Historical Overview and Brief Analysis
Amidst millenniums of debate, argument, and conflict concerning racial prejudges and those issues which surround their implementation, there has consistently existed a certain historical prejudice regarding various stereotypical ideas for those things which people can not understand or explain logically. While more contemporary examples of such circumstances include concepts such as McCarthyism, it is generally accepted that the most classic example of all such social tragedies based on fear and ignorance is that of the colonial era’s Salem Witch Trials.
While Mc Carthyism was illustrated as a widespread fear of communism that led the United States to pursue unnecessary investigations, imprisonments, and often unprovoked acts against those who were often only remotely accused of being a “dreaded communist”, the Salem witch trials led to well over a dozen executions of local women accused of practicing witchcraft and directly associating themselves with “evil magic”. Although the two historical periods were parallel in their nature and content, it can be argued the much earlier witch trials were the more severely inhumane and irrational as they rendered a constant trend of senseless deaths with little or no justice ever prevailing.
The Salem witch trials were held during the year 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Beginning in May of that year, the proceedings led to the hanging deaths of nineteen suspected witches and the imprisonment of many others over the five months that would follow. The courtroom episodes of those being tried for witchery were complete, and utter travesties of justice. Women were actually
considered guilty as accused until proven innocent. In addition to the known hangings, other cruel forms of punishment such as the burning of “witches” on a
stake and the slow torturous human crushings by brick are evidenced to have existed as Salem’s “justice” for their alleged witches. (Brown., Pages 37-41;43).
That which is said to have initiated the trials and related hysteria has become an historical irony in our time and is the subject of many contemporary jokes and theatrical performances. Caused by the accusations of a few young girls against women in the Salem community; a special court was convened; and trials grew quickly into socially stereotypical prejudices regarding any women seen acting out of or performing “witchery”. Within time the social chaos did not even exclude Salem’s more prestigious women as the local governors wife was even implicated in accusations of witchcraft. The dramatic irony is re-exemplified through an examination of the young ladies who intentionally lied to a religious authority and created the “spark” to cause the fire. Based entirely on their beliefs and accusations, the fear and ignorance of an entire town led to hundreds of imprisonments and nearly two scores of senseless deaths. (Brown; Pp. 67-74).
When community leaders did finally begin to cast doubt on evidence; special court was dissolved and those imprisoned were pardoned. Eventually indemnities were paid to the families of those killed yet of the three judges who presided over the trials, only Samuel Sewall admitted error in a public statement
The Salem witch trials were clearly America’s most notorious episode of witchcraft. The actual practice of “witch persecution”, is not however one created in North America at all. The belief in witchcraft was carried to colonial America from Europe, where in the two centuries before 1650 thousands had been executed as witches. The Salem incident, as I wrote, began when two young girls in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris began to behave oddly. The girls had participated in meetings at which incantations had been cast and attempts made to foretell the future. They were examined by a doctor, ministers, and magistrates, who all concluded that they were ‘bewitched’. The resulting frenzy spread rapidly and the new royal governor, Sir William Phips, established a special seven-member court in which to try the prisoners. Jurors were drawn from church membership lists, and the chained defendants had no counsel. In early June, Bridget Bishop was convicted. A brief delay followed because some
judges were uneasy about the validity of spectral evidence such as testimony given
by witnesses about voices or apparitions perceived only by them. The trials were resumed after several leading ministers advised the court that such evidence might be used, but only with “exquisite caution.” By September 22, the court had tried and convicted twenty-seven persons. Nineteen were hanged, and one, Giles Corey, was said to have been pressed to death by stones. In addition, about fifty had actually confessed, one hundred were in prison awaiting trial, and accusations had touched another two hundred on top of that. (Hansen, Pp 103-111;133-114).
With the jails overflowing, the hysteria abated; Cotton Mather delivered a sermon arguing against the mass convictions, and some clergy began openly to
criticize spectral evidence. With this support the governor abruptly intervened and freed all who were in jail. In 1711, heirs of the alleged witches were voted compensation for their losses. (Hansen, Pp.119-121).
