On this day in 1692, the first person in the Salem Witch Trials was hung for being a witch. Her name was Bridget Bishop and she was accused of bewitching a number of young women.
She wasn’t the first to be accused of witchcraft. The hysteria that instigated the witch trials started when two girls of just 9 and 11 years old were taken to the doctor with fits and contortions. The doctor, without the modern benefits of blood tests and x –rays, did the only sensible thing for a Puritan doctor who couldn’t figure out what was going on – he diagnosed bewitchment. Of course!
The people in colonial New England, like much of Europe, held many supernatural beliefs One such belief was that the devil made deals with people (witches) to give them power in return for loyalty. This belief, along with extremely difficult living conditions, tensions between the desperately poor and the wealthy, rampant disease and fear of Native american attack had created an environment ripe for mass hysteria.
When the two girls were told they were suffering at the hands of witches, they immediately started pointing the finger and three women were named as their tormentors. Conveniently, these women were poor and powerless. One of them, the West Indian slave Tituba, had the good sense to “confess” and blame it on the others – one a poor homeless woman (whose 4 year old daughter was also later imprisoned for witchcraft) and a poor elderly woman called Sarah Osborne. They were both hung after Bridget Bishop.
Bridget herself was accused because she was a little wayward (well as wayward as you can be in Puritan New England). There were questions at the time about her moral character as she had been married three times, frequented taverns and dressed flamboyantly.
That got me to thinking. Would I have survived the Salem Witch Trials? Would we all? The whole of the western world would be rounded up and hung right now under the same burden of proof in the modern day, but even back then, would we have survived? Worse, would we have been an accuser?
There is no definitive answer on why the hysteria broke out in the first place. Some scientists believe the girls may have been suffering from a type of food poisoning that affects wheat products. It’s called fungus erot and the symptoms can be delusions, vomiting and muscle spasms. Or did the girls know what they were doing? Were they acting maliciously and the rest of the community just started pointing fingers in a bid to save themselves from suspicion? Would we have pointed fingers too if it meant we would be safe?
The whole thing only lasted a couple of months, but resulted in 19 deaths by hanging. Several more of the accused died in jail. An atmosphere of distrust and suspicion permeated the whole region for years to come.
One of the judges on the case, Samuel Sewell, later apologised for his part in the trials. He went on to become the chief justice for Massachusetts. Interestingly, he is an ancestor of Louisa May Alcott’s and an early champion of abolition. So, maybe we can forgive him the witchcraft thing?