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Essay/Term paper: The salem witch trials

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History

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The Salem witch trials began with

the accusation of people in Salem

of being witches. But the concept

of witchcraft started far before

these trials and false accusations

occurred. In the early Christian

centuries, the church was

relatively tolerant of magical

practices. Those who were proved to

have engaged in witchcraft were

required only to do penance. But in

the late Middle Ages (13th century

to 14th century) opposition to

alleged witchcraft hardened as a

result of the growing belief that

all magic and miracles that did not

come unambiguously from God came

from the Devil and were therefore

manifestations of evil. Those who

practiced simple sorcery, such as

village wise women, were

increasingly regarded as

practitioners of diabolical

witchcraft. They came to be viewed

as individuals in league with


Nearly all those who fell under

suspicion of witchcraft were women,

evidently regarded by witch-hunters

as especially susceptible to the

Devil"s blandishments. A lurid

picture of the activities of

witches emerged in the popular

mind, including covens, or

gatherings over which Satan

presided; pacts with the Devil;

flying broomsticks; and animal

accomplices, or familiars. Although

a few of these elements may

represent vestiges of pre-Christian

religion, the old religion probably

did not persist in any organized

form beyond the 14th century. The

popular image of witchcraft,

perhaps inspired by features of

occultism or ceremonial magic as

well as by theology concerning the

Devil and his works of darkness,

was given shape by the inflamed

imagination of inquisitors and was

confirmed by statements obtained

under torture.

The late medieval and early modern

picture of diabolical witchcraft

can be attributed to several

causes. First, the church"s

experience with such dissident

religious movements as the

Albigenses and Cathari, who

believed in a radical dualism of

good and evil, led to the belief

that certain people had allied

themselves with Satan. As a result

of confrontations with such heresy,

the Inquisition was established by

a series of papal decrees between

1227 and 1235. Pope Innocent IV

authorized the use of torture in

1252, and Pope Alexander IV gave

the Inquisition authority over all

cases of sorcery involving heresy,

although local courts carried out

most actual prosecution of witches.

At the same time, other

developments created a climate in

which alleged witches were

stigmatized as representatives of

evil. Since the middle of the 11th

century, the theological and

philosophical work of scholasticism

had been refining the Christian

concepts of Satan and evil.

Theologians, influenced by

Aristotelian rationalism,

increasingly denied that "natural"

miracles could take place and

therefore alleged that anything

supernatural and not of God must be

due to commerce with Satan or his

minions (see Aristotle). Later, the

Reformation, the rise of science,

and the emerging modern world—all

challenges to traditional

religion—created deep anxieties in

the orthodox population. At the

dawn of the Renaissance (15th

century to 16th century) some of

these developments began to

coalesce into the "witch craze"

that possessed Europe from about

1450 to 1700. During this period,

thousands of people, mostly

innocent women, were executed on

the basis of "proofs" or

"confessions" of diabolical

witchcraft—that is, of sorcery

practiced through allegiance to

Satan—obtained by means of cruel


A major impetus for the hysteria

was the papal bull Summis

Desiderantes issued by Pope

Innocent VIII in 1484. It was

included as a preface in the book

Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of

Witches), published by two

Dominican inquisitors in 1486. This

work, characterized by a distinct

anti-feminine tenor, vividly

describes the satanic and sexual

abominations of witches. The book

was translated into many languages

and went through many editions in

both Catholic and Protestant

countries, outselling all other

books except the Bible.

In the years of the witch-hunting

mania, people were encouraged to

inform against one another.

Professional witch finders

identified and tested suspects for

evidence of witchcraft and were

paid a fee for each conviction. The

most common test was pricking: All

witches were supposed to have

somewhere on their bodies a mark,

made by the Devil, that was

insensitive to pain; if such a spot

was found, it was regarded as proof

of witchcraft. Other proofs

included additional breasts

(supposedly used to suckle

familiars), the inability to weep,

and failure in the water test. In

which, a woman was thrown into a

body of water; if she sank, she was

considered innocent, but if she

stayed afloat, she was found

guilty. This test, along with the

others, was obviously dumb. For if

the suspected was innocent, she was

dead, and if she was a witch, she

would be killed. And for the body

mark test, to find this so called

"spot" meant the suspect had to be

poked and pricked all over her body

till a spot that didn"t hurt was

found. This obviously caused the

suspect a great deal of pain, and

if the spot was found the victim

still would have gone through

torture to find it.

