salem witch trials

salem witch trials Essay Examples

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Published: Friday 25th of January 2013

The Salem Witch Trials Essay Example

The 1692 Salem witch trials occurred in Salem, Massachusetts. They are one of the best-known, most significant, and most studied events in American history. Out of the 141 people that were arrested, 19 were hanged and one individual was crushed to death. Researchers have described the Salem trials as a sequence of court trials that intended to prosecute individuals who had faced accusations of witchcraft. These trials occurred between 1692 and 1693. The first hearings were conducted in various towns. The major one was carried out by the Court of Oyer and Terminer located in Salem. Several people were rounded up and charged with witchcraft. Some of those taken into custody died while in prison. Of the accused, five men and 14 women were hanged. There were concerns about religious extremists as most critics viewed witchcraft as being counterproductive. Problems that occurred in the society were associated with the witches living in Salem. At the time of their arrest, some of them were found with things believed to be utilized in their witchcraft activities.

Causes of the Trials

There were around 600 inhabitants in Salem town that clashed with one group, arguing that they had the right to remain in Salem as farming families and the other to settle on the eastern part of the affluent suburban town of Salem. Salem town, which was mainly a farming community, had a flourishing economy at that time that made it be perceived as individualistic. The individualism was at loggerheads with the communal nature of Puritanism. The Puritans felt that the large farming families were isolated from the rest of Salem and accumulated a significant amount of wealth. These Puritans were acknowledged leaders of a separatist group. This group of people owned most of the farming land in Salem village. These Puritans felt the need to establish a congregation that would unite them within Salem. Under the leadership of Reverend Parris, the religious group was formed in 1689. This congregation represented a small group of the residents of Salem as most of the members were Puritans. Two groups emerged within this religious congregation. They were divided based on the contract under which the Reverend was employed to carry out the church affairs. Ministers in the religious group at that time were regularly given a lot of fringe benefits to go along with their hefty salaries, for instance, free houses and use of firewood. It is believed that Reverend Parris was given this and much more, thus questions arose as to why he was being treated that way. Local taxpayers paid the Reverend's salary. Those who didn't support this mumbled in silence thus creating and deepening the already existing crack with the religious organization in which Parris was the person in charge. Some of the Puritans believed in witchcraft as the source of power to harm other people. They further believed that the witches were getting into partnerships with the devil in exchange for some evil powers to spread their evil activities. Therefore, the religious faction that lived in the same town of Salem was against witchcraft as they regarded it as a sin. Moreover, it is also believed that some of the Puritans were against the Church of England and disagreed with some of their doctrines. Consequently, enmity was established between the Church of England and the Puritans. This led to frequent conflicts between the Puritans and the church members who regularly leveled accusations against each other. The Puritans didn’t buy into any traditions of the church. These religious differences were responsible for fueling the 1692 witchcraft trial that resulted in the killing of several witches in the town of Salem, most of whom were Puritans. There was a huge political divide in Salem between the English settlers in the east and those who were large farming families. They both attacked each other on several occasions resulting in several casualties. When a new governor was elected in 1692, he had many issues to deal with. He created the commission of special court called the Court of Oyer and Terminer which was charged with the responsibility of handling the growing number of people who were being accused at the time. The primary cause of dispute between neighbors and families was farming. As families grew, farming land also increased. Most of the farming land was pushed forward into the wild, hence adding tension to the conflict that was already there. A change in weather patterns or even drought could easily eradicate a year’s crop without any consideration. This led to increased tension. Religious tension made things worse since many Puritans believed that God’s wrath on man had increased as a result of his sinful nature. This made many people fear the actions of those who went against God. Thus, most religious factions like the Church of England pushed for the elimination of witches from Salem town for the residents to get rain and enjoy a bumper harvest. Furthermore, the social status given to women by the Puritans didn't assist much, as the women were considered to be servants of the devil. The Puritans' view of women further fueled the tension that was already brewing within the community resulting in conflicts in beliefs, one of the foundations of the Salem trials. Children were discouraged from having a social life amongst the Puritans. They were valued the least. Also, girls were not allowed to form or join social groups as it was believed that the devil would use them at a tender age. Women weren’t allowed to own land and in some instances, the land was reverted to the previous owner in the event when a woman’s spouse passed away. Witch hunting turned into a sport and a daily routine among the Puritans to acquire property. It had far-reaching effects on the society.

