The Salem Witches: Hysteria, Bigotry, Sexual Repression, and Witchcraft

The Salem Witches

The Salem witches have been one of the most studied cases of mass hysteria. Throughout history hysterical phenomena, sexual repression, witchcraft, and possessions have frequently gone hand in hand.

In Europe thousands of women burned at the stake accused of witchcraft. In many cases they had confessed to their crime after horrible torture. Much has been written about the barbarism and religious fanaticism that left a trail of blood and ashes throughout Europe until the middle of the seventeenth century.

Settlers of New England.

Much less well known are the events of fanaticism and repression that occurred in colonial America. Towards the year 1620 the Europeans arrived in the lands of New England and founded the first colonies. These lands belonged to the Mohican, Pocomtuc, Massachusetts, and other tribes.

These early settlers, called the Pilgrim Fathers, settled in Plymouth and Jamestown. Then came the Puritans who formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Years later this would become the city of Boston. These emigrants came from England and the Netherlands, belonging to the Puritan and Calvinist Church.

Witches of Salem.

In 1952 the writer Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible”. This play is better known by the name of “The Salem Witches.” It narrates the events that occurred in Salem, a town in New England. More than 200 subjects were accused of witchcraft. The trials carried out ended with the hanging of nineteen people.

These facts are a reflection of how sexual repression can manifest itself in the form of hysterical symptoms. In turn, in an environment of exacerbated puritanism, these hysterical manifestations can be interpreted as diabolical possessions or acts of witchcraft.

Historical background of the Salem witches.

While the Salem witch trials are the best known, they are not the only ones that occurred in New England. As early as 1647, a woman, Alice Young , better known as Alse Young, was hanged, accused of witchcraft in Hartfort.

Apparently the city of Windsord was hit by a serious flu epidemic. This caused numerous deaths, especially children. Alse Young was accused of being the cause of the epidemic and was convicted of witchcraft.

Subsequently, his daughter Alice Young Beamon was also accused of acts of witchcraft. She was tried in the Massachusetts town of Sprindfields . At least twelve other people were convicted and executed in New England before the Salem trials took place.

Twelve people hanged for witchcraft in New England before 1692.

Salem Village.

The village of Salem is located in what is now the state of Massachusetts, near the city of Boston. It was founded in the middle of the 17th century by a group of European emigrant settlers with very marked Puritan and religious features . Life in that border area was very hard and its inhabitants lived devoted to agricultural tasks. Work was only interrupted for religious acts that were controlled so that no one missed the little chapel:

“A patrol marched during the hours of the worship of God to take note either of those who remained near the chapel without attending the rite and prayer, or of those who remained in their homes or in the field without duly justifying it, and take the names of said persons and present them to the magistrates so that they can act accordingly ”. (Miller, A. 1952).

A puritanical and repressive society.

The tragedy that occurred in Salem was the result of a willful attempt to maintain spiritual unity. With a noble intention, the people of Salem developed a model of theocratic society , a mixture of state and religious power. This was to promote the unity of the people and avoid any spiritual or ideological disturbance .

This spiritual crusade resulted in innumerable prohibitions , reaching a point where the repressions were more severe than the possible dangers derived from the religious disorder, against which it was intended to fight.

“The witch hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic that had gripped all classes as the balance began to tip toward greater individual freedom.” (Miller, A. 1952).

Samuel Parris.

The events that happened in that small and fanatic village were the following. In 1692 the Reverend Samuel Parris was the pastor of Salem . She lived with her children, Thomas, Elizabeth, and Susannah Parris, and a niece named Abigail Williams. With them also lived a black slave named Tituba and her husband, Jhon Indian. Tituba took care of the children.

The reverend was a 45-year-old man, who had arrived in Salem from Boston in 1688. He was a widower and had taken care of his niece Abigail. Her parents had been murdered by the Indians in the area.

