The Salem Witch Trials: Explanations of the Possessed

It has been four centuries since the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts had occurred. This phenomenon, however, continues to serve as a poignant reflection of what the prevailing social, political and psychological ills can do to a society. It is a well-known fact that the Salem Witch Trials, primarily motivated by a strong tendency to attribute bizarre events to superstition and witchcraft, led to the demise and execution of hundreds of people believed to be witches but could have otherwise been proven innocent had the evidences been largely based on hard facts and scientific knowledge alone and not on hearsay and inadequate witness accounts from the accusers. In particular, reports of demonic possessions in women and children basically fueled the beginnings of the Salem Witch Trials. This inquiry is concerned with verifying the truth behind these supposed possessions by the devil. How valid were the accounts of the accusers about the evil possession that had befallen them?

This paper attempts to emphasize through a literature review that the afflictions of the primary accusers in the Salem Witch Trials were not of demonic possession in nature as the villagers were wont to believe. Rather, the symptoms that these accusers exhibited were by-products of social, psychological and moral disturbances that were affecting them during that time. The paper begins with a brief overview of the background of the Salem Witch Trials followed by a historical account of several of the accusers focusing on the deviant behavior they manifested which rendered the Salem community to blame their behavior to witchcraft. Objections and alternative explanations on the accusers’ deviant behaviors follow. The paper concludes by emphasizing the significant factors that played the role in the Salem Witchcraft trials particularly those which directly or indirectly caused the bizarre behaviors of the primary accusers.

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Many historical accounts describing the beginnings of the witch hunt in Salem point to Tituba and her husband John. Both were black slaves in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris located at Salem Village. In his work, Salem Witchcraft, Charles Upham (1867) tells of the bizarre superstitious beliefs and practices which were tribal in nature and that Tituba and her husband had supposedly introduced to the Parris household. This stirred the curiosity and imagination of a small group of girls who were motivated to meet regularly in the Parris household to learn more about the fascinating voodoo practices and superstitions that had been unheard of until the slaves came. From Upham’s speculations about Tituba and her involvement in witchcraft-like practices came a series of other accounts permanently making Tituba as one of the origins of the Salem Witch Trials (Rosenthal, 11). Erikson (as cited in Rosenthal, 11) explained how Tituba could have triggered the hysteria over witchcraft:

In early 1692, several girls from the neighborhood began to spend their afternoons in the Parris kitchen with a slave named Tituba, and it was not long before a mysterious sorority of girls, aged between nine and twenty, became regular visitors to the parsonage. We can only speculate what was going on behind the kitchen door, but we know that Tituba had been brought to Massachusetts from Barbados and enjoyed a reputation in the neighborhood for her skills in the magic arts. (Erikson cited in Rosenthal, 11-12).

Strange happenings arising from these meetings allegedly began and affected the girls who were involved. Upham described them aptly as follows:

“…(the girls) confined themselves to strange actions, exclamations, and contortions. They would creep into holes, and under benches and chairs, put themselves into odd and unnatural postures, make wild and antic gestures, and utter incoherent and unintelligible sounds. They would be seized with spasms, drop insensible to the floor, or writhe in agony, suffering dreadful tortures, and uttering loud and piercing outcries.” (Upham, ii.7).

The girls’ families and the entire community became more and more concerned and baffled as the girls’ conditions appeared to worsen. They were examined by Dr. Griggs, the village physician, who could have seen the exhibited only for the first time, and hence, without prior knowledge about this particular type of illness and without any concrete explanation to offer, the doctor diagnosed them as having been bewitched. This diagnosis, strange as it may seemed then, was readily accepted by the nurses and the townsfolk’s elderly women who were often called in on such queer and inexplicable situations to offer their opinion. Soon enough, the whole Salem community would talk about the afflictions that have befallen the girls and many would scramble to Mr. Parris’ house to get a firsthand look at the girls and their queer behavior, which elicited various reactions and emotions such as awe and compassion. The girls, sensing that they had gotten the whole town’s attention, became encouraged to exhibit more variations of their extraordinary behavior, not only in the Parris household but also in public places where they would cry out incorrigible outcries, shrieks and throw fits, thus disturbing social functions such as prayer meetings and other congregation services (Upham, ii.7).

The afflictions of these girls prompted the Salem community to hunt for the evil entities that were responsible for them, thus, the beginnings of the witch hunt were launched. Much later in history, however, many would become suspicious of the legitimacy of the evil possessions that occurred, let alone the claim that these were spells cast by the accused persons during that time. To understand more about these so-called possessions and the truth behind them, this paper discusses the afflictions that fell on two of the girls who were supposedly involved in the initial voodoo sessions and black magic practices that happened in the Parris household.

