In the spirit of Halloween, I thought I’d encourage you to take this short quiz to see if you would have been called-out as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts of 1692.
ARE YOU A WITCH?
- Do follow a crazy-strict set of societal rules to the letter? No? Witch!
- Are you a woman who speaks her mind? Yes? Witch!
- Would you defend a person who has been wrongly accused of witchcraft? Yes? Witch!
- Are you in debt, or living on charity? Yes? Witch!
- Do you have any scars, moles or minor physical anomalies? Yes? Witch!
- Are you well-liked? No? …close enough… Witch!
- Do others claim to see your specter lurking about? DUH! Witch!
Now really. Most people can satisfy most of the above criteria—does anyone know a loud, boisterous woman? I do! And who the heck can say they are totally free of moles and scars? Please.
AND SO IT BEGINS…
Without getting into all the gory details of the Salem Witch Trials which took place during most of the year 1692 (that information is readily available elsewhere), here is the sad story in a nutshell:
Two girls begin acting strangely, “sighing, moping, hiding under furniture as if they were afraid of something” and talking nonsensically. Upon examination by the local doctor, no physical explanation could be given for the girls’ behavior. Obviously they must be the victims of witchcraft.
Soon others became “afflicted”…the witchcraft was potent and rampant! Mass hysteria ensued.
What was likely happening was a case of conversion disorder—so named by Sigmund Freud, but it has been recognized as a condition for centuries—where mental stress manifests itself physically in odd behavior. Though not clearly understood, the interesting thing about it is other people can “catch” it, apparently by focusing on those who have it.
So as conversion disorder spread in Salem those not afflicted were still scared enough to feed the fire by “seeing specters” and the like. It was already a superstitious society, living in fear of the wrath of God, their elders and attacks by the natives. (Can you imagine? I’m stressed out just thinking about it!) It likely didn’t take much to spark the tinderbox!
Sadly, this situation went on for almost a year, roughly February through October 1692. When you consider the combined population of Salem Town and Salem Village (now Danvers) was only about 2,000 that year, the numbers are devastating:
185 accused of witchcraft—141 were women, and almost half of those over the age of 40
8 children under the age of 12 were accused
20 executed—19 by hanging. One, a man who refused trial, was pressed to death (piling rocks on the person, who is slowly crushed to death…nice.)
Those executed include:
Bridget Bishop, about 60 years old—she was known for being loud and cranky, and at one time was publicly punished for fighting with her husband. It would seem her crime was having a strong personality.
Ann Pudeator, about 70 years old—was a midwife whose patient died in her care. Her mistake was marrying the woman’s husband who was also 20 years her junior. No cougars allowed in Puritan society!
Sarah Good, 39 years old—she was living on charity, and badly in debt. It is thought she may have been considered a burden. Her four year old daughter was also accused!
John Williard, about 30 years old—was a sheriff’s deputy who refused to arrest accused witches he believed were innocent. Clearly in league with them, right?
WHICH WITCH IS WHICH?
Today this may be a fun Halloween-time topic, but really I think we can all agree it is a huge cautionary tale.
These situations still occur today. There are documented cases of conversion disorder, and in some cases mass hysteria, in modern times. Look at the McCarthy Trials in the 1950’s. Not a case of conversion disorder, but all the hallmarks of a witch hunt, including mass hysteria.
Recently a group of girls in LeRoy, New York (the birthplace of Jell-O!) developed conversion disorder, which manifested itself in Tourette’s-like symptoms. The more media attention the situation received, the more it spread. Compare today’s media attention to a public trial in 1692; they both create a lot of drama.
Fortunately no one is being accused of witchcraft in LeRoy, and though spectral evidence was not actually legal in 1692 (many were hanged solely based on someone saying they saw the person’s specter—oops, sorry! Unbelieveable…), it really wouldn’t go over in 2014.
I’ve even had my own experience with mass hysteria! It was 6th Grade Camp at Proud Lake, Michigan—the teachers thought it would be fun to tell ghost stories after dinner one evening. Until the sightings started! Kids were crying, running around looking for ghosts, hiding—it was ridiculous! Yes I was in the ghost-hunting group. My 11 year old self was not immune!
What do you think about all this? There is a lot more to the story, so check out My History Fix on Facebook this week! Do you have any stories of mass hysteria and the like? Share in the comments!
Brandt, Anthony, “An Unholy Mess,” American History, December 2014, 34-43.
Dominus, Susan, “What Happened to the Girls in LeRoy,” New York Times, March 7, 2012, accessed October 13, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/magazine/teenage-girls-twitching-le-roy.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Wikipedia. “Conversion Disorder.” Last modified August 4, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversion_disorder