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What Started the Salem Witch Trials?

This entry was posted on Dec 11 2010

The soul-killing witches that deform the body,” Shaks. We are fortunate to be interviewed by hundreds of history students, magazines and news outlets each year. I’ve noticed some consistency with one of the most frequently asked questions being, “What caused the witch trials?”  In a recent post I shared Professor Benjamin Ray’s assertion that the begging of Sara Good at the Parris parsonage in early 1692 was a precursor to the witchcraft accusations. 

Before addressing that important incident and its implications, the local environment in the years leading up to the events of 1692 has been distinctly fascinating to me as a student of the trials myself.  For instance, the situation in which Reverend Samuel Parris found himself from June 1688, when he became minister of Salem Village, to late 1691 by which time his position was insecure.  How did that predicament lend itself to the events of 1692?  Another scene-setter was the case of Mary Glover who was accused of afflicting the four Goodwin children and hanged in Boston as a witch in November 1688.  Adding to the tone, the violence of King William’s War raged between France and England and their respective colonies over territory.  Also, decades of Essex County land disputes inclined certain village neighbors to contentious relations.  The mental and physical health of the young girls who were the first to suffer strange afflictions and eventually accuse Village and Town’s people of bewitching them certainly played a role.  These diverse ingredients simmering together created the atmosphere from which the events of 1692 would boil over. 

Over the next several weeks I’ll be examining these elements more deeply, discussing how they imbued the fabric of Essex County and allowed an escalation from two young girls’ illness in January 1692 to the execution of 20 accused witches by September of that year.

I’ll also be attending the lecture of Emerson “Tad” Baker at Old Town Hall whose discussion of his book Devil of Great Island:  Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England will add another perspective “prefiguring the horrors of Salem.”

Stay tuned…

About the image:

From Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project

The image shows two witches stirring a steaming cauldron; it was published in a 1828 edition of Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World. In the background a witch rides on a broomstick, brandishing a snake in her hand; to the left, spectral images fly out of the boiling cauldron; and a cat leaps into the scene from the right. References to cat familiars, flying witches, and spectral images are common features of the court records of the Salem witch trials. Explanation

Source: Frontispiece, The Wonders of the Invisible World Displayed, by Robert Calef. New Edition. Boston: T. Bedlington, 1828. Image by permission of the University of Virginia Library, Special Collections. © The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2003.

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