Bad weather locusts and witches

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Historians have studied other events that took place in New England during the 1600s and have found remarkable ties between community stress and accusations of witchcraft. During times of social unrest or tension or during natural disasters there were no cases of witchcraft. Immediately after the conflict or disaster had ended, however, the number of accusations rose. Because the Puritans shunned scientific interpretation of natural events (relying on the Bible instead), they had no way to explain what was happening to and around them. Three types of events in particular led directly to witch trials: epidemics, natural disasters, and extreme weather. Settlers faced enormous problems with epidemics: influenza, smallpox, measles, and dysentery produced massive fatality rates. The same was true of natural disasters, which took the settlers by surprise as they tried to adapt to a new environment. They were almost totally dependent on favorable weather for survival, so drought, flooding, hurricanes, or hard winters could destroy entire communities. These phenomena are listed in diaries and other records, again showing a link between natural disasters and accusations of witchcraft.

A community that happened to survive a harsh winter or an epidemic still had to contend with other dangers. Blight and pestilence (crop diseases, fungus, and insects) were a major challenge to good harvests. In 1663, for instance, an enormous blight epidemic started in Massachusetts and spread throughout the Northeast. In addition to destroying an entire season of wheat, it terrified the settlers. Caterpillars and tiny crop-eating flies also caused significant damage, wiping out whole orchards and entire fields of barley, oats, and corn. In this era fires could be especially devastating, leveling neighborhoods within days and setting back years of hard work. Boston seems to have been especially vulnerable, with at least five major fires breaking out between 1643 and 1692 and destroying more than half of the city each time. The Puritans interpreted all these events as punishment for sin or as a challenge from the devil.

Puritans were frightened by other natural events, which they read as further signs of evil. They linked comets, eclipses, auroras (streamers of light in the sky), and earthquakes with ruined crops or the death of a local leader. Even rainbows were viewed as God shooting at somebody. Community members were often blamed for such occurrences and charged with witchcraft. If a person died after an eclipse, for example, the Puritans believed that someone was exerting a supernatural evil force. In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, had just recovered from war, epidemic, and political upheaval. Thus the community was ripe for a massive explosion of hysteria, panic, and accusation.

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