The persecution of witches declined

about 1700, banished by the Age of

Enlightenment, which subjected such

beliefs to a skeptical eye. One of

the last outbreaks of witch-hunting

took place in colonial

Massachusetts in 1692, when belief

in diabolical witchcraft was

already declining in Europe. Twenty

people were executed in the wake of

the Salem witch trials, which took

place after a group of young girls

became hysterical while playing at

magic and it was proposed that they

were bewitched. Although many lost

their lives, none of the people

accused were actually witches. They

were accused because the girls said

that they were the ones causing

their state of bewitchment. And

although it seemed like the girls

were indeed bewitched, it was all a

hoax, which was discovered later,

unfortunately, after the trials and

the deaths of about 20 innocent

people. The girls started to

believe their bewitchment all

because of a slave girl named

Tituba. She took care of the

household of Reverend Samuel Parris

and his family. She reportedly

entertained Parris"s daughter and

niece with forbidden stories of

witchcraft and storytelling from

her native land. Later the girls

called her a witch, and her vivid

confession sparked the witch

hunting hysteria. The two girls

would occasionally act bewitched or

hysterical and blame it on people

of the town. But they were careful

in their choosing; usually the

people accused were very eccentric

or weird people, secluded or not

very social. This made them the

perfect witch types: quiet, weird,

eccentric, secluded, and

non-social. Ann Putnam, a close

friend of the "afflicted girls"

later resulted to be bewitched as

well, and soon became the star

witness, and main victim. She

testified against more "witches"

then any one else on the witness

stand. But after it was all found

to be a hoax, she was followed by

guilt and sorrow. She later

repented her role in the witch-hunt

hysteria. Although most of it was

just a hoax, and good acting, it is

possible that one of the "affected"

girls died from her affliction.

Abigail Williams, Samuel Parris"s

11-year old niece, is thought to

have died from her affliction soon

after the witch-hunt had subsided.

Mary Warren, a 20-year old servant

for John and Elizabeth Procter,

soon joined the girls in testifying

against the "witches". But soon had

second thoughts after an accusation

against her employers. She

testified on there behalf only to

become a suspect herself.

Terrified, Warren rejoined the

accusers and continued accusing

people of being witches. But

although it was usually outcasts

that were persecuted, the

accusation and hanging of Martha

Cory was a different type. Martha

belonged to the churchgoing elite,

she hardly ever missed a day of

church, and was one of the few

entitled to take communion. She was

a critical person in the

witch-hunt, it showed the public

that not only the outcasts and

eccentric were accused, but also

the churchgoing and social. In all

this dilemma and accusations, only

one suspect was found non-guilty.

Rebecca Nurse was accused as well,

but found not guilty in the trial.

Over 40 friends and neighbors

testified in her favor, telling of

her good faith and character. But

the verdict from the jury caused

such an outcry of fear, that the

jury was asked to re-consider, and

she was then found guilty and hung.

Mary Esty, Rebecca Nurses sister

was also accused of being a witch,

but she argued her case so well and

in such a convincing manner, that

the girls relented and she was

found not guilty. She was released,

a first in the witch-trials, but

before long she was arrested once

again on the claim that the girls

had been haunted by her ghost. She

was convicted and hung on September

22, 1692. Although all of the

"witches" were hung, a certain man

named Giles Cory was killed in a

traditional English manner. He was

pressed, pressing was where they

would place heavy stones on a

person till they died. Cory died

two days later, crushed.

25 lives were taken during these

Salem trials. 19 "witches" were

hung at Gallows hill. One was

tortured to death by pressing. And

five others died in prison,

including an infant.

The Salem witch trials were mainly

caused by these two girls

imagination. But, as already stated

in this report, other events led up

to the dilemma and hysteria found

in the Salem witch trials.


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