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  • Maria Johnsonbough

Evaluating the Power Dynamics in the Salem Witch Trials: Have we Really Learned?

In 1692, the dank and dreary town of Salem, Massachusetts, racked by political instability, maladies, and famine, gave more reason for the settlement to spiral into hysteria and terror. That January, two young girls - Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, began having mysterious, haunting fits - twisting themselves into strange positions, screaming, making strange noises, apparently tortured by a supernatural source. Soon several other girls around the same age began experiencing similar symptoms. Unsurprisingly, in an unfamiliar environment and when the unusual occurs, it only became natural to turn to what was known - superstition. As we know, the local authorities blamed witchcraft as the most logical explanation for the unsettling happenings. The rest is well-known history- several townspeople, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft and were essentially given two options: “confess” and have their reputation deteriorate, or plead innocent and be put to death.

Modern science has given us explanations to answer the frightening compulsions - it suggests reasonable explanations such as ergot poisoning and mental illness. We have also seen throughout history that once paranoia and fear begin to propagate, individuals will do nearly anything to maintain their security, even if it means compromising the rights and safety of others. That explains the rapid accusations - after all, one of the most effective methods of exonerating yourself was placing the blame on someone else. One of the most difficult aspects to explain lies in the stories and behaviors (according to court documents) - emitting strange noises like barking and screeching, weeping, and squirming- of the teen girls. These behaviors all further indicated the incidence of witchcraft, particularly to indicate guilt of the accused.

In some ways, the Salem Witch Trials represent a historical anomaly. History typically reflects the stories of the victors or further successes of those already dominant in a society. The Salem Witch Trials indicate an opposite pattern. For one of the few times in history, the power was in the hands of those in the lowest position - young teenage girls in a highly patriarchal society. It saw women as inferior to men; this was one of the reasons the majority of women were accused of witchcraft because they were supposedly more susceptible to the Devil’s temptations than men. Moreover, many of these girls were servants and parentless, further weakening their prospects. In other words, a demographic which had negligible say in a society that saw them as second-class citizens was suddenly given the ability to fundamentally shake the existing social structure and shape the course of events. While completely unreasonable and condemnable, the actions of the accusers represented a desperate attempt to grasp any power that was hesitantly offered to them.

These accusations simultaneously reflected the propagation of typical social status and an alteration of the social strata. Unsurprisingly, the first accused were those that the girls saw as occupying the lowest places in society (besides themselves, of course), such as Tituba, a South American slave, and Sarah Good, an older woman who relied on town welfare to survive. These individuals were the perfect scapegoats and accusing them would only enforce the legitimacy of the trials; these accusations of witchcraft were already reinforcing what was already suspected. Indeed, the initial trials were remarkably “successful,” with nearly all resulting in conviction and imprisonment, and/or execution.

While some of the convicted were the more influential members of society, the majority were those without any defenders. In gaining power, the powerless girls utilized other powerless members of society to their advantage, knowing that few would object - and they were right. We see this pattern repeat itself throughout history, no matter how egalitarian we try to make our societies. We saw this with the rise of the initially unpopular Nazi Party in 1920s Germany in scapegoating more powerless minority groups - Jewish people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of Slavic origin- those of whom they knew society would have no objections turning against.

We also see this in modern-day China with the forcible detainment of the Uighur Muslims, a weaker minority group (compared to the majority Han Chinese) who are seen as an obstacle to China’s interests. In the United States, we saw a similar tactic play out in the rise of extreme conservatism, a recent political movement that was initially insignificant. In some cases, this movement took advantage of existing microaggressions and prejudices towards minorities (particularly Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants) and exploited these to gain support through fear and threat. As long as injustice and animosity remain in our societies, the targeting of low-status individuals will remain a viable political tactic of antidemocratic leaders to acquire authority.


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