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The Salem Witch Trials are one of the great historical puzzles. What led a group of mostly teenaged girls to accuse their neighbors of having bewitched them? The problem is a remarkably complex one, and one worth looking at.

In the Salem series, the first accuser that we see is Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), who in the pilot is being tormented by Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery). Mary has magical control over Mercy, so when Cotton Mather tries to use Mercy to sniff out witches, Mercy accuses the innocent Giles Quarry. Later, Mercy breaks free of Mary’s control and a group of young girls ask her to accuse on of their fathers, who is a drunk who abuses his daughter; this time Mercy makes the accusation freely and with full knowledge that the man is not a witch. Then Mary approaches Mercy and offers to train her a witch, which Mercy agrees to. Later, Mercy recruits several other girls to become witches in training. The season ends with her recruiting a small army of disaffected youth. But, as I’ve shown, the series gets almost everything wrong. So let’s turn to the actual accusations and how historians have tried to make sense of them.


The first histories of the Salem Witch trials were written in the middle of the 18th century, and although they were only two to three generations removed from the events, an enormous shift had taken place in the colonial mindset. Whereas a majority of colonists accepted the reality of witchcraft in 1692, by the 1750s, very few people still seriously believed in witches. This left the historians of the day with a problem; if witches were not real, why did Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr. and the other girls bring the accusations in the first place? Some scholars adopted an early version of Linnda R. Caporael’s theory that the problem was medical in nature; the girls were suffering from some illness that made them imagine they were being tormented by witches.

But Thomas Hutchinson took a different approach. He argued that the girls were guilty of intentional fraud. He suggested that they had initially just wanted some sympathy from the community, and that adults had started bringing charges to avoid becoming the targets of accusation. In other words, it was a sort of game that got out of hand. 19th century historians, steeped in the rationalism of the day, followed Hutchinson’s line of argument and attributed the accusations to fraud, attention seeking, and similar factors. Basically, they felt that the afflicted were just naughty girls who let things get disastrously out of hand and found themselves riding a tiger that eventually turned and bit some of them.

There is definitely good reason to see fraud as an element in the accusations. On one occasion, Susannah Sheldon was found with her wrists tied tightly. Rev. Deodat Lawson’s account says that a couple of girls were found with their wrists tied and hanging from hooks such that they had to be lifted. It’s hard to see how this could be anything except an intentional act of deception. Mary Warren, one of the afflicted girls, at one point claimed that the other girls were faking their symptoms; when the other girls began to accuse Warren of witchcraft, she withdrew her claim and resumed her role as accuser. Similarly, Sarah Churchill told a friend that she had been lying, but that she couldn’t change her story after such a long time, because the authorities would not believe her.

However, in the 20th century, the growth of modern psychology, particularly Freud’s argument that humans are not fully rational beings, has led many historians to consider the possibility that the girls were suffering from some form of mass psychopathology, such as mass hysteria. (This is not the same thing as being mentally ill; if a society recognizes a concept such as demonic possession, it is rational and sane for some members of that society to demonstrate the symptoms of possession.) Some of their symptoms were so extreme that they astounded those who saw them. Many of the girls experienced convulsions so extreme that they seemed to defy anatomical possibility, and on some occasions, several men were required to physically restrain the violent thrashings of teenage girls. Many of the girls were periodically rendered incapable of speaking or experienced a choking sensation, while fits of blindness are also sometimes mentioned. These symptoms—physical contortions, violent thrashing, the inability to speak, the sensation of choking or a lump rising in the throat, temporary blindness—are all recognized symptoms of hysteria today.

A 19th century drawing of a patient with hysterical convulsions

A 19th century drawing of a patient with hysterical convulsions

So we are left with a situation in which some of the symptoms the girls displayed may well be legitimate symptoms of a temporary psychopathology, while other evidence points to willful fraud. When Mary Warren broke away from the group of accusers and began to recant, the other girls seem to have pressured her into returning to the fold. That would seem a paint a picture of the girls as being at least partly conscious of their performance as afflicted victims of witchcraft and partly genuine victims of some condition they could not fully understand or control.

Let’s Look at the Accusers

Historian Carol F. Karlsen, in her impressive witchcraft study The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, surveys all known cases of witchcraft accusation in colonial New England, and focuses considerable attention on the demographics of those accusers who were considered possessed. Out of 78 such people, 67 of them (86%) were women. In contrast, non-possessed accusers (what I referred to in a previous post as ‘secondary accusers’) had a much more even gender ratio. So that suggests that something was different or special about the possessed or afflicted accusers.

