What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?

The exact cause of the Salem Witch Trials has long remained a mystery. Like many historical events, figuring out what happened is one thing but trying to figure out why it happened is much harder.

Most historians agree though that there were probably many causes behind the Salem Witch Trials, according to Emerson W. Baker in his book A Storm of Witchcraft:

“What happened in Salem likely had many causes, and as many responses to those causes…While each book puts forward its own theories, most historians agree that there was no single cause for the witchcraft that started in Salem and spread across the region. To borrow a phrase from another tragic chapter of Essex County history, Salem offered a ‘perfect storm’ a unique convergence of conditions and events that produced what was by far the largest and most lethal witchcraft episode in American history.”

When it comes to the possible causes of the trials, two questions come to mind: what caused the “afflicted girls” initial symptoms and, also, what caused the witch trials to escalate the way that they did?

Although colonists had been accused of witchcraft before in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it had never escalated to the level that Salem did, with hundreds of people locked up in jail and dozens executed. Why did Salem get so bad?

What we do know is that witches and the Devil were a very real concern to the Salem Villagers, as they were to many colonists.

But since Salem had been experiencing a number of hardships at the time, such as disease epidemics, war and political strife, it wasn’t hard to convince some of the villagers that witches were to blame for their misfortune. Once the idea took hold in the colony, things seemed to quickly got out of hand.

The following is a list of these theories and possible causes of the Salem Witch Trials:

Conversion Disorder:

Conversion disorder is a mental condition in which the sufferer experiences neurological symptoms which may occur due to a psychological conflict. Conversion disorder is also collectively known as mass hysteria.

Medical sociologist Dr. Robert Bartholomew states, in an article on Boston.com, that the Salem Witch Trials were “undoubtedly” a case of conversion disorder, during which “psychological conflict and distress are converted into aches and pains that have no physical origin.”

Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for Witchcraft, painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, circa 1855

Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for Witchcraft, painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, circa 1855

Bartholomew believes what happened in Salem was most likely an example of a “motor-based hysteria” which is one of the two main forms of conversion disorder.

Professor Emerson W. Baker also suggests conversion disorder as a possibility in his book A Story of Witchcraft:

“Conversion disorder, one of several psychological conditions that Abigail Hobbs and other afflicted people might have suffered from in 1692, shows heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. Scholars have long noted the connections between the witchcraft outbreak and King William’s War, which raged on Massachusetts’s northern frontier and was responsible for the war hysteria that seems to have been present in Salem Village and throughout Essex County.”

Baker goes on to explain that many of the afflicted girls, such as Abigail Hobbs, Mercy Lewis, Susannah Sheldon and Sarah Churchwell, were all war refugees who had previously lived in Maine and had been personally affected by the war to the point were some of them may have been experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Ergot Poisoning:

In 1976, in an article in the scientific journal Science, Linda R. Caporael proposed that ergot may have caused the symptoms that the “afflicted girls” and other accusers suffered from.

Ergot is a fungus (Claviceps purpurea) that infects rye and other cereal grains and contains a byproduct known as ergotamine, which is related to LSD.

Ingesting ergotamine is known to cause a number of cardiovascular and/or neurological effects, such as convulsions, vomiting, crawling sensations on the skin, hallucinations, gangrene and etc.

Ergot tends to grow in warm, damp weather and those conditions were present in the 1691 growing season. In the fall, the infected rye would have been harvested and used to bake bread during the winter months, which is when the afflicted girl’s symptoms began.

Not everyone agrees with this theory though. Later in 1976, another article was published in the same journal refuting Caporeal’s claims, arguing that epidemics of convulsive ergotism have occurred almost exclusively in settlements where the locals suffered from severe vitamin A deficiencies and there was no evidence that Salem residents suffered from such a deficiency, especially since they lived in a small farming and fishing village with plenty of access to vitamin A rich foods like fish and dairy products.

The article also argued that the absence of any symptoms of gangrene in the “afflicted girls” further debunked this theory as did the lack of convulsive ergotism symptoms in other children in the village, especially given that young children under 10 years of age are particularly susceptible to convulsive ergotism and most of the “afflicted girls” were teens or pre-teens.

