In the seventeenth century, a belief in witches and witchcraft was almost universal. Superstition and witchcraft resulted in many being hanged or imprisoned. In Salem, Massachusetts where the witch trials occurred, many people who appeared suspicious were accused of witchcraft and condemned to death.. The power of superstition and hearsay can often distort from the truth.
In the annals of Massachusetts' history, it is written that four ministers of Salem joined Matthew, and they spent a whole day in the house of an "afflicted" family in fasting and prayer. The result was the delivery of this family from the power of the witch. It all began when a niece and daughter of the parish minister at Danvers were first afflicted. Their actions frightened other young people, and shortly thereafter they also appeared to have the same symptoms, such as loss of appetite and sickness. A belief quickly spread over Salem and throughout the state that evil spirits were being seen in Salem. Terror took possession of the minds of nearly all the people, and the dread made the affliction spread widely. "The afflicted, under the influence of the witchery, "admitted to see the forms of their tormentors with their inner vision" (Miller 1082). and would immediately accuse some individual seen with the devil. At times the afflicted and the accused became so numerous that no one was safe from suspicion and its consequences. Even those who were active in the prosecutions became objects of suspicion.
Revenge often impelled persons to accuse others who were innocent and some statement of the accuser would move the court and audience to condemn the prisoner. "I saw Goody Osborn with the devil" (Miller 1060). The accuser would declare that they saw the devil standing beside the victim whispering the words in his or her ear and such an absurd statement would be believed by the judges. Some, terrified and with the hope of saving their lives or avoiding the horrors of imprisonment, would falsely accuse their friends and relatives, while others moved by the same hopes, would falsely confess themselves to be witches. Many of the accusers and witnesses came forward and published denials of the truth of their testimony, to save their own lives. Mr. Paris in the Danver family, who was one of the most strongest prosecutors of alleged witches, was compelled to resign his charge and leave the country.
The acknowledgments of error and pleadings for mercy, could not alter the sufferings that the accusations afflicted. During a year's time, nineteen people had been hanged, and Corey Giles was killed by means of the horrid process of being pressed to death with stones because he wouldn't say if he was guilty or innocent. He continued to say "more weight" (Miller 1113); until he died. In doing so, his family could keep his land. Others had been tortured or frightened into a confession of guilt or imprisonment.
As one can see the power of superstition and the hearsay can distort the truth. The Salem witch trials were horrible and changed many people's lives. This strange episode in the history of Massachusetts astonished the civilized world, and made an unfavorable impression on others.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Ellen Bowler. ed. et al. Literature the American Experience. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994.
Erica Hankinson Erica.Hankinson@juno.com