Samuel Parris was obsessed with earning the love of God and the respect of his people. But despite all his efforts, his distrustful and arrogant character made him feel persecuted and singled out by his neighbors. Today we would say that he presented a character with strong paranoid traits. He had little ability to deal with young men who he imposed an iron discipline in his presence.

Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem during the events of 1692.

Tituba, the black slave.

Tituba, the black slave, liked to tell extravagant stories to the reverend’s daughters and her friends. These tales were not always uplifting and often touched on lurid themes that clashed with iron and puritanical morals. Likewise, Tituba liked to practice reading the luck in the egg whites . With these old rituals of the voodoo of the Antilles , where she came from, she tried to guess the name of the future husband of the young women they consulted.

These stories and rituals must have ignited hidden desires in the imagination of two of the teenagers Betty Parris and Abigail Williams . One day they were caught dancing naked in a forest, while the black Tituba performed “voodoo” rituals from Barbados, her native land, over a cauldron.

The conflict between rigid puritanical morals and the sinful feelings that the stories of the black woman aroused in the imagination of the girls, caused them to be in great turmoil.

Elizabeth Parris’s illness.

Elizabeth (Betty), the reverend’s daughter became ill and began to display strange behavior . He was prey to fits of uncontrolled crying and for no apparent reason. He had bouts of fever, seizures, and started barking. He ran around the house on all fours like a dog. Before long, her cousin Abigail began to have similar symptoms.

The village physician, Dr. Willians Griggs, was consulted by Reverend Parris. He had failed with his prayers for the healing of the girls. The doctor did not find any cause that justified the symptoms of the young women. Therefore, he ruled that it was a case of witchcraft or demonic possession. Samuel Parris, desperate, consulted the Reverend Jhon Hale. He was an expert in witchcraft and came to the same conclusion as the doctor.

It is still curious, the method they used to confirm the girls’ witchcraft. Doctor Griggs ordered Jhon Indian , Tituba’s husband, to cook a strange recipe , called witch’s milk. It used rye flour and a baby’s urine as ingredients. The drinker was giving a dog to drink. If the poor animal developed the same symptoms as the alleged bewitches, the diagnosis was confirmed.

Elizabeth Parris, daughter of the Reverend Samuel Parris and his cousin Abigail Williams.

New adolescents affected.

The crying, screaming and convulsions of the girls did not stop and new cases appeared among the friends of the reverend’s daughters . A friend of Elizabeth’s, Ann Putnam, claimed to have fought a witch who tried to cut off her head.

Faced with these events, the villagers began to see in these demonstrations the hidden hand of the devil and began to believe that the girls were possessed.

What today we would consider as hysterical symptoms were increasing in intensity. The girls believed themselves possessed and began to act as if they really were: swearing, yelling, desecrating Bibles, and jumping madly.

If there is something hysterical phenomena have, it is their facility to spread by imitation. In a short time, there were already seven young women presumably demonized . Dr. Griggs’ devilish possession verdict was accepted without hesitation by the locals. There was no lack of a sensible character who said that they were only tantrums of capricious girls.

If Sigmund Freud had published his “Studies on Hysteria” in those years of the American colonization, it is more than probable that he would have been condemned as a heretic or for serving the devil. Had the Salem villagers been able to listen and understand his theories, about how repressed sexual desires turn into hysterical symptoms, the bloodbath that ensued in the following months could have been avoided.

The Salem Trials.

In February 1692 a trial began to determine the origin of the diabolical possessions. This gave rise to a series of unfounded accusations, where each one accused the most defenseless or who he had the most antipathy or envy.

The first accused of witchcraft were the black Tituba, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good . Tituba was accused by Betty Parris. Ann Putmam pointed to the other two. Sarah Osborne was a wealthy and physically handicapped old woman who was quite envious of her neighbors. Sarah Good was a crippled and alcoholic tramp.