Other similar medical conditions that historians have proposed could have caused the afflicted girls symptoms include Encephalitis Lethargica, epilepsy, Lyme disease and a toxic weed called Devil’s Trumpet or locoweed but there is little evidence to support these theories either, according to Baker:

“Several other diseases have been put forward as possible culprits, ranging from encephalitis and lyme disease to what is known as ‘artic hysteria,’ yet none of these seem to fit, either. Many experts question the very existence of Artic hysteria, which results in such behavior as people stripping off their clothes and running naked across the wild tundra. The accounts mention no such streaking in Salem, and while the supposed symptoms of witchcraft began in January, more people showed symptoms in the spring and summer…Encephalitis, the result of an infection transmitted by mosquito bite, does not really seem plausible, given that the first symptoms of bewitchment appeared during winter. And while the bull’s-eye rash often produced on the skin by Lyme disease might explain the devil’s mark or witch’s teat, it falls short of accounting for the behavior of the afflicted. None of these suggested diseases fit because a close reading of the testimony suggests that the symptoms were intermittent. The afflicted had stretches when they acted perfectly normal, intersperse with acute fits.”

Cold Weather:

Historical records indicate that witch hunts occur more frequently during cold periods. This was the theory cited in economist Emily Oster’s senior thesis at Harvard University in 2004.

The theory states that the most active era of witchcraft trials in Europe coincided with a 400-year-long cold period known as the “little ice age.”

In her paper, Oster explains that as the climate varied from year to year during this cold period, the higher numbers of witchcraft accusations occurred during the coldest temperatures.

Baker also discusses this theory in his book A Storm of Witchcraft:

“The 1680s and 1690s were part of the Maunder Minimum, the most extreme weather of the Little Ice Age, a period of colder temperatures occurring roughly from 1400 to 1800. Strikingly cold winters and dry summers were common in these decades. The result was not just personal discomfort but increasing crop failures. Starting in the 1680s, many towns that had once produced an agricultural surplus no longer did so. Mixed farming began to give way to pastures and orchards. Once Massachusetts had exported foodstuffs; by the 1690s it was an importer of corn, wheat, and other cereal crops. Several scholars have noted the high correlation between eras of extreme weather in the Little Ice Age and outbreaks of witchcraft in Europe; Salem continues this pattern.”

Factionalism, Politics and Socio-Economics:

Salem was very divided due to disagreements between the villagers about local politics, religion and economics.

One of the many issues that divided the villagers was who should be the Salem Village minister. Salem Village had gone through three ministers in sixteen years, due to disputes over who was deemed qualified enough to have the position, and at the time of the trials they were arguing about the current minister Samuel Parris.

Rivalries between different families in Salem had also begun to sprout up in the town as did land disputes and other disagreements which was all coupled with the fact that many colonists were also uneasy because the Massachusetts Bay Colony had its charter revoked and then replaced in 1691 with a new charter that gave the crown much more control over the colony.

In their book Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum attribute the witch trials to this political, economic, and religious discord in Salem Village:

“Predictably enough, the witchcraft accusations of 1692 moved in channels which were determined by years of factional strife in Salem Village.”

Boyer and Nissenbaum go on to provide examples, such as the fact that Daniel Andrew and Philip English were accused shortly after they defeated one of the Putnams in an election for Salem Town selectmen.

They also point out that Rebecca Nurse was accused shortly after her husband, Francis, became a member of a village committee that took office in October of 1691 that was vehemently against Salem Village minister Samuel Parris, whom the Putnams were supporters of.

Although this theory seems plausible, other historians such as Elaine Breslaw in her book Tituba, the Reluctant Witch of Salem, points out that other towns in Massachusetts were going through similar difficult times but didn’t experience any witch hunts or mass hysteria:

“There is no doubt that a peculiar combination of social tensions, exacerbated by the factional conflict within the community of Salem Village, contributed to the atmosphere of fear so necessary for the advent of a witchscare. Charles Upham suggested this as a major cause and Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum have provided a brilliant analysis of the Salem community to support that argument. Indian warfare and the uncertainties related to the arrival of a new charter and new Governor in the two years before the witchhunt also added to the level of social stress. But other towns in frontier Massachusetts that experienced the same socio-economic-political difficulties did not spark a similar witchscare. Several communities suffering from less stress did suffer from contact with Salem as the witchscare virus spread. This contagion too was a unique aspect of the 1692 episode.”

Fraud:

There is a small possibility and some evidence to back up the theory that some of the accusers were lying and faking their symptoms, although historians don’t believe this was the case with all of the accusers.

Baker suggests though that fraud may have been a bigger problem in the witch trials than we realize:

“Ultimately, the question is whether the afflictions, and therefore the accusations, were genuine or deliberate acts of fraud. Not surprisingly, there is no agreement on the answer. Most historians acknowledge that some fakery took place at Salem. A close reading of the surviving court records and related documents suggests that more fraud took place than many cared to admit after the trials ended.”

In Charles W. Upham’s book, Salem Witchcraft, Upham also suggests it was fraud, describing the afflicted girls as liars and performers but also admits that he doesn’t know how much of it was fake and how much of it was real:

“For myself, I am unable to determine how much may be attributed to credulity, hallucination, and the delirium of excitement, or to deliberate malice and falsehood. There is too much evidence of guile and conspiracy to attribute all their actions and deliberations to delusion; and their conduct throughout was stamped with a bold assurance and audacious bearing…It will be seen that other persons were drawn to act with these ‘afflicted children,’ as they were called, some from contagious delusion, and some, as quite well proved, from a false, mischievous, and malignant spirit.”

Many of the accused also stated that they believed that the afflicted girls were lying or only pretending to be ill. One of the accused, John Alden, later gave an account of his trial during which he described a moment that he believed to reveal fraud:

“those wenches being present, who plaid their jugling tricks, falling down, crying out, and staring in peoples faces. The magistrates demanded of them several times, who it was of all the people in the room that hurt them? One of these accusers pointed several times at one Captain Hill, there present, but spake nothing; the same accuser had a man standing at her back to hold her up; he stooped down to her ear, then she cried out. Aldin, Aldin afflicted her; one of the magistrates asked her if she had ever seen Aldin, she answered no, he asked her how she knew it was Aldin? She said, the man told her so.”

Another girl, who was not identified in the court records, was actually caught lying in court during Sarah Good’s trial when she claimed Good’s spirit stabbed her with a knife, which she said broke during the attack, and then presented the broken blade from her clothing where Good allegedly stabbed her.

After the girl made this claim though, a young man stood up in the court and explained that the knife was actually his and that he broke it himself the day before, according Winfield S. Nevins in his book Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692:

“There-upon a young man arose in the court and stated that he broke that very knife the previous day and threw away the point. He produced the remaining part of the knife. It was then apparent that the girl had picked up the point which he threw and put it in the bosom of her dress, whence she drew it to corroborate her statement that some one had stabbed her. She had deliberately falsified, and used the knife-point to reinforce the falsehood. If she was false in this statement, why not all of it? If one girl falsified, how do we know whom to believe?”

Bernard Rosenthal also points out in his book, Salem Story, several incidents where the afflicted girls appeared to be lying or faking their symptoms, such as when both Ann Putnam and Abigail Williams claimed George Jacobs was sticking them with pins and then presented pins as evidence or when both girls testified that they were together when they saw the apparition of Mary Easty, which makes it unlikely that the vision was a result of a hallucination or psychological disorder since they both claimed to have seen it at the same time.

Witch Pins, Court House, Salem. Photo published in New England Magazine, vol. 12, circa 1892

Witch Pins, Court House, Salem. Photo published in New England Magazine, vol. 12, circa 1892

Another example is various instances when the afflicted girls hands were found to be tied with rope while in court or when they were sometimes found bound and tied to hooks, according to Rosenthal:

“Whether the ‘afflicted’ worked these shows out among themselves or had help from others cannot be determined; but there is little doubt that such calculated action was deliberately conceived to perpetuate the fraud in which the afflicted were involved, and that the theories of hysteria or hallucination cannot account for people being bound, whether on the courtroom floor or on hooks.”

Reverend Samuel Parris:

Not only did some of the villagers believe the afflicted girls were lying, but they also felt that the Salem village minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, lied during the trials in order to punish his dissenters and critics.

Some historians have also blamed Reverend Samuel Parris for the witch trials, claiming he was the one who suggested to the Salem villagers that there were witches in Salem during a series of foreboding sermons in the winter of 1692, according to Samuel P. Fowler in his book An Account of the Life of Rev. Samuel Parris:

“We have been thus particular in relation to the settlement of Mr. Parris at Salem Village, it being one of the causes, which led to the most bitter parochial quarrel, that ever existed in New-England, and in the opinion of some persons, was the chief or primary cause of that world-wide famous delusion, the Salem Witchcraft.”

Parris, who was the latest in a series of Salem Village ministers that got caught in the middle of an ongoing dispute between the villagers, started to preach about infiltration and internal subversion of the church immediately after starting his new job, as can be seen in his very first sermon in which he preached “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully.”

Parris went on to preach to the villagers that the preservation of the church was “worth an hundred lives” and, during a sermon about Jehovah’s command to Samuel to destroy the Amalekites, he preached “a curse there is on such as shed not blood when they have a commission from God.”

Yet, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, the authors of the book Salem Possessed, don’t agree that Parris started the witch hunt. They argue that while Parris had a significant role in the witch hysteria, he didn’t intentionally start a witch hunt:

“Samuel Parris did not deliberately provoke the Salem witchcraft episode. Nor, certainly, was he responsible for the factional conflict which underlay it. Nevertheless, his was a crucial role. He had a keen mind and a way with words, and Sunday after Sunday, in the little village meetinghouse, by the alchemy of typology and allegory, he took the nagging fears and conflicting impulses of his hearers and wove them into a pattern overwhelming in its scope, a universal drama in which Christ and Satan, Heaven and Hell, struggled for supremacy.”

After the trials were over, many of the Salem villagers felt Parris was responsible and some even protested by refusing to attend church while Parris was still minister there.

In February of 1693, these dissenters even presented a list of reasons they refused to attend the church, in which they accused Parris of dishonest and deceitful behavior during the trials and criticized his unchristian-like sermons:

“We found so frequent and positive preaching up some principles and practices by Mr. Parris, referring to the dark and dismal miseries of inquity, working amongst us, was not profitable but offensive…His approving and practicising unwarrantable and ungrounded methods, for discovering what he was desirous to know, referring to the bewitched or possessed persons, as in bringing some to others, and by and from them pretending to inform himself and others, who were the devil’s instruments to afflict the sick and pained…Sundry, unsafe, if sound, points of doctrine, delivered in his preaching, which we esteem not warrantable (if christian)…”

After two years of quarreling with parishioners, Parris was eventually dismissed sometime around 1696.

Although he was dismissed from his position, Parris refused to leave the Salem Village parsonage and after nine months the congregation sued him. During the lawsuit, the villagers again accused Parris of lying during the Salem Witch Trials, according to court records:

“We humbly conceive that he swears to more than he is certain of, is equally guilty of perjury with him that swears to what is false. And though they did fall at such a time, yet it could not be known that they did it, much less be certain of it; yet he did swear positively against the lives of such as he could not have any knowledge but they might be innocent. His believing the Devil’s accusations, and readily departing from all charity to persons, though of blameless and godly lives, upon such suggestions; his promoting such accusations; as also his partiality therein in stifling the accusations of some, and, at the same time, vigilantly promoting others, – as we conceive, are just causes for our refusal, & c.”

Parris responded by counter suing for the back pay the villagers had refused to pay him while he was minister. He eventually won the lawsuit and left Salem village shortly after.

Folk Magic:

English folk magic, which was the use of spells, ointments and potions to cure everyday ailments or solve problems, was often practiced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even though it was frowned upon by most Puritans.

According to Beverly minister John Hale, in his book A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft, the afflicted girls symptoms began after one of them reportedly dabbled in a folk magic technique used to predict the future, known as the “Venus glass”:

“Anno 1692. I knew one of the afflicted persons, who (as I was credibly informed) did try with an egg and a glass to find her future husbands calling; till there came up a coffin, that is, a spectre in likeness of a coffin. And she was afterward followed with diabolical molestation to her death; and so died a single person. A just warning to others, to take heed of handling the Devils weapons, lest they get a wound nearby. Another I was called to pray with, being under some fits and vexations of Satan. And upon examination I found she had tried the same charm: and after her confession of it and manifestation of repentance for it, and our prayers to God for her, she was speedily released from those bonds of Satan.”

Cotton Mather, in his book Wonders of the Invisible World, also blamed folk magic as the cause of the Salem Witch Trials, stating that these practices invited the Devil into Salem:

“It is the general concession of all men that the invitation of witchcraft is the thing that has now introduced the Devil into the midst of us. The children of New England have secretly done many things that have been pleasing to the Devil. They say that in some towns it has been a usual thing for people to cure hurts with spells, or to use detestable conjurations with sieves, keys, peas, and nails, to learn the things for which they have an impious curiosity. ‘Tis in the Devil’s name that such things are done. By these courses ’tis that people play upon the hole of the asp, till that cruelly venomous asp has pulled many of them into the deep hole of witchcraft itself.”

Even though most colonists thought of folk magic as harmless, many well-known folk magic practitioners were quickly accused during the Salem Witch Trials, such as Roger Toothaker and his family who were self-proclaimed “witch killers” who used counter-magic to detect and kill witches.

Another accused witch who had dabbled in folk magic was Tituba, a slave of Samuel Parris who worked with her husband John and a neighbor named Mary Sibley to bake a witch cake, a cake made from rye meal and the afflicted girl’s urine, and then fed it to a dog in February of 1692 hoping it would reveal the name of whoever was bewitching the girls.

The girl’s symptoms took a turn for the worse after the incident and just a few weeks later, they named Tituba as a witch.

Tituba’s Confession:

The legal proceedings of the Salem Witch Trials began with the arrest of three women on March 1, 1692: Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne. After Tituba’s arrest, she was examined and tortured before confessing to the crime on March 5, 1692.

Although her confession doesn’t explain the afflicted girls initial symptoms, which is what led to her arrest in the first place, some historians believe that if it had not been for Tituba’s dramatic confession, during which she stated that she worked for the Devil and said that there were other witches like her in Salem, that the trials would have simply ended with the arrests of these three women.

When Tituba made her confession, the afflicted girls’ symptoms began to spread to other people and the accusations continued as the villagers began to seek out the other witches Tituba mentioned. According to Elaine G. Breslaw in her book Tituba, the Reluctant Witch of Salem, this was a pivotal moment in the trials:

“How she and her supposed conspirators, Sarah Osbourne and Sarah Good, responded to the accusations of the girls was of even greater importance to the course of events in March and the following months. Tituba’s confession is the key to understanding why the events of 1692 took on such epic significance.”

To learn more about the Salem Witch Trials, check out this article on the best books about the Salem Witch Trials.

Sources:
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Nevins, Winfield S. Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692: Together With Some Account of Other Witchcraft Prosecutions in New England and Elsewhere. Salem: North Shore Publishing Company, 1892.
Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York University Press, 1997
Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Spirits. Wiggin and Lunt, 1867. 2 vols.
Fowler, Samuel P. An Account of the Life, Character, & c. of the Rev. Samuel Parris, of Salem Village and Of His Connection With the Witchcraft Delusion of 1692. Salem: William Ives and George W. Pease, 1857.
Baker, Emerson W. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard University Press, 1974.
Spanos, Nicholas P. and Jack Gottlieb. “Egotism and the Salem Witch Trials.” Science, 24 Dec. 1976, Vol. 194, Issue 4272, pp. 1390-1394.
Edwards, Phil and Estelle Caswell. “The hallucinogens that might have sparked the Salem Witch Trials.” Vox, 29 Oct. 2015, www.vox.com/2015/10/29/9620542/salem-witch-trials-ergotism
Sullivan, Walter. “New Study Backs Thesis on Witches.” New York Times, 29 Aug. 1992, www.nytimes.com/1982/08/29/us/new-study-backs-thesis-on-witches.html
Mason, Robin. “Why Not Ergot and the Salem Witch Trials?” Witches of Massachusetts Bay, 23 April 2018, www.witchesmassbay.com/2018/04/23/why-not-ergot-and-the-salem-witch-trials/
“Witchcraft and the Indians.” Hawthorne in Salem, www.hawthorneinsalem.org/Literature/NativeAmericans&Blacks/HannahDuston/MMD2137.html
Wolchover, Natalie. “Did Cold Weather Cause the Salem Witch Trials?” Live Science, 20 April 2012, www.livescience.com/19820-salem-witch-trials.html
Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. Vintage Books, 2003.
Saxon, Victoria. “What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?” Jstor Daily, Jstor, 27 Oct. 2015,
daily.jstor.org/caused-salem-witch-trials/

What Caused the Salem Witch Trials

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the writer and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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