Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trial is one of the most famous trials that have been conducted in the course of the American history. The trial which occurred in September, 1692 involved 19 people, both men and women. The 19 persons in the trial were convicted of practicing witchcraft. Prior to the trial, there were a number of young girls from Salem, one of the villages in the greater Massachusetts, which people accused of being possessed by the evil spirit. Present paper will analyze the Salem witch trial from historical perspective and outline the positive and negative outcomes of this case.
The behavior of the young girls who were possessed by the evil spirits puzzled the citizens of the village. For instance, the girls would get convulsive seizures, scream most of the times, and enter trance. The then physicians could not provide an explanation for such kind of actions (Boraas 44). However, most of the community members attributed the behaviors the girls had to the deeds of Satan. Such occurrences subsequently led to the idea of withes’ presence in the village. According to most of the villagers, Satan was responsible for giving the witches supernatural powers that they used to hurt the citizens.
In trying to free their village of the evil spirits, the villagers started praying and fasting. The girls who portrayed the unexplainable behavior were put under pressure by the villagers to reveal the forces or people responsible for their behavior (Goss 49). Out of the three women who the girls identified as being responsible for these behaviors, one woman claimed that she had an ability to see the devil. In addition, the woman claimed that that devil appeared to her in the image of either a dog or a fog.
The people in Salem believed that the devil had given certain persons in the area supernatural powers that they used to cause harm to others. The witches would use the power given to them by the devil in making people pledge their loyalty to them. Failure to have a good relationship with the witches resulted in dangers on their side (Goss 217). Tension engulfed the whole village as people started to fear the power that the witches possessed. In addition, Salem was fighting the war with its neighbors, which fuelled the tension the villagers had with the witches even more. It was the villagers’ belief that the witches collaborated with the Salem’s enemies.
It was after the wave of hysteria on pronouncing many local people as witches that the present colonial government formed a special court that would deal with the cases of the alleged witchcraft in the area. The first person that the court prosecuted and found guilty of practicing witchcraft in Salem was Bridget Bishop. It is imperative to note that that the court punished Bridget Bishop of practicing witchcraft by sentencing her to be hanged by the neck until dead (Godbeer 89). Soon after Bridget Bishop had been sentenced by the judges, 18 other persons were found guilty of practicing black magic and given a similar judgment to that of Bridget Bishop.
It is ironical to note that one of the girls that started to express unexplainable behavior was the daughter of one of the village’s minister. Uncontrollable outbursts, violent contortions, and screaming were some of the behaviors that the minister’s daughter portrayed (Goss 33). In a twist of events, it was after the local doctor had diagnosed the minister’s daughter that other village girls started exhibiting similar symptoms. In fact, close to 150 residents of Salem, including men, women, and children were convicted of being witches.
Magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin were the ones responsible for the cases of the three women accused of practicing witchcraft in the village. One exciting part of the court procession was that the people who accused the three women of practicing witchcraft in Salem appeared before the court magistrate while displaying spasms, writhing, and screaming. Out of the three women accused of practicing witchcraft, only one of them confessed to the act. In trying to save her life, the woman went on to act as an informer where she gave some shocking revelations (Roach 71). One of the revelations given by the woman who pleaded guilty of practicing witchcraft was that there were many other witches who were giving the devil service.
It is imperative to note that as time passed by, other people were accused of being witches. Shockingly, some of these women included Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey who held high-church positions in the village. It was after the accusation of Martha Corey that the villagers knew how deep the influence of the devil had engulfed Salem (Roach 61). The fact that Martha had a position in the church meant that the influence that Satan had on the community had reached its core.