Nearer to our time than to the time of the Salem witch Trials, Arthur Miller wrote a play entitled “The Crucible” which was published in book form as well. Miller chose to tell the story of the trials from the point of view of one of its’ victims, John Proctor. For the reader, this made the trials a more personalized story in which one could better understand the individual and emotional sufferings of those both directly and indirectly involved with the accused.
The main character himself was regarded as extremely good-natured, honest encompassing a considerable amount of integrity with in his personality. While John Proctor is not perfect, Arthur Miller designed him to be much the type of character we would all like to be. His mistakes are those of a human being, not a superman. By concentrating the actions of this insightful play on Proctor, the author makes it easy for us not only to sympathize, but also to identify with both him and the other victims of the witch-hunt. Through reading this play, I was able to acquire a more precise feeling of what it would be like to actually be involved in “the madness:.
Regarding the Crucible’s historical accuracy, the play’s setting and story did indeed seem to coincide with my factual research. staged entirely in Salem, three
quarters of the play took place during the spring, and the final quarter during the fall. In actuality, there were two Salems,; Salem town and a tiny suburb Salem Village. The Reverend Parris’ house was in Salem Village and it was there that his slave Tituba, his daughter Betty, and his niece Abigail Williams first “came down with” witchcraft and accusations began. The actual trials, however, were held in a large meeting house in Salem Town. (Miller)
Each of the play’s four acts was set within a rather small room: Act I is in a bedroom in Reverend Parris’ house; Act II in the Proctor’s “living room”; Act III in an anteroom to the main hall of the “meeting house”, and Act IV in a cell within the Salem jail. Such settings gave me an impression of containment and often even of claustrophobia, as if we were boxed in or caught in a trap. As the pressure builds in each act, a sense of panic is bound to set in. Of course, that is exactly what witch hunt victims must have felt as well. Arthur Miller’s settings did indeed help me to identify with the characters, by putting us, in a sense; in the same room with them. (Miller).
The term McCarthyism will probably long endure in American politics as a synonym for “witch-hunt,” for making serious but unsubstantiated charges against people in public life. Joseph R. McCarthy served as United States senator from Wisconsin from January 1947 until his death on May 2, 1957.
Generally speaking, his career in the Senate was rather quiet and undistinguished until Feb. 9, 1950. Then, in a speech to a Republican women’s club in Wheeling, W. Va., he announced that he had a list of 57 “known Communists” who were employed by the State Department. Two days later he retracted the charge, but on February 20 he repeated it, raising the number to 205. McCarthy’s charges led to years of Senate and House investigations into subversive activities as well as to much public and government turmoil. In plenty of rather obvious ways, McCarthyism was indeed a twentieth century version of the Salem Witch Trials. Hunts for communists had made American citizens fear such alleged people equally as much as the Salem people feared their “witches”. Again similar is the fact that such mass hysteria was initiated by the opinions and virtual ignorance of one person. A branch of American government called the “U.S. Committee on Un-American Activity was abolished in 1975, not long after McCarthyism had tainted its’ reputation. Indeed, McCarthyism had made true an old cliche; “history repeats itself”. (Gittenrich, Pp. 21-25;38-41).
In 1994, the events of the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism are viewed as unjust and even barbaric. It is however necessary to consider the standard cliche of relative history; those involved at the time believed that they were doing right. Therefore from a more philosophical perspective it is possible to question the validity of our contemporary justice system; Have we created yet another witch-
hunt for terrorists ?For probably as long as there is society, there will exist things which we do not understand and things which we can not rationally explain. As long as there such questionable items; there will exist ignorance and over-dramatized fear. So even today, as we stare into the skies and question the existence of “U.F.O’s”, I wonder only if we will ever advance and stop holding Salem Witch trials.
Arnold and Nissembaum, Stephen, Salem Possessed: Printed in 1974
Brown, David, The Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692. Printed in 1984.
Hansen, C., Witchcraft at Salem. Printed in 1987.
Gitterich, K. McCarthyism. Printed in 1979.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Re-printed in 1986.
With an Emphasis on The Crucible and McCarthyism
Gurko, Leo. “The Heroic Impulse in The Old Man and the Sea.”