The outbreak of witchcraft accusations in 1692 began with the strange behavior of two young girls living in the Salem Village parsonage: 11 year old Abigail Williams, niece of the minister Samuel Parris, and his own 9 year old daughter, Betty. In A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft printed in 1697, Reverend John Hale writes that he was “credibly informed” that the afflicted persons used an egg and glass fortunetelling game to determine their future husband’s profession (132-133). Hale reports that they saw a “specter in the likeness of a coffin,” inciting the tormented conduct of the young girls. It is reframed elsewhere, however, that these folk practices were quite common in England and the Colonies. So why did the entertainment take such an extraordinary turn in the Parris household?
Salem Town versus Salem Village
A port city settled in 1629 by Roger Conant, Salem Town had always been prosperous and throughout the seventeenth century continued to grow, as farmers moved to the pastoral areas that would be called Salem Village. More than a geographic distinction, Salem Town developed an urban texture with commercial advantages benefitting the prevailing merchant group while the farmers of Salem Village perceived a relative shrinking of their standard of living. It is documented that in the 1650’s about 40% of the overall wealth in the area was attributed to farming. Just 30 years later it had plunged to about 9%. While some Villagers may have felt disengaged from Town life, others benefited by their proximity.
The clashes between rural life in Salem Village versus commercial life in Salem Town shines light on the biases that may have colored the judgment of the key figures of the trials.
Salem Village Ministers – a History of Strife
For many years the establishment of a meeting house as a place of worship, independent from Salem Town, had been a point of contention between Salem Townspeople and Salem Villagers, and among Salem Village neighbors themselves. Deciphering extant petitions and counter-petitions of the time, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s illustrate in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft that factionalism was alive in Salem Village in the years preceding the infamous hearings. They consider disputes between competing groups and conclude that there are significant patterns distinguishing between Salem Village Church members who supported the ministry and those who did not. Samuel Parris inherited a legacy of discord at the Salem Village parish. None of the three ministers before him had succeeded in establishing a cohesive congregation.
In 1673 James Bayley was the first minister of the Salem Village meetinghouse immediately beset by controversy between villagers who either questioned his appointment or failed to pay taxes that went toward his salary. He resigned in1679. Boyer and Nissenbaum cite this conflict as an example of the pattern of political behaviors, “…which were to surface again and again in the years to come, most dramatically in 1692” (47).
The second, George Burroughs, was hired as new Village preacher in 1680 and, amid similar unsettled conditions as those of Bayley before him, departed in 1683. He relocated to Wells, Maine where he remained until being summoned back to Salem nine years later. Accused of being a “wizard,” he was hanged with the other victims of the witchcraft trials.
Deodat Lawson had succeeded Burroughs as invited minister in1684 and enjoyed two years of seeming calm within his parish. However, in 1686 efforts to ordain Lawson met renewed opposition and were ultimately abandoned. Lawson departed the Village in 1688.
Samuel Parris’s Personal Demons
Samuel Parris was born in England and had been attending Harvard College when his father Thomas died in 1673. Samuel’s inheritance was a sugar plantation in Barbados, while his elder brother received the more valued lands in England and Ireland. After his less than successful period in the Caribbean he returned to Boston in 1680 as a merchant with a wharf and warehouse, but this endeavor was also characterized by some scholars as falling short of his own ambitions.
At the time Parris arrived in Salem Village from Boston around June of 1688, the atmosphere in Massachusetts Bay Colony was thick with angst. There had been about a hundred cases of suspected witchcraft in the area up to that point. Mary Glover, an elderly Catholic Irishwoman in Boston, was hanged for the crime that summer (Roache, xxxv). The belief in witches extended as far back as the Old Testament’s Exodus 22:18 which stated, “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.” It was within the very fabric of faith that witches existed; that they had entered a covenant with the Devil and therefore should not be allowed to live.
Going forward, Parris’s compensation was debated and negotiated for nearly a year when the Village finally determined his salary to be £66: one third in money, the rest in goods such as firewood. At his ordination as the Salem Village Church minister in November, 1689 he reminded the attending full members of the church that paying his wage was not an act of charity, but a duty. His salary had nearly always been a controversial subject.
In October 1690, Parris attended a meeting of Boston area Congregational ministers to consider, “What shall be done towards the reformation of the miscarriages for which New England now suffers by the heavy judgments of God?” Concurrently in England, King James’ son was born and was to be raised Catholic replacing his Protestant half-sisters in the line of succession. It was in Parris’s mind that their colonial efforts toward their own Promised Land were unraveling and that God was punishing their sins by sending smallpox outbreaks and “Indian attacks.”
In January, 1692 a committee was formed which included Joseph Hutchinson Sr., Joseph Porter, Daniel Andrews, Francis Nurse, and Thomas Putnam to oversee an argument over the parsonage land. As the year progressed there were more and more issues concerning Parris’s agreed upon salary, delivery of firewood and collection of minister’s rates from the congregation. Thus continued the pro-Parris and anti-Parris clash between villagers and the breaking of the minister’s contract.
Salem Possessed (178) sums up his role:
All the elements of their respective histories were deeply rooted in the social realities of late-seventeenth-century western culture — a culture in which a subsistence, peasant-based economy was being subverted by mercantile capitalism. This process played itself out sometimes as a political struggle between vying groups of men, and sometimes as a psychological struggle within individual men. What is unique about our story is the lethal convergence of a man and a community in whom, and in which, these conflicts were already independently raging. Through Parris’s sermons, many Salem Villagers discovered new and alarming dimensions in their chronic difficulties; at the same time, through his Salem Village experience, Parris found abundant nourishment for the obsessions which had long been gnawing at his soul.
After examining the micro-community of the Parris household perhaps it’s easier to understand why Betty and Abigail interpreted their egg glass fortunes as a diabolical message. Social flux was a fact of life. The future of the meetinghouse was uncertain. Scholars point to fears and anxieties within their own homes as a fertile environment for such a reaction to the vision from their crystal ball: “a specter in the shape of a coffin” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 199).
We can never know what was in the minds of these Puritan families over 300 years ago. Perhaps we can at least recognize that the tragedy of the Salem witchcraft trials took place amid layered contributing factors and beliefs that had been set into motion years, even centuries, before the outbreak of witchcraft accusations.
Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1974.
Hale, John. A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft. Bedford. Applewood Books. 1701.
Hall, David C. Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England. Boston. Northeastern University Press. 1991.
Roache, Marilynne E. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. New York. Cooper Square Press. 2002.
University of Virginia. “Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.” Web. <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/>