Carol F. Karlsen

Carol F. Karlsen

Looking at them more closely, Karlsen noticed that they tended to be clustered in the 16 to 25 year-old range, and tended to be unmarried. (In this and my other posts on Salem, I collectively refer to the afflicted as ‘girls’ for simplicity’s sake. Many of them were legally adults but lacked the chief social marker of womanhood of the day, namely marriage.) This pattern holds true at Salem. Only a few of them, chiefly Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam Jr., were below that age range, and only Ann Putnam Sr was substantially older or married. Among non-possessed accusers, there was a tendency for accuser and accused witch to have had a prior antagonistic interaction, but among possessed accusers, the social relationship seems to have been minimal. In other words, while it is possible that non-possessed accusers were influenced by previous negative encounters with those they accused, possessed accusers do not show any signs of playing out an established hostility to those they accused.

When Karlsen narrowed her focus specifically to the Salem trials, she noticed something even more interesting about afflicted girls there. Of the 24 afflicted girls over 16 but still unmarried, 13 had lost their father and 4 others had lost their mother, whereas among all non-possessed accusers in that age group, only 25% had lost a parent. Most of the afflicted girls at Salem had originally come from small settlements in Maine territory that had been attacked by Native Americans. As orphaned refugees they had come to Salem and were therefore socially newcomers. Some were living with relatives, but many had been taken in by strangers out of Christian charity. Most of them were being employed as servants by the families that had taken them in.

A few examples demonstrate this pattern. Sarah Churchill had come from a wealthy Maine family and was now living as a servant to George Jacobs Sr (whom she accused of witchcraft); her wealthy grandfather had been killed in an attack by Wabanakis, and her father had been forced to become a refugee. She was living in Salem because she had relatives there, but she was not living with them. Mercy Lewis was not, as Salem depicts, the daughter of a local minister; rather she was the daughter of a poor family from Falmouth, Maine, who was now living as a servant in the household of Rev. George Burroughs; she was the only survivor among her whole family of a Wabanaki attack. Later, she was a servant to the Putnams. Elizabeth Hubbard was living as a servant in the household of her great-aunt, Rachel Griggs, whose husband was the town physician. Mary Warren was a servant of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Mary Watkins apparently came from a wealthier family, but was living as a servant at the time of the Witch panic. After she was jailed during the trial (having at one point accused herself of witchcraft), she struggled to claim her inheritance from her father and a brother because her family would not provide her bail; she eventually filed a petition asking to be sold as an indentured servant.

Note how close Wabanaki territory was to colonial Massachusetts

Note how close Wabanaki territory was to colonial Massachusetts and Salem

As Karlsen demonstrates, one of the common characteristics that many of the possessed accusers shared was that they were economically vulnerable; they were orphans, unmarried, and poor, and therefore probably quite worried about their future work and marriage prospects. The influx of refugees into Salem and other nearby communities meant that sex ratios in the area had skewed; there were more women of marrying age than men, which meant that some women were unlikely to ever get married. In a society in which marriage was the main respectable ‘occupation’ for women, and unmarried servants did not make enough to live independently, many of the afflicted girsl at Salem were looking at a future in which they could expect to remain low-status domestic servants for the foreseeable future. For a girl like Sarah Churchill, who had apparently come from wealth, that was surely a very difficult prospect to contemplate. In this context, the fact that Betty Parris and Abigail Williams performed a Venus Glass ritual to see the face of their future husbands takes on a very different significance.

In at least some cases, there is evidence that the afflicted girls resented their position as servants. John Proctor initially refused to believe that Mary Warren had been possessed, and warned her that she would be beaten if her symptoms interfered with her spinning work. He told her that if her seizures threw her into the fire or water, that she would not be pulled out. Sarah Churchill claimed that her 80-year-old employer had regularly beaten her with his cane when he was not satisfied with her work. Although I haven’t found any reference to Lewis claiming she had been beaten by George Burroughs, she did accuse him of being a witch. What these cases suggest is that the possessed girls at Salem may have felt a powerful sense of discontent and resentment at their current social situation.

The Last Temptation of Elizabeth Knapp

Karlsen then turns her attention to the case of Elizabeth Knapp, who experienced possession in 1672. Her minister employer, Rev. Samuel Willard, wrote a detailed account of her case. Knapp’s symptoms sound quite like the Salem cases; she experienced seizures and uncontrollable screaming, and attempted to accuse an elderly woman of bewitching her. Willard, however, refused to accept the accusation and pressured her to reveal the true cause of her fits. Knapp then declared that the Devil had appeared to her several times, tempting her to become a witch, in return for which he promised her money, fine clothes, release from chores, and the like. She admitted that he had come to her because she was discontented with her situation and that his appearances had become more numerous after she had become a domestic servant for Willard. As her fits went on, she alternated between claiming to have become a witch and denying that she given into that temptation. Sometimes she lost her voice entirely. When Willard essentially blamed her for having called the Devil to her by her discontent, she attempted suicide, began striking people, and then had a severe seizure in which the Devil spoke through her, calling Willard a rogue and a liar. Ultimately, Willard helped Knapp reject the Devil and accept the social situation that God had led her to. Knapp went on to marry and become a model of Christian womanhood.

Rev. Samuel Williard

Rev. Samuel Willard

For Karlsen, Willard’s narrative is about the psychological struggle that Elizabeth Knapp experienced. She was unhappy with her situation as a servant, and understood her discontent to be a form of diabolical temptation, because discontent was sinful. Knapp believed that her dissatisfaction was a doorway through which Satan had attempted to recruit her into the ranks of his witches, but ultimately, she was able to overcome her temptations, reject Satan and witchcraft, and embrace God’s will and her social situation. Karlsen feels that Knapp’s extreme symptoms were a physical acting out of her emotional distress, channeled into a culturally-acceptable experience of demonic possession. Karlsen argues that for Puritans, the experience of “possession was not itself witchcraft, only the potential for witchcraft.” In other words, girls who experienced seizures and similar symptoms had been targeted for recruitment into the ranks of the witches but did not truly want to join that evil sisterhood.

None of the possessed girls at Salem was the subject of so detailed a spiritual account as Elizabeth Knapp, but Karlsen argues that Knapp’s experiences are the key to understanding what drove the accusations of the possessed girls at Salem. She argues that they were young women struggling with feelings of fear, resentment, and anger over their lowly status. She points out that Rev. Hale commented that several of them were worried about their marriage prospects. Some may have been emotionally traumatized by the violence they saw in Maine. They may have experienced feelings of anger toward their employers, and then possibly a sense of guilt over being angry at men and women who were ostensibly offering them Christian charity through employment. Some may also have been experiencing the awaking of sexual desire, feelings that Puritan society considered sinful. Discontent was itself understood to be sinful, a form of rebellion against both God and the male head of the household. Rebellion against any social authority was seen as one of the worst sins a woman could commit. Since witches were classically understood to be envious, rebellious, and overtly sexual, these girls may well have understood their feelings to be signs of being tempted to engage in witchcraft. Both Sarah Churchill and Mary Warren did, at different moments, confess to having become witches, only to later recant (a pattern we have already seen with Elizabeth Knapp).

In addition to serving as an explanation for their sinful feelings, possession appears to have had two other benefits for the possessed. First, it elevated their social status by making them the objects of attention and sympathy, and granting them a form of social power. Their mysterious symptoms brought them a good deal of concern and the sympathy of their employers and friends. As people began to take their accusations of witchcraft seriously, the possessed experienced a sense of social empowerment and importance, whereas previously they felt disempowered and unimportant. People were listening to them and arresting the women and men they accused. Thus possession relieved at least some of their social anxieties.

At the same time, possession gave them exemption from the conventions of Puritan behavior. Seizures and fits gave them an acceptable way of avoiding work without being seen as lazy, although not in Mary Warren’s case. More importantly, it allowed them to say and do things that would have been utterly sinful and blasphemous for normal girls. They swore, they cursed their elders, and they spit on their employers. They shrieked and writhed instead of being demure and quiet in public. They uttered blasphemies, threw Bibles across the room, refused to listen to prayers or Scripture readings, and disrupted church services. So possession gave the possessed a chance to violate proper Christian behavior without being personally guilty of misbehavior. Thus it allowed them to dramatize their spiritual crisis and give vent to that crisis at the same time.

However, the benefits of possession could only continue as long the girls could display their symptoms. As Karlsen points out, possession is often a social phenomenon; it occurs in groups more than in isolated individuals, and the victims often learn their behavior from watching other victims. As one girl ‘discovered’ a new symptom, it could spread to other girls. They policed each other, so that when Mary Warren began to recant, the other girls forced her back into a more proper performance of victimhood. And sometimes it was necessary to counterfeit symptoms, for example when Susannah Sheldon was found with her wrists tied, and then later when several girls were found with their wrists tied and hanging from hooks. On one occasion, Mary Warren and other girls were found with pins stuck in their bodies. It seems likely that these were voluntary symptoms, but ones which the girls may have genuinely believed in, since they felt that they were being tempted to act as witches. Thus the girls were not exactly ‘faking’ their symptoms so much as seeking ways to perform the role they had found themselves in.

To me, Karlsen’s explanation of what was driving the afflicted girls’ experiences is far more persuasive than Linnda Caporael’s ideas that they were simply sick with ergotism. Karlsen’s theory accounts for a far widely range of behaviors than Caporael’s, and takes into account many more of the common features of the girls, such as why it was mostly young female servants who were afflicted and why so many of the girls were orphans. It offers us a window into the social, religious, and economic dynamics of Salem and gives us an interpretative tool for making sense of Puritan society more generally. It takes account of the wider context of the accusations, such as the attacks on the Maine settlements and the skewing of the colonial marriage market. And it connects the accusations at Salem to the many other witchcraft accusations in colonial New England.

So What Does the Show Get Right?

Salem unintentionally replicates the connection between possession, social rebellion, and witchcraft that lies at the heart of Karlsen’s interpretation. Although we don’t see the beginning of Mercy Warren’s affliction, and although Mercy is not depicted as being economically vulnerable or a servant, Mary Sibley does in fact approach Mercy to become a witch. Initially, Mercy is Mary’s puppet pure and simple, but early in the season, Mercy throws off Mary’s control, and at that point, Mary approaches her and offers to end the torture and teach her witchcraft if she will support Mary’s plans. In other words, Mary offers Mercy exactly the deal that Elizabeth Knapp thought that Satan was offering her.

Mary begins teaching Mercy to be a witch

Mary begins teaching Mercy to be a witch

At the same time, Mercy is approached by a group of young girls who point out to Mercy that she has become one of the most powerful women in Salem; when Mercy speaks, people listen to her. This sense of empowerment is presented as being a major reason why Mercy decides to accept Mary’s offer. This too is exactly in line with Karlsen’s reading of the possessed girls. Although Mercy is not shown as resenting her social disempowerment, the moment her empowerment is pointed out to her, it becomes something she craves.

In the same episode, Mercy and her coterie intentionally fabricate an accusation against one of the girl’s fathers, a drunk who beats her and takes the money she makes from singing, and who is planning to sell her to the whorehouse. In doing this they are essentially rebelling against authority, although it’s presented as a corrupt paternal authority that deserves rebelling against. Later in the season, Mercy uses the Venus Glass ritual to trigger more false accusations, this time against the Barkers, an entirely innocent family. Increase Mather burns the Barkers in an action that literally subverts justice, although only the witches understand this. In fact, the series makes the point that, for the witches’ plan to work, they must engineer the executions of a dozen innocent people, so the witches are intentionally working to rebel against justice.

Mary Sibley is also in a state of literal rebellion against her husband, having taken control of him by means of a toad familiar that she feeds to George against his will. Her witchcraft has made her the wealthiest woman in Salem, just as the Devil promised Elizabeth Knapp. She engages in both premarital and later adulterous sex with John Alden. In fact, by being so powerful in Salem, Mary is an exact match for the Puritan notion of the witch as a woman who cannot accept the ‘natural’ submission of women to male authority. Even Magistrate Hale, her fellow witch, is unable to control her.

Finally, Mercy becomes the focus for all the discontented youth of Salem. She lures her coterie into practicing magic and worshipping the Devil, and in the final episode she issues a call for all the disaffected teens of Salem, male and female, to rally to her cause. As Puritans saw it, that is exactly why people became witches.

Mercy and her coterie worshipping the Devil

Mercy and her coterie worshipping the Devil

So while Salem gets nearly everything about the Salem Witch Trials wrong, the show has, I think entirely by accident, managed to dramatize precisely what Puritans thought caused people to turn to witchcraft. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Want to Know More?

SALEM SEASON 1is available through Amazon.

Carol Karlsen’s book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New Englandabsolutely dazzled me when I first read it. Her argument is so well-constructed and draws off so much evidence that I immediately found myself persuaded. If you only read one book on New England Witch Trials, make it this book.