Was Ergotism that Satan Once Loosed in Salem?

Was Ergotism that Satan Once Loosed in Salem?
© Photograph by J

Prior to the Salem witchcraft trials, only five executions on the charge of witchcraft are known to have occurred in Massachusetts. Such trials were held periodically, but the outcomes generally favoured the accused.

In 1652, a man charged with witchcraft was convicted of simply having told a lie and was fined. Another man, who confessed to talking to the devil, was given counsel and dismissed by the court because of the inconsistencies in his testimony. A bad reputation in the community combined with the accusation of witchcraft did not necessarily ensure a conviction. The case against John Godfrey of Andover, a notorious character consistently involved in litigation, was dismissed. In fact, soon after the proceedings, Godfrey sued his accusers for defamation and slander and won the case.

The supposed witchcraft at Salem Village was not initially identified as such. In late December 1691, about eight girls, including the niece and daughter of the minister, Samuel Parris, were afflicted with unknown “distempers”. Their behaviour was characterised by disorderly speech, odd postures and gestures, and convulsive fits. Physicians called in to examine the girls could find no explanation for their illness, and in February one doctor suggested the girls might be bewitched. Parris seemed loath to accept this explanation at the time and resorted to private fasting and prayer. At a meeting at Parris’s home, ministers from neighbouring parishes advised him to “sit still and wait upon the Providence of God to see what time might discover”.

A neighbour, however, took it upon herself to direct Parris’s Barbados slave, Tituba, in the concocting of a “witch cake” in order to determine it witchcraft was present. Shortly thereafter, the girls made an accusation of witchcraft against Tituba and two elderly women of general ill repute in Salem Village, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn. The three women were taken into custody on February 29th, 1692. The afflictions of the girls did not cease, and in March they accused Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Both of these women were well respected in the village and were covenanting members of the church. Further accusations by the children followed.

Examinations of the accused were conducted in Salem Village until 11 April by two magistrates from Salem Town. At that time, the examination were moved from the outlying farming area to the town and were heard by Deputy Governor Danforth and six of the ablest magistrates in the colony, including Samuel Sewall. This council had no authority to try accused witches, however, because the colony had no legal government — a state of affairs that had existed for 2 years. By the time Sir William Phips, the new governor, arrived from England with the charter establishing the government of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the jails as far away from Salem as Boston were crowded with prisoners from Salem awaiting trial. Phips appointed a special Court of Oyer and Terminer, which heard it the first case on June 2nd. The proceedings resulted in a conviction, and the first condemned witch was hanged on June 10th.

Before the next sitting of the court, clergymen in the Boston area were consulted for their opinion on the issues pending. In an answer composed by Cotton Mather, the ministers advised “critical and exquisite caution” and wished “that there may be as little as possible of such noise, company and openness as may too hastily expose them that are examined”. The ministers also concluded that spectral evidence (the appearance of the accused’s apparition to an accuser) and the test of touch (the sudden cessation of a fit after being touched by the accused witch) were insufficient evidence for proof of witchcraft.

The court seemed insensitive to the advice of the ministers, and the trials and executions in Salem continued. By September 22nd, 19 men and women had been sent to the gallows, and one, Giles Corey, had been pressed to death, an ordeal calculated to force him to enter a plea to the court so that he could be tried. The evidence used to obtain the convictions was the test of touch and spectral evidence. The afflicted girls were present at the examinations and trials, often creating such pandemonium that the proceedings were interrupted. The accused witches were, for the most part, persons of good reputation in the community; one was even a former minister in the village. Several notable individuals were “cried out” upon, including John Alden and Lady Phips. All the men and women who were hanged had consistently maintained their innocence; not one confessor to the crime was executed. It had become obvious early in the course of the proceedings that those who confessed would not be executed.

On September 17th, 1692, the Court of Oyer and Terminer adjourned the witchcraft trials until November 2nd; however, it never met again to try that crime. In January 1693 the Superior Court of Judicature, consisting of the magistrates on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, met. Of 50 indictments handed into the Superior Court by the grand jury, 20 persons were brought to trial. Three were condemned but never executed, and the rest were acquitted. In May Governor Phips ordered a general reprieve, and about 150 accused witches were released. The end of the witchcraft crisis was singularly abrupt.

Repeated attempts to place the occurrences at Salem within a consistent framework have failed. Outright fraud, political factionalism, Freudian psychodynamics, sensation seeking, clinical hysteria, even the existence of witchcraft itself, have been proposed as explanatory devices. The problem is primarily one of complexity. No single explanation can ever account for the delusion; an interaction of them all must be assumed. Combinations of interpretations, however, seem insufficient without some reasonable justification for the initially afflicted girls’ behaviour. No mental derangement or fraud seems adequate in understanding how eight girls, raised in the soul-searching Puritan tradition, simultaneously exhibited the same symptoms or conspired together for widespread notoriety.

All modern accounts of the beginnings of Salem witchcraft begin with Parris’s Barbados slave, Tituba. The tradition is that she instructed the minister’s daughter and niece, as well as some other girls in the neighbourhood, in magic tricks and incantations at secret meetings held in the patronage kitchen. The odd behaviour of the girls, whether real or fraudulent, was a consequence of these experiments.

The basis for the tradition seems two-fold. In a warning against divination, John Hale wrote in 1702 that he was informed that one afflicted girl had tried to see the future with an egg and glass and subsequently was followed by a “diabolical molestation” and died. The egg and glass (an improvised crystal ball) was an English method of divination. Hale gives no indication that Tituba was involved, or for that matter, that a group of girls was involved. I have been unable to locate any reference that any of the afflicted girls died prior to Hale’s publications.

The other basis for the tradition implicating Tituba seems to be simply the fact that she was from the West Indies. The Puritans believed the American Indians worshipped the devil, most often described as a black man. Curiously, however, Tituba was not questioned at her examination about activities as a witch in her birthplace. Historians seem bewitched themselves by fantasies of voodoo and black magic in the tropics, and the unfounded supposition that Tituba would inevitably be familiar with malefic arts of the Caribbean has survived.

Calef reports that Tituba’s confession was obtained under duress. She at first denied knowing the devil and suggested the girls were possessed. Although Tituba ultimately became quite voluble, her confession was rather pedestrian in comparison with the other testimony offered at the examination and trials. There is no element of West Indian magic, and her descriptions of the black man, the hairy imp, and witches flying through the sky on sticks reflect an elementary acquaintance with the common English superstitions of the time.