Elizabeth “Betty” Parris

Betty Parris was the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris. She was nine years old when the Salem witchcraft hysteria began. She is said to have conducted secret fortunetelling experiments with her cousin, Abigail Williams. Together, they would use a “venus glass” in which an egg white was made to float on water and would ask questions about what their future in life would be or where their future-husbands would be employed. The answers would have supposedly come from figures appearing on the egg white. This little experiment was told to other girls who lived nearby the Parris household and became some sort of a small, exclusive circle of girls. Reverend John Hale (1702) mentioned in his work, A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, that at one time, the glass revealed a coffin-like figure, leading to a ‘diabolical molestation’ which would eventually cause the beginnings of the witchcraft outbreak in Salem village.

The early signs of Betty Parris’ afflictions manifested through increasing forgetfulness, absentmindedness and obscure preoccupations. She would be irritated whenever her father would reprimand her when her mind wandered during prayer time. She was also cited to have thrown a Bible across the room and shrieked when the ‘Our Father’ prayer was recited. After such display of behavior, Betty would cry and seemed to be guilt-stricken for her having engaged in fortunetelling, which was considered evil and sinful.

The other girls’ symptoms were not much different from Betty’s. They would exhibit queer postures, mouth out garbled or rubbish speech, throw fits and would act as if they were being attacked by unseen forces as they flung their arms, necks, backs in different directions (Hale). As soon as the village physician, Dr. William Riggs, diagnosed Betty’s affliction as the work of the ‘Evil Hand’, the villagers decided to set out a witch hunt to catch whoever caused the unfortunate predicament that Betty was in.

Betty was sent away in isolation to the care of Samuel Parris’ cousin, Stephen Wall. Most of Betty’s odd behavior disappeared during this time.

Ann Putnam, Jr.

Thomas and Ann Putnam’s eldest daughter, Ann Putnam, Jr. was 12 years old when the Salem witchcraft outbreak began. She was one of the girls who would meet at the Parris household to listen to the voodoo and supernatural tales told by Tituba, the Parris’ Indian servant. She also joined Betty Parris and the other girls in fortune telling escapades. She was the one who saw the specter that looked like a coffin from the venus glass during one of their fortune telling sessions. Ann exhibited similar strange behaviors as that of Betty after this incident happened.

When Betty was sent away, Ann and Betty’s cousin, Abigail, stood in court to testify against the people whom she believed had afflicted her. The Putnam family was quite a very wealthy and influential family then and this was evident by the fact that most of the afflicted and the accusers were associated with them. In addition, Thomas Putnam was the chief complainant in the village and therefore exercised full authority over Ann and Abigail’s testimonies in the court. Ann’s mother, Ann Putnam, Sr. would also stand in court as co-accuser and also exhibited some symptoms of possession.

Ann Putnam, Jr. was the only one of the afflicted girls in Salem who made a public apology in the year 1706 for having made false accusations during the Salem Witch trials. This retraction strengthened the already suspicious nature of the so-called evil possessions displayed by the afflicted girls.

Mercy Lewis

Mercy Lewis was the 17-year-old servant of the Putnam household and belonged to the core group of girls who accused a number of people of afflicting them with witchcraft. She had been an orphan most of her life and was brought to the care of Reverend George Burroughs before being sent to the Putnams. Together with Ann Putnam, Jr. and the other afflicted girls, Mercy displayed the symptoms of bizarre behavior and spoke incomprehensible language indicating that she was possessed by an evil spirit. Mercy ended up accusing even her former guardian, Reverend Burroughs and several other persons such as Giles Corey, Mary Lacey, and John Willard, among others (Upham).

Analyses of the Afflictions

Could it really be possible that the girls involved in the Salem Witch trials were actually possessed by demons controlled by the so-called witches? This question had prompted many researchers and scholars to probe more deeply into the Salem Witch trial phenomenon.  While the bizarre behaviors were already themselves questionable at that time, the admission of Ann Putnam years after the trials have occurred strongly suggested that the afflictions were fraudulent in nature, if not abnormal in the psychological view point.

Many theorists have proposed that the Salem Witch Trials could have been a product of a mental condition now known as hysteria – a state wherein a person exhibits extraordinary and seemingly uncontrollable behavior and physical symptoms such as seizures, paralysis, and contortions as part of his/her emotional reaction to a traumatic or shocking event in the past (Clare & Webster). One of the first proponents of this theory was Dr. Charcot Breuer, a neurologist who was known for treating patients exhibiting behaviors characteristic of hysteria. Dr. Breuer and his students, one of which was the famous Sigmund Freud, attributed the possessions that occurred during the Salem witch hunt period as symptoms of hysteria such as:


“…sight disorders, trances; visions of ghosts, beasts, or skeletons; hearing disorders; conversation with imagined people; anorexia; temporary paralysis of limbs; convulsions ;imagined injuries – sometimes accompanied by swelling and redness; the feeling of choking or having a lump in the throat; inability to speak; frantic movement, uncontrollable weeping, laughing, or screaming; unclear, spiteful, or frightened speeches; and post convulsion calm and good health” (Wilson, 68).


