly forbidden by the Puritan moral code. During the game, something went terribly wrong. Instead of seeing the image of a future husband, one of the girls saw the shape of a coffin. Elizabeth’s and Abigail’s innocent game of fortune telling would soon turn deadly. From that moment on, Salem Village was plagued with fear, finger pointing, and suspicion. The normal Puritan lifestyle was turned upside down, forever.
Life in Salem Village was not always perfect. There were frequent disagreements between the villagers and religious leaders over socially acceptable outside influences and behaviors. Land disputes were common, and the senior religious leaders controlled much of the real estate. Social classes were on the rise and worldliness was a constant threat to the Puritan’s everyone-is-equal society. Anyone guilty of dissent from the church and who desired to be worldly needed to be quickly isolated and punished because such actions were likely from the Devil and could harm the other members of the congregation. Salem was ripe for a scandal to purge the community of any unfit citizens who threatened the Puritan moral code and challenged the religious and local leaders. Elizabeth’s and Abigail’s venture into dark magic was the perfect excuse to cleanse the village of any impurities.
Shortly after the dark magic mishap, the girls began experiencing what was considered unusual and sensational behavior. The girls were observed having fits and temper tantrums while throwing objects and contorting themselves into strange positions. After seeing this odd behavior, which may have been caused by boredom or the need for attention, the father of one of the girls, Reverend Samuel Parris, was convinced the girls were victims of witchcraft and therefore under a spell. His conviction that the girls were under a Satanic spell put the wheels in motion for a full-blown witch hunt for anyone who may have cast the spell upon these two young girls. As the religious leader of the community, Reverend Parris could not allow this act to go unnoticed or unpunished, especially since his daughter was a ‘victim.’ Knowing that he couldn’t hide the girl’s strange behavior, he began to use the girls to inquire who in the town was the witch that caused such a horrible spell.
Reverend John Hale of a neighboring village, and an observer of many of these early happenings, described the girls’ symptoms,
‘the afflicted children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way …. Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choaked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move an heart of stone, to sympathize with them, with bowels of compassion for them.’
Each of these symptoms could easily be produced by a young girl seeking attention or under pressure from a local religious leader to accuse members of the village not in good standing. Young Puritan girls were aware of the patriarchal structure of their faith and society and would easily take cues from adult males in order to appear respectful and polite. The added attention also put the spotlight on a group of youth that were often overshadowed by their male counterparts. For once, it was the girls who were getting all the attention and they apparently enjoyed the limelight.
Upon closer examination, it appears that the young girls began to take pleasure in their afflictions, and it became a new and exciting game. During a time when children were expected to be seen and not heard, the afflicted girls behaved outrageously “by getting into holes, and creeping under chairs and stools,” their bodies contorted into “odd postures and antic gestures.” Seventeen-year-old Mary Wolcott, in the presence of a visiting minister, ran into the room crying, “Whish! Whish! Whish!” and pulled burning logs from the main fireplace and tossed them about the room. During an anti-witch sermon, young Abigail Williams taunted the minister and shouted, “Now stand up and name your text!” In reply to the minister’s answer, Abigail mocked, “It is a long one.” These words and actions were strange and not in character for young moral and obedient Puritan girls. Many of the young girls did not even know some of the people they named as witches, and the names of the accused were often suggested to the girls by their local leaders. This implies that the girls may have been used by their leaders to identify people in the community who did not fit in or properly follow the Puritan moral code. These shocking behaviors and accusations seem to have been concocted by a group of young, attention-grabbing girls whose playtime games corrupted an entire village and wrongly contributed to the horrible deaths of the accused.
Each of the first three accused of witchcraft in Salem was considered a social deviant in some manner and exhibited traits contrary to the Puritan moral code. Abigail and Elizabeth, with the help of Reverend Parris, began by accusing those that were different, strange, and outcasts ‘ Tituba, a Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar who went from door to door; and Sarah Osborne, a bedridden old woman who married her servant. Salem identified and targeted those considered on the fringe of society during the witch hunt of 1692. Being on the outside of the Puritan lifestyle was not acceptable to leaders in the colony.
The Puritan lifestyle was restrained and rigid. People were expected to work hard and repress their emotions and opinions. Individual differences were frowned upon. Even the dark, somber Puritan clothing was dictated by the church. Bridget Bishop, who was accused of being a witch and became the first to hang, wore a red corset unlike everyone else in the village who wore black. She had been married multiple times and owned and operated an inn. In the eyes of the Puritan leaders, Bridget was a renegade who threatened the moral code of Salem Village. The impressionable girls of Salem who were supposedly under a witch’s spell were willing to identify people like Bridget in order to seek the attention of others and please their community and religious leaders.
