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Salem Witch Trials

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Three hundred years ago, the people in and around Salem, Massachusetts were engaged in the most massive witch hunt in American history. Authorities arrested over 150 suspects from more than two dozen towns, juries convicted twenty-eight, and nineteen were hanged (Aronson, 2003, p. 5). Contemporaries of the tragedy grappled with Satan’s role in the affair. Embracing the reality of witchcraft, many wondered if the Devil had not manipulated the people of New England into an orgy of destructive accusations. With the passing of the participants, researchers began to discount a satanic role and sought instead to assign blame to human agents for the tragedy.

In this paper we’ll discuss the events related to Salem Witch Trials and analyze historical, social and economic factors which contributed to those events. This research is aimed to prove that there were several reasons for persecution of Salem witches such as the desire of New England clergy to create true Christian church, the assertion of male power, superstitious beliefs of people and their inability to explain natural phenomena, and slow development in the field of medicine and incapability to determine causes of certain illnesses.

1. Historical Conditions

1.1. Early American Witchcraft Beliefs

In the seventeenth century people automatically assumed that their difficulties had a supernatural explanation. Floods, thunder, lightning, hailstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and comets were considered the harbingers of illness or destruction. Curses, spells, and the evil eye, most believed, could cause harm. Reports of strange dreams, visions, unseen voices, and prophecies circulated frequently (Aronson, 2003, p. 14). In England, practitioners of magic, men and women who sought to manipulate supernatural powers, abounded. Rich and poor alike consulted cunning folk to recover lost property, to discover a cure for illness, for help in finding missing family members or livestock, for advice in making personal and business decisions, or to identify witches.

New Englanders were engaged in fortunetelling; carefully read almanacs for astronomical data essential to the practice of astrology; read about and pursued the mysteries of alchemy; and a few boasted about their knowledge of the occult (Levack, 1987, p. 65).

1.2. Condemnation of witchcraft by Church

Religious and secular authorities in Catholic and Protestant regions grew concerned about an organized cult of witches. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull condemning witchcraft as heresy, the exercise of supernatural powers obtained through a demonic pact. Two years later, with papal approval, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominican inquisitors, published the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), the first major treatise on witchcraft beliefs (Levack, 1987, p. 11). By the early seventeenth century, works on witchcraft beliefs collectively offered a picture of a secret society of Devil-worshiping witches. Despite the efforts of writers like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, and Jeffrey B. Russell to prove the existence of such cults, recent scholarship has demonstrated that no organized society of witches ever developed (Levack, 1987, p.12).

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