Thus, the inexplicable and mysterious behaviors of the afflicted girls can now be explained without involving supernatural notions of witchcraft. Freud claims that hysteria experienced by the girls was a result of trauma and emotional distress, but from what? Historians’ analysis of the general state of Salem village vis-à-vis the whole town of Salem may shed some light on this issue.

At the time when Samuel Parris became the village preacher, Salem had been undergoing some major changes in its political and social structures. Many people in the town of Salem, to which Salem Village was part of, were becoming wealthy merchants, giving rise to an elite group of prominent people who were no longer interested in assuming office in the town’s leadership. Two families, the Porters and the Putnams emerged as competing forces in search for the control of Salem village, which had remained rural in its ways compared to the urbanized Salem town. Most people in Salem village, many of them farmers, resented the changes that were happening in Salem town. They wanted to preserve what they had during that time but at the same time were envious of the progress that the townsfolk were enjoying. Thus, Salem was said to be divided into two – those in favor of the social and political changes in the town and the villagers who would rather remain the same than explore unfamiliar territories. Those who were opposed were also the ones who took control of the witch trials. In essence, the refusal of the villagers to succumb to town control and change their orthodox ways were manifested in their hysteria over witchcraft. In other words, they attributed the conflicts that existed in their society to superstition and witchcraft (Cowing).

Many other speculations followed after the hysteria explanation of the so-called possessions. Linnda Caporael, in her article Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem? Published in the magazine Science (1972) proposed that Betty Parris’ affliction could have been brought about by “ergot poisoning” or “convulsive ergotism”. This was in turned caused by ingesting foods containing rye where the fungus Ergot could naturally be found especially during damp and humid weather.  Rye bread was a staple food for many people during the 17th century since it was cheaper than wheat bread. Thus, the Salem villagers could have consumed much rye bread infected by ergot during that time.  It was said that ergotism was more common in children and small women and that the symptoms matched those of Betty Parris’ afflictions – wild and violent fits, vomiting, hallucinations, crawling sensation on the skin and extreme itching (Carporael).

Rosenthal (1993) believes that the actions exhibited by the afflicted were carefully calculated and planned to support the accusations. He also cites the unreliability and questionable validity of statements made by children. He argues that children can be made to fabricate statements or they may do so themselves. In the case of Ann Putnam testifying against John Willard, Rosenthal turns to child abuse as one of the most probable reasons behind her incessant accusations. Ann Putnam told of her sister’s apparition asking for vengeance against John Willard who allegedly whipped her to death. Rosenthal believes that Ann could have just disguised this family problem in the form of her accusations against a suspected specter. Ann’s sister, however, could have died in the arms of their own mother and as this family secret got to be revealed to the public, the Putnams sought refuge by turning the people’s attention to unexplainable phenomena attributed to witchcraft.

Boyer and Nissenbaum (1974) offer a different perspective on the Putnam accusations. They argue that the Putnams were a family consumed by their desire to amass wealth and power over society but this desire has also caused much internal conflict as the doctrines of Puritanism at that time condemned greed and covetousness. This “psychic ambivalence” as they call it, was a prevalent sentiment in a weak society where values and relationships were characterized by instability and much conflict. Thus, the Putnams experienced much guilt over their penchant for acquiring wealth and to act as some sort of defense, they frantically condemned other people for all sorts of witchcraft crimes against their daughter Ann Putnam, Jr.

Another interpretation comes from Carol Karlsen, author of the book Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1998) wherein she refers to the afflictions as manifestations of the girls’ personal insecurities regarding their social and economic status in life. This point is evident in the case of Mercy Lewis, who, as an orphaned child in her early years, suffered pain and trauma of not having a normal family situation. This could have fueled her personal insecurities especially concerning the aspect of finding a husband to marry her. It could be recalled that the afflicted girls engaged in fortune telling sessions to ask about what their marriage prospects would be like (Hale, 1702). Thus, beset by emotional hang-ups and uncertainties, Mercy Lewis could have been empowered and was able to reap a great sense of self-confidence and belongingness to society with her accusations (Boyer and Nissenbaum).


The Salem Witch Trials can be considered as one of the most unfortunate events in American social history because many innocent people were sent to their deaths on the accounts of supposedly afflicted persons who blamed them of witchcraft for lack of any plausible explanation they can provide for their unusual behavior. This paper gave a brief overview about the false and fraudulent accusations that were made against the suspected witches during that time. Apparently, the Salem society was just too weak at that time to be able to make wise and fact-based judgments about the accused. This weakness in turn manifested as social ills that permeated the personal lives of the afflicted girls mentioned in this discussion, which propelled them to become hysterical over witchcraft and unseen ‘evil forces’ and act in bizarre but disastrous manners that caused the demise of a hundred others who were never really proven to be engaged in witchcraft or supernatural activities at all.