Preconceived Ideas of Witches

There were various preconceived ideas of witches in Salem. Most residents believed that witches were the major reason as to why the crops failed. This was because witches mostly performed some acts that could reverse the nature of climate. The Puritans were revered for their witch-hunting activities. People, therefore, believed that the witches had the power to harm others and make their lives difficult. Moreover, there existed a wider belief that the witches had direct contact with the devil himself and had the power to order any kind of destruction upon their enemies. It was believed that the witches caused most of the attacks and illnesses in the 17th century. Also, witches were deemed to be anti-Christian because they got their powers from Satan and destroyed people’s lives. The Salem community believed that witches should be eliminated. Thus, the witchcraft offense automatically carried the death sentence without the option of an appeal.

The Accusers and Their Reasons for Targeting the Witches

Those who accused the witches were mostly from the religious factions which were against the witches’ activities in Salem in the 17th century. The Puritans were continuously becoming aggressive and threatened the existence of humanity because of their beliefs about children and women. Also, the Puritans were opposed to the traditions practiced by the church. The witches often accused the church thus creating tensions within the Salem community. Additionally, some of the large farming families also blamed the witches for drought and crop failure. People believed that the witches’ powers led to the deaths of livestock and children. The main economic activity in Salem was farming. Therefore, if farming failed, then life could become difficult since the families were large. Reverend Parris was also an accuser of witches. His niece and daughter had epileptic fits that could not be understood. As a result of this, three witches were arrested and taken to court to answer to charges of inflicting such evils upon the children. Those arrested were Puritans and were charged with witchcraft. Betty Parris, the daughter of Reverend Parris, became strangely ill in February 1692. Most people immediately pointed out that this was brought about by witchcraft directed towards the reverend's home. Moreover, things got worse when the reverend's cousin and niece also fell sick. Peculiar illnesses were mostly attributed to witchcraft, and the accusers couldn't agree with the fact that strange diseases occurred due to a mixture of trauma, stress, etc. These peculiar illnesses mostly attacked children. It was believed that children were often targeted by witches since they were vulnerable to their (witches’) activities. Thus, the witches were accused of causing any strange sickness, and most people ignored the doctors' diagnosis. This was fueled by the unknown illness that Ann Putnam, Mary Walcott, and Mercy Lewis, all minors, had. This disease couldn't be understood. The children continued to wiggle on the ground while in pain. The accusers were mostly motivated by the need to curtail the evil within Salem through stopping the witches from killing people. For example, among the Puritans, women, and children were in the lowest social class. This was viewed as a counter-development move and was therefore opposed by the greater religious Christian society and the greater farming community. When Parris' daughter and niece fell sick, they were taken to the hospital. Since the doctor couldn't diagnose anything wrong with the children, people concluded that they had been bewitched. This led to the arrest of many other witches in 1691.

The Accused

The accused witches were mostly Puritans. Trouble started when Proctor and Cloyce were taken into custody. They were members of the covenanted church. After interrogations and investigations, more were arrested, and suspects were charged in court with witchcraft. Some of those named went into hiding for fear of being arrested and taken to court. The prosecutor found the presentation of evidence the most challenging part of it since in such cases, evidence was imaginary. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was in charge of prosecuting and charging the accused. On the 2nd of June 1692, the court convened, and Bridget Bishop's case was the first to be heard. The jury acknowledged the charges made against her. Several others who were arrested (about 150) were charged with witchcraft. One of the accused, who declined to enter a plea, was crushed to death using stones. The court dealt with all prosecutions pertaining to witchcraft. On July 2, around 36 individuals were arrested after the convening of the new Governor, Crown’s attorney, and Chief Magistrate. The local magistrate presided over the cases where the witches were taken into custody, examined and charged in accordance with the law. Those accused were mostly the individuals who maintained a higher social status within the Salem community. They were persons who were respected and feared for their evil powers. Most of them inhabited the Eastern part of Salem. The Salem witches had accumulated a lot of wealth as a result of witch-hunting. At one point, they were accused of killing innocent people for the benefit of their wealth.


The Salem witch trials were a consequence of the belief that witches held power within Salem. The witches were accused of causing mysterious illnesses among children. Most of the witches from Salem were mostly wealthy individuals who enjoyed a higher social status within the society. Furthermore, they inhabited the Eastern part of Salem, close to the farming community. The Salem trials resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of over 150 individuals, 19 of whom were hanged and one crushed to death. In the history of Salem, these trials were the most controversial. They were done hurriedly so as to clear the huge build-up of cases related to witches at the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Concerns over witchcraft remained just that, concerns. No real action was taken, until Elizabeth Parris (the daughter of Reverend Parris, head of the religious church) became strangely sick. Also, the reverend's nice, Abigail Williams, fell sick, with doctors not knowing what the exact problem was. An Indian witch, Tituba, was the one who was accused of bewitching the girls. The most crucial accounts of the trials were written years later by one Thomas Maule, a Quake from Salem (he went against the governor’s ban on any publication when he published the book, Truth Held Forth & Maintained in 1695).