Many of the colonists to the New World, modern North and South America, colonized for religious purposes. Among these people were a group called the Puritans who sought to transform the Church of England by making it more ‘pure’. Unlike the Pilgrims, Puritans did not seek separation from the church, but instead wanted to purify it by removing ceremony and music, for example. Puritans founded Massachusetts, thus establishing the colony’s roots in religion. Salem was the first settlement- later known as such- founded by these Puritans in the late 1620s as a port establishment by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Salem, like the whole of Massachusetts, was not a colony that encouraged different faiths and was very strict on its laws upholding its own religion. Due to this iron grip on the colony’s religion, many superstitions were taken more seriously among the settlers.
Witchcraft was a superstition that would strike fear into the hearts of the Puritan community due to the fact that witches were cooperating with the Devil to spread havoc and misfortune among colonists. The practice- or perceived practice- of Witchcraft was, as such, considered a major and serious felony in Salem. This fear escalated in the 1690s to what is currently known as The Salem Witch Trials. As many as 300 women and men during this period would face dire legal consequences, from loss of all property to execution, if they were to be accused of Witchcraft. However, before a time of ‘Innocent until proven guilty’, all it took to be tried as a witch was testimonial and circumstantial evidence. One of such cases was the trial of Bridget Bishop which occurred in the most famous settlement where accusations were made: Salem, Massachusetts.
In 1692, Puritan minister Cotton Mather summarized the testimonies of those accused of Witchcraft in his book Wonders of the Invisible World. It is in this book where the testimonies against Bridget Bishop during her trial at the Court of Oyer and Terminer held in Salem are written. The first section was a synopsis of her indictment. Bishop was accused of bewitching many residents of Salem. Despite Bishop pleading not guilty, several testimonies assured the court that they had seen her apparition pinch, choke, bite, and afflict them. One of these witnesses went into detail about being threatened with drowning if they refuse to sign a supposedly malicious book belonging to the apparitions. Another witness claimed that Bishop’s apparition was circled by the ghosts of people she presumably had killed yelling ‘You murdered us!’ while spawning around her. Section II went into detail about the witnesses’ behavior during the trial near Bishop. Reports of the witnesses fainting by her mere gaze were written but would only revive if Bishop and only Bishop touched them. Many body gestures by Bishop would cause apparent pain to the witnesses accusing her. After these reports, the witnesses began to give more in-depth testimonies and were even named.
The first of which was Deliverance Hobbs, who reported that she was being tormented by specters for her confession of Bishop. Hobbs claimed that Bishop, again, requested for her to sign the aforementioned book as well as to deny her confession. Hobbs then accused Bishop of being in league with other witches. The next witnesses recalled their testimonies from more than a decade ago: John Cook, Samuel Gray, and Samuel Shattuck. Cook claimed to see Bishop’s apparition hurting him and flinging an apple to his mother, Gray accused Bishop of haunting him and afflicting and killing his child despite not being sure of the apparition’s form of his recollection, and Shattuck similarly reported of being haunted by Bishop and added that any money paid to him by her would mysteriously disappear. The money accusation was repeated in another testimony.
William Stacy, too, claimed that money given to him by Bishop would mysteriously vanish. He also added that Bishop requested his father to grind her grist and that Bishop admitted that people thought she was a witch. Upon leaving Bishop, the wheel of Stacy’s carriage fell into a hole in the road that, upon further inspection, had disappeared. Bishop’s influence on inanimate objects was not unknown as another testimony from John Bly claimed that a sow bought from Bishop’s husband became possessed after an argument about the sale with Bishop. John Bly was the only reported person to testify on two different accounts. His second testimony involved the work he and William Bly had done for Bishop. Upon removing a cellar wall for remodeling, they noticed poppets and implied they were used the same way as modern voodoo dolls are used.
These testimonies all had solidified Bishop’s accusations. Any pleads from Bishop were considered to be lies and that a previous birthmark that marked Bishop as a witch had disappeared from her body. These testimonies were not only enough to prove that Bishop was a witch, but they were enough to make her one of the relatively few people that were executed due to Witchcraft. Eight days after her trial, Bishop was hanged and was used by Mather as an example of the dangers of Witchcraft.
Mather sought to prove that Witchcraft was an evil force and that witches were used by the Devil as tools to make the Puritan colony succumb to his will. The testimonies against the victims accused of Witchcraft were there as recorded proof to defend Mather’s role in Salem’s witch hunts. Mather believed that in prosecuting witches he was doing God’s work to establish the Puritan colony’s blessings and to protect its people. However, despite the obvious bias, Mather also wrote his book to present himself as an unbiased author who records court records of the events of the Salem Witch Trials. Mather’s ideals have been repeated in history in different forms that ultimately ended in the death or incarceration of innocent people for the sake of protection.
The Salem Witch Trials showed what public hysteria can cause to a society that doesn’t know better. It represents what mass paranoia and people’s desperate quest to find someone to blame can do. The significance of these records is apparent as they are echoed throughout the course of history. The most famous instance, in America, was the Red Scare. During this period, laws were being made against people suspected of siding with communism. Many people compared McCarthyism to the Salem Witch Trials, as shown in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
The Witch Trials of Salem are the best example at how fragile a society can be when there is an invisible perceived threat to its people. These horrible acts against the innocent have been repeated throughout history for the sake of protection and for the sake of finding an entity to blame. Mass hysteria and phobia can lead to a cattle mentality that can eventually do more harm than the threat that caused such a movement. The Salem Witch Trials are a perfect example of what a quest to find blame in something that does not exist can do to affect innocent people and how it can cause a chasm of secrecy and distrust among society.
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