Socialist Worker

Salem 1692: the model witch-hunt

MANY commentators have compared the recent demonstrations against supposed paedophiles on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth to the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. So what happened in Salem and what do the events there have to tell us abo

Issue No. 1711

Salem was a small town in Massachusetts in America. The witch-hunt took place in 1692. US playwright Arthur Miller wrote a powerful play, The Crucible, about it. An excellent film based on the play came out three years ago starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

The Salem witch-hunt began when a small group of young girls began to have fits and accused three villagers of practising witchcraft on them. The girls who made the accusations had been discovered defying the strict Puritan religious morality of a society which denied them any freedom of expression.

The Crucible shows them dancing wildly in the woods. Other accounts show them using a primitive crystal ball to forecast what their future husbands would be like. Their elders pressed the girls to confess their sins. The girls, led by Abigail Williams, blamed their behaviour on witchcraft. Within months over 200 people would be accused of being witches.

Twenty people were hanged just outside Salem on what was later called Gallows Hill. Their bodies were dumped into rock crevices. One man, who was over 80 years old, was pressed to death under heavy stones because he refused to stand trial for being a witch. Hundreds of others, including a four year old girl, spent months chained to the walls of rat-infested prisons. Many were tortured by 'tying neck and heels'-tethering their necks to their feet.

Three women considered social outcasts were accused first. Tituba was a slave from the Caribbean. She had already suffered taunts of abuse in the town, being called 'evil' and 'devil'. Sarah Good was a beggar described as 'a forlorn, friendless and forsaken creature, broken down by wretchedness of condition and ill repute'.

Sarah Osbourne was a bedridden elderly woman who had refused to go to church. But soon even upstanding members of the community faced persecution. The trials were a sham. The accused were condemned through hearsay, gossip and the increasingly outlandish tales told by Abigail Williams and the other girls. The accused faced a terrible choice-either to confess and name other 'witches' or to be executed.

Each accusation brought more forced confessions and further accusations. More and more of those thrown in jail were political rivals, or related to the political rivals, of the powerful Putnams, the largest and most powerful family in Salem.

Thomas Putnam, the father of one of the 'afflicted' girls, became the chief witch-hunter. He filed most of the complaints of witchcraft, along with three other local leaders. He used the witch trials to cut down his opponents and settle old scores.

For example, three sisters who were executed-Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty and Sarah Cloyce-were all daughters of the Topsfield family, who were in a long-running land dispute with the Putnams. The state, often a local sheriff, seized the land and property of those accused. Putnam subsequently bought much of it up on the cheap. Other powerful figures also encouraged the witch-hunt.

The trial judge, William Stoughton, vowed to 'clear the land of witches'. He called for the pregnant women, who had been exempted from the execution, to hang the following year even after the hysteria had died down. Stoughton later became governor of Massachusetts. However, there was opposition in Salem to the witch-hunting from the start.

Many signed petitions on behalf of the accused they believed to be innocent. Others spoke out, even though it meant being accused of witchcraft. One was local tavern owner John Proctor, who is a central character in The Crucible. The witch-hunting stopped only when the outcry against the execution of so many respected members of the community started to panic the British governor.

There was still no justice for many of the accused. Many were left chained in prison for months, losing their land and homes. They often became destitute because they were forced to pay exorbitant costs for their time spent in jail.

How did events in Salem spiral out of control? Political and economic turmoil wracked Massachusetts. People turned to religion to account for what often seemed inexplicable and terrifying about the world.

Many people thought the 'devil' walked among the living and blamed him for people's misfortunes. Early death through war, disease and poverty was commonplace. Several smallpox epidemics had struck Salem in the years leading up to the witch-hunt, killing many people, especially children.

The Puritan settlers had fought long-running wars with the Indian tribes whose land they had stolen. One of the accusers, Mercy Lewis, was a 17 year old servant who had seen her parents killed in one such battle. There was also huge political instability in Massachusetts, which was a colony of Britain.

In 1684 Britain had revoked a charter which granted the colony self rule. A popular rebellion overthrew the hated British governor, Sir Edmund Andros, in 1689. That left Massachusetts without a governor in the three years leading up to the witch trials.

All this created a fertile ground for fear, suspicion and the outbreak of hysteria which gripped Salem in 1692. The hysteria began to gain momentum when some of the most powerful figures in the town threw themselves into the witch-hunting frenzy.

Many of the old powerful Puritan farmers felt threatened by a new breed of merchant capitalists. The established elite saw the witch-hunt as way to maintain their privileges and to preserve social order.

The Salem witch-hunts took place over 300 years ago as the capitalist system was only just beginning to develop. The rise of capitalism was associated with rational argument and scientific debate.

But witch-hunting did not disappear and still takes place in the modern world. Capitalism is reproducing in its old age the barbarism of its youth. Capitalism did not bring freedom for the majority of people but hunger, poverty and desperation.

An unstable system of war, crisis and insecurity can lead people to look for scapegoats when they feel weak and dispossessed. They feel powerless against a system that strips them of their livelihood.

The Nazis fed off such desperate feelings in Germany in the early 1930s. Powerful elites encouraged scapegoating of Jews which reached hysterical proportions during the Great Depression. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1952 at the height of another Salem-style witch-hunt.

Right wing US senator Joseph McCarthy relied on forced confessions and wild accusations to persecute the left in the 1950s. Miller was a victim of McCarthy and, like thousands of others, was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Miller drew a parallel between the McCarthyite witch-hunt and events in Salem. We can see similar processes in parts of the world today. In South Africa, for example, panic about witchcraft claims hundreds of lives every year, especially in the poorest areas. People can believe that 'evil' is responsible for worsening conditions which are beyond their control.

There were over 200 killings of 'witches' in the poverty-stricken Northern Province between 1985 and 1995. Economic turmoil in Indonesia has led to the eruption of both ethnic strife and witch-hunting on many islands.

Accusations of witchcraft have erupted among the dispossessed, but have also been exploited by rival local powers who want to divert people's anger at the crisis onto scapegoats. The recent witch-hunts against paedophiles in Britain is a paler image of the same picture.

News of the World editor Rebekah Wade has exploited the fears of people who have been squeezed by the system. Such scapegoating is not an inevitable response to the insecurity bred by capitalism.

The alternative lies in building a collective response where those whose lives have been wrecked by the system act together against the rich and powerful. Building such a united upsurge of the dispossessed means exposing the irrational scapegoating which ultimately serves only to protect our rulers.

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Sat 26 Aug 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1711
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