Soon after Martha Corey was called one of the witches in Salem, Samuel Parris, the then minister of Salem, immediately sent a delegation to the farm owned by Martha. The delegation’s main work was to interview Martha in a view of helping clear the conspiracy surrounding her. The interview was cut short after Martha Corey gave a sarcastic response, which made the delegates conclude she was one of the witches. The mood during her court case created agitation in many of those who were present. The people accusing Martha writhed in agony due to the things that were performed on them. For instance, the accusers would be forced to mimic Martha’s every movement by powers that were unseen by those present in the court procession (Roach 71). One of the most bizarre events occurred when the girls possessed by evil spirits during the court proceedings started imitating every action that Martha performed. For instance, the girls would shift their legs in the direction that Martha shifted hers.
It was not long before the cases of people accused of witchcraft started overwhelming the local judicial system. To help reprieve the local judicial system of its many cases involving the witches, William Phips, the new governor of Massachusetts, established a special kind of court called the court of Oyer and Terminer in Middlesex, Essex and Suffolk counties. The special court was meant to hear and decide the cases involving witchcraft as it was specifically created to do that. It is imperative to note that Bridget Bishop was the first person to be convicted and found guilty by the Court of Oyer where she was sentenced to be hanged. Soon after the hanging of Bishop, several other persons were found guilty by the court in the months that followed (Smith 80).
The numerous killings that followed created a public outcry among the people of Salem with one of the people who was against them being Cotton Mather, one of the respected ministers of Salem. Cotton publicly expressed his frustrations with how the court trials were conducted. His father supported Cotton’s concerns. Cotton’s father called for the equality of the evidence that the magistrates used in the conviction of the people that were accused of being witches. However, the Court of Oyer’s tenure was to be short lived as the governor dissolved it (Smith 43). The trials involving the people accused of practicing witchcraft started being few. Another series of events that brought down the effectiveness of the court was that people who were charged with practicing witchcraft started to get pardon by Governor Phips.
The governor together with the villagers sought new ways of combating the witches. With this in mind, the Massachusetts General Court made a declaration that the people of Salem would dedicate one full day to praying. This activity was invented for the evil spirits in the village to depart from it.
The large number of accused people forced the public to oppose the court. The public outcry against the court made the Massachusetts General Court annul all the guilty verdicts that had been given by the court set up in Salem to deal with the cases of witchcraft. In a shocking twist of events, the court deemed all the trials conducted by the created Court of Oyer as being unlawful. The people proven guilty of practicing witchcraft were acquitted, while their families were granted indemnities (Godbeer 100). With this development, Samuel Sewall, the then leading justice in the Massachusetts General Court, went public apologizing for the prosecutions made by the court (Smith 61). However, it is imperative to note that the damage made by the prosecution of the witches in Massachusetts lingered on for decades that followed. However, this event had certain positive consequences. For instance, authorities of Massachusetts finally understood the damage they had brought to the people and tried to help restore the society. They did everything possible to recover the faith that people had in the local judicial system.
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Salem witch trial, namely its features and consequences, make historians regard it as being one of the famous trials in the country. In trying to justify the killings that took place at that time, some of the historians claim that the events that transpired during that time were unheard of and therefore terrifying for the Salem residents. This made the community introduce the use of capital punishment in dealing with the witches. It was the first time that the people of Salem heard of the witches and got to know their practices. This novelty may have influenced them and made them fear the witches. The people present at that time had the fear that the witches would bring harm to their lives and thus were determined to kill all of them. The witches were manipulating people by using their powers to cause harm to the people who did not pledge their loyalty to them (Roach 59). Failure to be on good terms with the witches allegedly resulted in sorrows and sufferings of the residents. The village decided to use extreme measures in dealing with the witches was the tension that had engulfed the whole village due to the fear that villagers were the subject of the power that the witches possessed
In conclusion, the discussed trials are an important page on the world history. Historians claim that the effects of the painful events that had taken place in Salem continued for centuries.
Nevertheless, Salem witch trials provided the basis for the local court system to make changes to the way it operated in order to accommodate every individual in the area. In addition, the trials provided ground for the authorities to make changes to the laws that encouraged unfair trying and prosecution of people.
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