What Caused the Salem Witch Trial Hysteria of 1692: Analytical Essay

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In 1692, mass hysteria broke out in Salem Massachusetts, it was referred to as the Salem Witch Trials. Witches were described as humans being related to the devil with special powers used to inflict punishment on others. This type of hysteria was seen before in different parts of the world; the earliest sign of Witchcraft and Witches was in Europe, during the 14 century. In the 1690’s the witch hunt began in Salem Village, and it progressed to Danvers, Topsfield, Beverly, Wenham, Reading, Marblehead, Andover, and then finally Essex County. The accusations came around between January and February of 1692. During this time more than 150 people were thrown into jail for the speculation of witchcraft. In addition to those in jail, 20 others were executed and put to death. It was said that those accused of being witches were generally misfits targeted by others. Local communities wanted to find people to blame for unexplained illnesses such as crop failures, and children or animals which die due to mysterious ailments. Common explanations for the hysteria in Salem were the devil, hallucinations, and witchcraft. The real explanations were those surrounding cultural, traditional, sociological including scientific beliefs.

Around the 1600s and through 1620, English immigrants came to North America and settled in New England. These settlers were called Puritans, they were Protestant Christians who were upset with England and their church. They came to practice Christianity in the purest form; New England and the Puritans shared the same belief system and values. The Puritans believed in the idea that God selects before birth who shall go to Heaven and who will go to Hell; this belief was called predestination. Puritans were also fundamentalists; they lived by the Bible and believed that every word written was from God himself, and they were to follow it to a tee. They also believed in the Devil, commonly known as Satan. At that time, it was said that the Devil could enter a weak person's body and recruit that person to become a witch. It was believed that under the Devil’s control, the possessed wizard or witch could have the powers to cause illness, murder, shipwrecks, and more. With solid evidence, witches and wizards were punished by death. This caused a massive uproar in accusations in Salem, and hysteria was underway. Anyone who experienced fits of hysteria such as violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts, display of spasms, contortions, writhing, as well as screaming was accused of being a witch. Generally, the accused were married females around the age of 41 to 60. The accusers were typically single females ranging from various ages. Unmarried girls mainly accused, older married women of witchcraft. This was supposed because the Puritan girls lived a more sheltered life when compared to the boys which most likely caused the girls to feel threatened by the older, married women. The Puritan’s cultural beliefs such as the devil, Bible, and witchcraft were one of the main sparks in the cause of hysteria in Salem, in 1692.

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Scientific beliefs such as fungus poisoning were also one of the real explanations for the cause of the Salem witch trial hysteria. The fungus in this case is a substance called ergot; the sclerotia of the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which usually grows on rye. It's evident that those who displayed symptoms of bewitchment in 1692 were suffering from ergot poisoning. Ergot is more likely to occur on rye grown on low, moist, shaded land, especially newly cultivated land; favored by a severely cold winter than a cool moist growing season perfect for New England's weather. Most develop ergotism after eating rye contaminated by ergot. Children and teenagers are more at risk/vulnerable to ergotism when compared to adults because they ingest more food per unit of body weight. According to medical studies, Ergot produces a variety of symptoms ranging from mild to severe cases both resulting in a variety of symptoms which explains the variety of symptoms the witches and girls experienced when they claimed that they were being possessed. The symptoms were most often mentioned in court records to prove witchcraft. The most common symptoms of “bewitchment” that occurred in cases were reportedly temporary blindness, deafness, speechlessness, burning sensations, or seeing things such as a “ball of fire”, including a sensation of flying in the air.

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