The first witch trials in the New World

Unity against adversity

Modern historians have noted a repeated pattern throughout New England in the early 1600s: community conflict or stress had a direct relationship to accusations of witchcraft. In the first half of the century, Puritans worked hard to establish settlements under extremely adverse conditions in the wilderness of New England. The challenges of daily existence forced them to cooperate with one another. Yet at the same time they were exposed to constant tension and fear, which caused them to lash out at their neighbors. Internal squabbling, particularly about matters of faith and worship, split many Puritans into ever smaller and more remote com munities with their own concepts about carrying out the true mission of God. These small settlements were even more vulnerable to the untamed wilderness, so they were focused on cooperating simply to survive. Settlers in remote Puritan outposts could not risk further division by blaming members of their own community for doing "the devil's work." This is the main reason no witch trials occurred for nearly half a century.

Generally, one or two decades passed before people felt comfortable enough to confront tensions within their communities. They remained united against such outside threats as the hostile climate, attacks from Native Americans, and epidemic diseases. But as time went on, these events created great fear and suspicion within the remote settlements. Increasingly, the Puritans began to question who among them might be the devil in disguise. Any conflict carried with it the suggestion that some local person was in a pact with the devil and was ultimately responsible for the community's problems. According to the Puritan view of the world, upright Christians had to find ways to eliminate these demonic forces in order to establish the Kingdom of God. As both a sin against God and a crime against the community, witchcraft was therefore punishable by death.

The trials begin

Records of seventeenth-century witch trials are varied in length and detail. All cases that reached the local court systems were documented, while other cases have disappeared into the abyss of forgotten history. Nevertheless, modern historians have been able to gather enough information to reconstruct a fairly accurate picture of the proceedings. In the mid 1600s, prior to the Salem trials, there were ninety-three cases of formal accusations of witchcraft—fifty in Massachusetts and forty-three in Connecticut. A total of sixteen people were put to death, while others were either acquitted (freed from charges) or escaped before they could be executed.

Trials typically started when local authorities received a simple complaint from a "victim" of witchcraft against a suspected "witch." Complaints might range from being bothered by an apparition (spirit or ghost), to falling ill, losing crops, witnessing an act by a malevolent (evil) "spirit," or any number of other disruptions. The suspect would immediately be jailed, then specially appointed officials would begin gather ing evidence from townspeople, and sometimes even from the suspect's former neighbors in another village. Usually the officials turned over the evidence to higher courts for hearings. Indictments (pronounced in-DITE-ments; formal accusations) were made by a grand jury, while the verdict (final judgment) was the responsibility of a special trial jury. Final sentencing was determined by court magistrates (civil officers with the power to administer law). Apparently many juries were reluctant to bring convictions, so accused witches were often allowed to provide character witnesses to give positive reports on the person's behavior to aid in their defense. Records also indicate that relatively little torture was used to obtain information from the accused—although it is impossible to know for sure what happened behind locked doors.

There were three typical outcomes to a witch trial: the accused was acquitted (declared innocent) and returned to "normal life" within the community; fled to a different region; or was convicted and executed. Records show that most often people were acquitted of the charges against them. Some lost everything they owned, however, simply because an accusing finger had been pointed at them. Although no general profile fits all cases, an accused witch was usually a middle-aged female living on her own with few or no children. Often the targeted woman was known for her rebellious or disruptive behavior, or she had a reputation as a troublemaker because she went against the grain of the community by, for example, refusing to attend church. Many accused persons were also involved with medicine and the healing arts in some capacity, a position considered fearsome and powerful during these times. A minor record for slander (damaging a person's reputation by making false charges) or petty (minor) theft also helped accusers build a case against a suspect. Not surprisingly, only about 20 percent of accused witches were male, and most of them were considered guilty simply because of their association with suspected witches who were women.

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Responses

  • jessika
    Is the division of townspeople the catalyst for witch trials in new england?
    4 years ago
  • vincent
    Where and when was the first witch trial in america?
    1 year ago

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