Soon, adults in Salem began to seek the same attention the young girls had received. By March 1692, adults were claiming to be afflicted and tormented by witches. Village doctors were unable to help the adults, and the usual Puritan cure for all illness of prayer and fasting did not work. The adults faced ailments that seemed to be entirely within their control, but anyone who questioned the believability of the claims was often suspected of being of the Devil. The madness went so far that even two dogs were executed as suspected accomplices of witches. The hysteria quickly escalated out of control. However, amidst all the madness, the strong belief in the Puritan moral code continued to provide the necessary justification to rid the village of the Devil and his witches.
Bridget Bishop was the first villager to go through the formal trial process and was the first person to hang at Gallows Hill. During the trials, Bridget received the most accusations of any accused person. The accusations against her were exceptionally mean-spirited and vicious because of her flamboyant lifestyle and non-traditional form of dress. During her trial she adamantly professed her innocence by stating, ‘I am innocent, I know nothing of it, I have done no witchcraft … I am as innocent as the child unborn.’ Bridget was the first of many to be put on trial for being different and for living a life contrary to the Puritan moral code. Soon after the frenzy started, people began to see how easy it was to use religious beliefs to accuse people who were disliked. The accusations spread to anyone who did not conform to the moral code.
An excellent example of how far the accusations went occurred in March of 1692 when Rebecca Nurse received a knock at her door which would change her life forever. This 71 year-old church member was accused of being a witch. She was described as a “venerable lady, whose conversation and bearing were so truly saint-like … the mother of a large family, embracing sons, daughters, grandchildren, and one or more great-grandchildren. She was a woman of piety, and simplicity of heart.” In a packed courthouse, Rebecca stood before the magistrate, John Hawthorne, and professed her utter innocence. Perhaps one reason she was tried was because Rebecca and her family had been involved in many land disputes with the leaders of Salem and was viewed as becoming too worldly as a result of her land holdings. She was the first of the accused to cast a shadow of doubt over what was becoming a witch hunt of historic proportions. Grandmother Rebecca Nurse was the fifth person to hang on Gallows Hill.
If Rebecca Nurse could be accused of witchcraft, no one was safe. The others who were accused and eventually hanged on Gallows Hill were sentenced to death, not on concrete evidence which must be present is modern trials, but by ‘spectral evidence.’ Spectral evidence was the testimony of a victim who was visited by a demon or ghost of the accused, again almost impossible to refute when the town was centered on such a strong moral code that opposed the Devil. This type of evidence was used to convict over 100 people during the witch hunt. Puritans believed that the Devil could use anyone’s shape to affect people and these demons who visited the victims were thought to be of the Devil. While the judges of the courts were uncomfortable admitting this type of evidence, especially when it was used to sentence someone to death, the judges felt they had no choice but to adhere to the moral code and reluctantly accept spectral evidence in court. Without this unreliable evidence, many lives would have been spared.
A childish fortune-telling game, made up of fantasies passed off as evidence, pushed a God-fearing community near the brink of destruction. Adults, not children, concocted the accusations of witchcraft. Whether the children overheard the adults talk or were persuaded by other means, the accusations in most cases were targeted at women villagers who strayed from the Puritan moral code. The children were the conduit and gave the Puritan and civic leaders the fuel they needed to cleanse the town of misfits, all in the name of preserving the Puritan moral code and faith. Cotton Mather, a Puritan leader in Salem Village at the time, acknowledged that the trials had gone too far when he admitted, ‘It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.’ By May 1693 all the jails were emptied and the one hundred accused witches were pardoned or released. The witch court was quickly disbanded and spectral evidence was no longer admissible in court. The majority of Puritans finally saw the terrible error in their reasoning and judgment.
The Puritan community had a strong commitment to God, morality, and high ideals. It was this same religious community, however, whose moral code and abhorrence towards worldliness created one of the most infamous trials in American history. Crop failures and epidemics plagued the Salem area for years after the trials ended, and the Puritans felt that these events happened because God was punishing them for the deaths of innocent people. Many families of the accused left after the trials, but were asked to rejoin the Puritan parish, and many refused and left Salem altogether. Some never returned to the faith and joined other congregations as a result of the Salem Witch Trials. The Puritan moral code that provided justification for the witch hunt slowly gave way to more progressive ideas and behaviors. The witch trials were unable to rid the village of all perceived evil, but after 1692, no one ever died as a convicted witch in America again. The rigid Puritan religious customs and beliefs, the oppressive social culture, and the naivety of the villagers were the cause of the witch hunt. The Salem Witch Trials lasted six months and twenty-two days, but the event is still researched, studied and talked about today. It was a short-lived, shameful tragedy in Colonial America’s early beginnings that will not be forgotten.

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