Historians reconsider puritanism, hysteria and the politics of fear

By Andy Walton
CNN Interactive

In January 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, young Elizabeth Parris and her cousin, Abigail Williams, fell ill. The Rev. Samuel Parris, Elizabeth's father and Abigail's guardian, called for several doctors, who were bewildered.

Soon, other girls in Elizabeth and Abigail's circle of friends began showing the same symptoms: strange convulsions, uncontrollable screaming, and sometimes even the loss of sight or speech. Finally Dr. William Griggs reached a diagnosis that was not uncommon when doctors were stumped: The cause, he said, must be witchcraft.

Thus began an ordeal that would tear the Salem community apart for years. Before it was over, 19 people would be marched to the gallows, another would be crushed to death, and at least four more would die in prison. The Salem witch trials would become a popular symbol of innocent victims hounded for imaginary offenses.

But were the condemned truly innocent?

The power of belief

In his 1969 book "Witchcraft at Salem," Chadwick Hansen made an astonishing claim -- that a few of the accused were guilty, that witches did practice in Salem, and that they did cause real harm to others.

"There was witchcraft in Salem, and it worked," wrote Hansen, a former English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "There was every reason to regard it as a criminal offense."

Belief in witchcraft was far from unique to Salem, Hansen argued; it was endemic to Europe at the time and a constant in the English culture that New England reflected. Reputable citizens invoked "white magic" as a defense against witches, using charms such as a horseshoe above the door.

In Salem, the aunt of one of the afflicted girls invoked sorcery to attempt a cure, asking that a "witch cake" including the girl's urine be fed to a dog. Fortunetelling and white magic were frowned upon by the church but usually tolerated, Hansen wrote.

Against that backdrop, Hansen argued that witchcraft had real power -- not based on any trafficking in the supernatural, but in the power of the victims' beliefs. The girls who were central to the Salem trials were genuinely sick, he wrote, suffering from symptoms that were psychosomatic but nonetheless real.

"It worked then as it works now in witchcraft societies like those of the West Indies, through psychogenic rather than occult means," Hansen wrote. "They [the afflicted girls] were hysterics, and in the clinical rather than the popular sense of that term. These people were not merely overexcited; they were mentally ill."

'They've trapped themselves'

Carol Karlsen, author of "Devil in the Shape of a Woman," says she originally "assumed" that Hansen was right about witchcraft in Salem, but that her research "didn't turn up much support for that at all."

"If you meant ... telling somebody's fortune, then yes, you could say witchcraft was practiced," says Karlsen, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan.

She argues that the girls were not actually delusional but experiencing a common religious reaction -- like worshippers who behave strangely when "moved by the spirit."

"Ninety percent of the cultures of the world have this kind of physical response" to religious phenomena, she says. "What it's called differs from culture to culture."

"That [religious reaction] came from the culture around them, especially the religious authorities who had been preaching for almost a decade that the devil was all around them," Karlsen says. "These young people were very much caught up in that, but I don't think that makes them either mentally ill or liars."

Peter Charles Hoffer, author of "The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History," has a simpler explanation. He believes that Elizabeth Parris, the first girl to become ill, had some organic ailment, possibly asthma. The other girls, seeing the amount of attention she got, mimicked the symptoms. By the time the trials got under way, it was too late to recant.

"They become sort of a performing troupe," Hoffer says. "They go to other towns and they accuse people, because the bottom line is this: If you look at the law, a false accusation is a serious crime.

"They can't stop. They've trapped themselves," Hoffer says. "The one girl among them [Mary Warren] who recants in April, they immediately accuse her of being a witch."

'The guilt of innocent blood'

Whatever the cause of the girls' distress, their stories found a community beset by crisis. Increasingly crowded, beset by wars to the north and internal squabbles, residents of Salem were all too willing to believe that the devil was at work in Massachusetts Bay.

"You have this superheated atmosphere of war and rumor," Hoffer says, and those rumors included witchcraft. "Any spark could have ignited it, and there's no idea of how it could have gone."

By early 1693, the voices of dissent were growing louder. At the urging of Gov. William Phips and prominent members of the clergy, "spectral evidence" -- claims that apparitions of witches were tormenting court onlookers and the afflicted girls -- was disallowed. Of 53 witches tried without spectral evidence, only three were convicted, all of whom had confessed.

Those three, and five others awaiting execution from previous trials, were reprieved by the governor. Phips would later issue a general pardon, marking an end to the panic. But it would not be quickly forgotten.

In December 1696, the colonial legislature of Massachusetts declared a day of fasting, asking that God "pardon all the errors of His Servants." The following year, Anne Putnam Jr., one of the young accusers, asked her church to forgive her for "bring[ing] upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood."

Salem Village, the inland farming outpost where the panic began, changed its name to Danvers, the name it has today. The grandson of John Hathorne, one of the presiding judges, also changed his name -- as Nathaniel Hawthorne, he sought to dispel his inherited guilt by writing works critical of the Puritans, including "The House of the Seven Gables" and "The Scarlet Letter."

Nearby Salem Town, the port settlement where the trials were held, is now simply Salem, and plays on its witch trial history to attract tourists. Salem hosts "Haunted Happenings," a three-week festival leading up to Halloween, and the police department logo features a silhouette of a witch, complete with pointed hat and broom. On a more serious note, memorials dedicated on the 300th anniversary of the trials in 1992 preserve the names of the condemned.

Little is known about what happened to the witch trial accusers, Hoffer says; according to 18th century sources, "all of those girls came to a bad end ... all of them ended up in disrepute."

As for the episode itself, Hansen wrote that it serves as a warning:

"Western civilization stopped executing witches when the literate and balanced portion of its members stopped believing in their capacity to do harm." And while the villains are different in modern times, Hansen says, "the spirit of the witch hunt is still with us."

Were there witches in Salem? How did a community succumb to a witch-hunting frenzy? Could it happen today? Join the debate on our Unsolved Histories message board.