The last two pleaded not guilty, but that didn’t help. Tituba , beaten and mistreated by her master, Samuel Parris, pleaded guilty and accused the other two of witchcraft . Upon pleading guilty, Tituba was sentenced to jail, where she was held for a year. Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good by not confessing their guilt were hanged.

Tituba accused other women of witchcraft, including Reverend Parris’s daughter and niece. Later, another woman, Martha Corey, followed the same fate and was accused without foundation, for envy and quarrels with the villagers. Her husband, Giles Corey, died in prison while being tortured.

The Salem Trials – Martha Corey tried for witchcraft.

Abigail Williams.

Reverend Parris’s niece, Abigail Williams, was charged, in addition to adultery , for having had sexual relations with Jhon Proctor, a wealthy local farmer, married to Elizabeth Proctor.

Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Willians tried to defend themselves by saying that they could discover and point to other witches. One of the defendants was Jhon Proctor and his wife, of whom Abigail was jealous. Jhon Proctor was hanged after all his lands were confiscated. His wife got off the gallows because she was pregnant. After giving birth in January 1693, she was released along with other prisoners.

The young women were accusing other people of demonic possession, and thus one after another, more than 200 people were accused and tried for pacts and sexual relations with Satan.

The girls who had started all that spectacle, between rattles and hysterical convulsions pointed out to the accused, of having caused their moral corruption. Some of the most upright defendants were hanged for maintaining their integrity and saying that it was all a bunch of stupid things. Others died in the dungeon while waiting to be hanged.

Abigail Williams was not convicted and her trail is lost in the middle of 1692. It seems that she went to live in another city and died young without getting married.

Mass hysteria.

The feeling of insecurity and mass hysteria grew exponentially and everyone was terrified, because at any moment someone could accuse them of having relations with the evil one.

An elderly woman respected by all the people named Rebecca Nurse was unjustly accused and the judge, who knew her well, declared her not guilty , causing a wave of vandalism and savagery by the people who wanted to lynch the old woman.

The frightened judge changed his mind and ordered her to be hanged immediately . Like the Rebecca Nurse case, many other people of prestige and renown were indicted by people who owed them money or who were at odds with them.

From June to September, nineteen people were executed and the terror lasted in Salem until several months later. In the end, a modicum of sanity was imposed and most of the incriminating acts were eliminated.

The final result of the Salen trials concluded with a guilty verdict for three women for having made a pact with the devil. Unfortunately, this judicial conclusion was of little use to the innocent people who had already been hanged.

The Salem witchcraft trials left 19 people hanged.

Causes of the Salem events.

Conjectures are numerous as to what circumstances could trigger the events in Salem.

Some authors have cited epilepsy as the cause of seizures and convulsions in young women. There is no shortage of those who have found a toxic origin in these collective demonstrations.

For these, the origin of all these symptoms would be ergot poisoning, which has a toxin ergotamine, from which LSD or lysergic acid derives. This poisoning is known as “San Antonio fever or” Hell fire. It usually appears in people who have a diet rich in cereals contaminated by a fungus (ergot).

However, for most students of these events, the most probable cause is hysterical phenomena, as a result of a climate of puritanism and a repressive education. Just a few years before these events, the English physician Thomas Sydenham had described the symptoms of hysteria , which he had called “the great simulator” for being able to simulate a large number of organic diseases.

Treatment of hysteria.

The study of hysteria was completed with the works of the French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet , at the Parisian hospital de la Salpêtrière in 1889. Following their stay in Paris, together with Charcot, Sigmund Freud accurately described hysteria and he began to use hypnosis as a method of treating it. For Freud, conversion hysteria is the manifestation in the form of organic symptoms of a repressed conflict in the unconscious, generally of a sexual nature.

The first attempts at curing hysteria were through hypnosis. Freud later went on to develop the cathartic method . This was replaced by free association that would be one of the fundamental pillars of the psychoanalytic method .

 | Website

Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *