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On Witch Hunts

The proceedings of the Salem Village court still give us much to consider.

Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692, painted by T.H. Matteson in 1855. (Peabody Essex Museum/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Cotton Mather believed women. When they made accusations against people in power, he took them seriously. When Thomas Putnam rode across the Salem Village hillside to town center 330 years ago to press witchcraft charges against those tormenting his daughter, Mather didn’t blame the victim. He tried to hold her abusers accountable.

Putnam’s daughter Ann had begun howling and suffering spasms. Two other village girls—Betty Parris, daughter of Salem minister Samuel Parris, and Abigail Williams—were experiencing similar symptoms. The three girls were in time joined by a chorus of young women throughout Salem Village who claimed to be suffering spectral torments.

Mather was neither a resident of Salem nor a direct participant in the witchcraft trials of 1692. He became acquainted with Putnam’s allegations while investigating witchcraft outbreaks in New England. A noted Puritan theologian and a student of demonic possession, Mather was in regular contact with the trying court, lending his expertise and qualified support to the proceedings. His Wonders of the Invisible World, a collection of speeches published after the ad hoc Salem court was disbanded in October 1692, was among the earliest written histories of the witchcraft outbreak in Salem Village.

Wonders is a defense of the Salem witch trials and Mather’s role in their prosecution. But even in his polemic one detects Mather’s fear that the trials had gone too far. “In the midst of the many Dissatisfactions among us,” Mather wrote, “I shall Rejoyce that God is Glorified; and pray that no wrong steps of ours may ever sully any of his Glorious Works.”

Between February and October 1692, roughly 250 people were accused of witchcraft in Salem and its environs. Nineteen accused witches and wizards were executed for their crimes; one man died while being tortured. But what is often caricatured as a period of superstition and intolerance looks more complicated with reflection.

The accusations of witchcraft broke out in Salem Village—an entity distinct from Salem Town, a prosperous adjoining entity named as one of the colony’s two entry ports by the Massachusetts General Court. Salem Village, far from a pastoral New England hamlet, was a loose collection of farmsteads set miles from town center, embroiled in decades of conflict over its ministers—the village had parted ways with three different ministers in the years before the witchcraft outbreak—and the maintenance of its meeting house.

The villagers, who lived agrarian lives modeled on the Puritan ideal, saw in Salem Town’s port the birth of trade and international commerce—the first breaths of capitalism in colonial New England. As historian Bernard Bailyn observed, the business community within colonial New England’s port towns “represented the spirit of a new age” whose “guiding principles were not social stability, order, and the discipline of the senses, but mobility, growth, and the enjoyment of life.” This was a constant source of tension between the villagers and members of the town, and likely contributed to the tone and tenor of the witchcraft trials.

Even as citizens of a parochial colonial backwater, most Salem Villagers were literate. The Bible dominated the villagers’ lives; as one visitor to New England observed, the colonists “neither drive a bargain, nor make a jest, without a text of Scripture at the end of it.” They ordered their lives around the existence of the supernatural. Their God was not a distant watchmaker or a therapeutic antinomian. He demanded total obedience under pain of eternal damnation.

“The Church consists of good and bad: as a garden that has weeds as well as flowers, and as a field that has wheat as well as tares…a net that taketh good and bad,” Reverend Samuel Parris told parishioners in a March 27 sermon. “Here are good men to be found—yea, the very best; and here are bad men to be found—yea, the very worst. Such as shall have the highest seat in glory, and such also as shall be cast into the lowest and fiercest flames of misery.”

The villagers heard these words as accusations of witchcraft swirled about their tiny colonial outpost. The melange of women and girls who claimed to be afflicted by specters, witches, and wizards did not accuse only the “marginalized,” as modern ideologues would have it, but figures like Lady Phips, the wife of the governor of Massachusetts. While the Smithsonian points to “xenophobia and fear” as the cause of the outbreak, it is more likely that the villagers—primed by a decades-long conflict against the capitalists to their south—actually believed in witches and wizards.

And while the ad hoc court convened by the Massachusetts General Court to adjudicate claims of witchcraft often reached indefensible verdicts, researchers Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum observed the remarkable efforts of Salem jurists to ground their cases in, at least, a patina of reason:

The voluminous examination records of 1692 constitute a remarkable testament to the magistrate’s efforts to seek out proofs that would conform to the established rules of courtroom evidence—that is to say, evidence that was empirically verifiable and logically relevant. While much of the testimony accepted by the magistrates seems today naive or superstitious at best, it becomes more comprehensible if viewed as part of the attempt to fit this ancient crime [of witchcraft] into a rational intellectual framework.

This Salem court is often accused of cracking a few proverbial eggs to make the proverbial omelet—throwing out due process to rid the village of its supposed witches. Indeed, this line of thinking is hardly without modern analogue. In 2014, for example, Ezra Klein, writing in support of a 2014 California law requiring publicly funded universities to uphold affirmative consent standards in sexual misconduct cases, argued that the prospect of “campus boards convict[ing] young men…of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations” was “necessary for the law’s success.” In fact, he wrote, it is precisely those convictions that “feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair” that will convince men to behave.

Often, the men of the 17th century were in principle more moderate. Cotton Mather’s father, Increase, argued it would be “better that ten suspected witches…escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.” Given the nature of the crime, one marvels at his restraint.

about the author

John Hirschauer is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He was previously a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review and a staff writer at RealClear.

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