The Great Witch Hunt: a Reflection on the Salem Witch Trials

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The Salem Witchcraft Trials have been a fascinating and well-known subject to many generations of Americans. For years, there has been speculation as to why they occurred. The witchcraft trials began when several young girls became affected by a strange disease which caused them to have “fits”. The girls began placing blame on members of the community, saying that they were witches. This trend quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in the death of about twenty people. The Salem Witch Trials created a long-lasting image of the New England colonies in which religion dictated the law and nonconformity meant death.

Firstly, the Salem Witchcraft Trials would not have been possible without a deeply religious society. David Goss states, “To the average Puritan of the 1690s, one’s religious faith was as much a part of life as breathing and considered nearly as essential” (110). In fact, the very law that spelled death for so many individuals was based on a bible verse: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22.18). Religion was a vital way of life for the Salem colonists, but it was also a major component in so many deaths.

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Secondly, the trials were mostly perpetrated by a certain group of very powerful people. The Parrises, who were first affected by the strange sickness, and the Putnams, close friends of their family, were the main accusers. Samuel Parris, of the aforementioned Parris family, was the new and highly controversial minister in Salem. Several of the people who were killed disagreed with his appointment or with the trials. Some of the victims had a debt or quarrel with one of the families. In the 1690s, when the trials took place, powerful people were willing to do just about anything to eliminate their adversaries.

Finally, because of the beliefs of the time and the town’s extreme religiosity, the trials were very biased against women. Those who perpetuated the myth of witchcraft believed that “...women were more likely to be caught up in witchcraft, because they were less intelligent than men and therefore less able to resist the temptation of evil spirits” (Stewart 11). Many of the people killed in the trials were women who did not strictly adhere to the Puritans’ traditional way of life, including adulterers and nurses. In their culture, women were expected to be submissive and obedient, and any other behavior was suspected to be witchcraft. Salem’s treatment of women was reflective of the wider world’s skepticism and mistrust.

In conclusion, the Salem Witch Trials reflected the tensions of the time with its religious roots, unfair power imbalances, and mistreatment of women. This “witch hunt” inclination, although much more extreme in Salem’s case, went on to be very prevalent throughout later American history. Remnants of the Salem Witchcraft Trials linger today, including McCarthyism and our current president’s perception that he is affected by such unjust accusations. Robbie Lieberman explains, “[Senator Joseph McCarthy’s] ...anti-Communist crusade had little practical value and shattered many people’s lives unnecessarily” (“History In Dispute XVII), not unlike its colonial counterpart in Salem. Evidently, part of the American dream is executing innocent people for political reasons.

Works Cited

  1. Stewart, Gail B. 'The Salem Witch Trials.' Gale Virtual Reference Library, The Salem Witch Trials, ReferencePoint Press, 2013, pp. 8-11. Understanding American History. Accessed 30 Aug. 2019.
  2. “BibleGateway.” Exodus 22 KJ21. Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com
  3. Goss, K. David. 'Daily Life During the Salem Witch Trials.” Gale Virtual Reference Library, Greenwood, 2012, pp. [109]-131. The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series. Accessed 30 Aug. 2019.
  4. Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 23 Oct. 2007, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/
  5. Schiff, Stacy. “Inside the Salem Witch Trials.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 8 August 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/07/the-witches-of-salem.
  6. 'History In Dispute.” Gale Virtual Reference Library, edited by Robbie Lieberman, vol. 19: The Red Scare After 1945, St. James Press, 2005, pp. XVII-XXI. Accessed 4 Sept. 2019.
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