Essay: The Salem Witch Trials

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  • Published on: January 8, 2019
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  • The Salem Witch Trials
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The salem witch trials are one of the most defining moments in early North American history. Due to the extreme tension that surged through a once-peaceful Puritan colony, suddenly had everyone pointing fingers at one another and accusing innocent townspeople of being aligned with the devil, or capable of the evils of witchcraft. During the 1600’s people were very God-fearing, christian individuals, and any mention of the devil was startling, especially to the Puritan people. However, it was combination of factors lead to extreme paranoia within these colonists, which is exactly why they were in search of a scapegoat to be the face for their suffering and anxiety. There were multiple scapegoats in this situation, and their trials were described in detail within, Salem-Village Witchcraft, by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. One of the accused was, Rebecca Nurse, a grandmother and also known around the Massachusetts Bay Colony as being a model Puritan citizen, which is why her conviction and execution originally came as such a shock to many members of the community. However, Nurse and her husband were known to have a long-time dispute with their neighbors, which happened to be the Putnam family, one of Rebecca’s biggest accusers during the trial. Due to this harsh accusing from the Putnam family, the bandwagon effect took place, meaning, other anxious citizens joined in the accusing, in order to keep others from thinking they could have also been involved in witchcraft. In addition, due the ongoing feud with the Putnam’s, Rebecca Nurse was not afraid to defend herself against these absurd claims, and this only made things easier for the accusers to further convince themselves that she was aligned with the devil.Rebecca Nurse can be called a representative of the accused, because her accusal and trial was basically can be cited as the framework in which the trials of the other individuals accused of witchcraft followed. Therefore, the accusal of these innocent people was usually lead by an individual, or group of individuals, with a vendetta against the accused, and once accused by one settler, it created an opportunity for others to jump into the testimony with additional false accounts depicting the innocent person as a witch.

Life in the colonies was very far from relaxing, and this is certainly echoed in the accounts from this time period captured in Salem-Village Witchcraft. As stated above, tensions among these Puritan settlers ran high, therefore, it is not surprising to read that Nurse and her family had an ongoing battle with their neighbors, the Putnam’s, stemming from the boundary between both of their plots of land located in Salem Village. Conflicts over land between tribes, or in this case, families, have been happening for centuries, and it is evident how during the late 1600’s this could easily lead to tensions boiling over. This battle over land, becomes something much more severe, unfortunately for Rebecca Nurse, it lead to her wrongful execution due to the Putnam family’s primary accusal of Nurse being involved with witchcraft.

Ann Putnam Jr. and Ann Putnam Sr. were the first to testify against Rebecca Nurse, and ultimately are the two individuals who blazed the trail of blame against Nurse, and lead to her demise, all because of a tense history between the two families. Both mother and daughter Putnam recounted the same kind of torture that was inflicted upon them by the apparition of Rebecca Nurse. The women recount a similarly terrifying experience of torture, and this was best demonstrated when Ann Putnam Sr. stated that Rebecca Nurse was, “urging me to vehemently to write in her book”, and when Putnam Sr. refused to do so, she claimed that in retaliation Nurse, “threatened to tear the soul out of my body”. The testimonies of Ann Jr. and Sr. are very similar in the way that both women seemed to experienced the same physical trauma inflicted by the Nurse’s apparition, and Ann Putnam Jr. recounted that when she first came in contact with Nurse’s apparition, “ she hath grievously afflicted by biting, pinching, and pricking me-”. In addition, in the primary testimony of Ann Putnam Jr., she cited other alleged victims of Nurse’s witchcraft, which added to the narrative in which Rebecca Nurse was guilty of these devilish acts.

Within her first statement during the testimony, Ann Putnam Jr. claims that she, “saw the apparition of Rebekah Nurs go and hurt the bodies of Mercy Lewis, Mary Wolcott, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Abigail Williams,” and this can be cited as the Putnam’s way of trying to further prove Nurse’s alignment with devil, in hopes of getting rid of their annoying neighbor forever. This logically checks out, because the act of an angry apparition appearing and viciously demanding individuals to write in her book, and tormenting them once they refuse, does not seem like a very likely occurrence, therefore the act of adding more people to this narrative made the happening of this devilish occurrence more probable. For instance, one of the other victims of Rebecca Nurse’s evil, Mary Walcott, echoed claims very similar to those of Ann Putnam Jr. and Sr., who testified before her. Only adding to the list of physical torment, that the apparition of Nurse had basically choked Walcott. This becomes of a pattern that is strictly followed for the most part during the trial of Rebecca Nurse. A victim, Mary Walcott, gave her personal testimony, while making sure to echo similar main points of those who had testified before her, and if the victim were to mention any new details of their encounter with the apparition, the next victim in line to testify would be sure to include this new detail in their testimony. For instance, victim, Elizabeth Hubbard’s testimony followed Mary Walcott’s, and within her testimony she included the new detail of being almost choked by Rebecca Nurse in apparition form.

It may not make sense as to why other puritan settlers would join in on testimonies with more false accusations. However, when remembering how God-fearing and religious the Puritan people were, it makes sense that even hearing the word witchcraft would lead them to feel at least some degree of discomfort. It can be assumed that in Salem Village and Town at this time, if one chose to stay silent during the wake of these testimonies, others would become suspicious. Meaning, paranoia was a common feeling shared by most of these settlers, and if they were not speaking out and against these alleged acts of witchcraft, it could be assumed that they were aligned with the devil as well, and they could easily become the next target of this extremely paranoid community.

As stated above, these innocent people were accused of this heinous acts of witchcraft, because of individuals that have a prior vendetta against them, which had nothing to do with any acts of witchcraft. This is why Rebecca Nurse is able to be a representative of all of the accused individuals in the Salem witch trials, because the other trials that occured before and after Rebecca Nurse followed this similar pattern. A key example of this is the accusal and trial of Bridget Bishop. In case of Bridget Bishop, it seemed as though many people had it out for her, just in the way that in the Putnam’s had it out for Rebecca Nurse.

In the case of Bridget Bishop, she really seemed to be public enemy number one, meaning, she seemed to have caused some trouble for people throughout her life. For example, Bishop’s relationship with her husband, Thomas Oliver, was troubled and had the neighbors concerned. In addition, when her husband passed away his children actually accused Bishop in having a hand in his death. Therefore, just as in the case of Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop became an easy scapegoat for other paranoid citizens, who were trying to avoid being accused of witchcraft themselves or so god-fearing that they believed the claims against these innocent people. For example, John Londer, depicts a terrifying experienc
e in which the spirit of Bridget Bishop allegedly tortured him by grabbing a hold of throat and choking him, once she had woken him up from his sleep.

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