The strange new world of 1600s America made it easy for European colonists to become positively terrified of their unfamiliar surroundings and lifestyle. When they didn’t understand what was happening, or were beset with particularly awful circumstances, they’d often blame their fate on devils or witches. In a small Massachusetts village, this scapegoating ballooned into the deadly Salem Witch Trials. Historians were never sure how this social hysteria happened, but new evidence might finally provide an explanation.
There’s no denying that accused witches were behaving strangely. One major theory holds that conversion disorder — an illness characterized by odd physical symptoms like blindness or paralysis that have a mental origin — was responsible. Such a condition might’ve caused uncontrollable movement in Salem residents.
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Professor Emerson W. Baker, in A Story of Witchcraft, explained that motor-based hysteria can be caused by post-traumatic stress syndrome, which many in the area likely had because of King William’s War, which occurred just north of the area.
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Villagers like Abigail Hobbs, Mercy Lewis, Susannah Sheldon and Sarah Churchwell had seen the fighting firsthand and may have internalized the trauma to the point where it became severe mental illness. But other experts suggested a more edible cause.
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Scientist Linda R. Caporael suggested a type of poisoning could have caused Salem’s extreme witch situation. Ergot is a type of fungus that grows in rye and other grains and produces ergotamine, an effective migraine treatment and has hallucinogenic qualities similar to LSD.
Consuming ergot leads to a bevy of side effects: convulsions, vomiting, crawling sensations on the skin, hallucinations, gangrene, and others. Linda argues the conditions would have been right in the growing season of 1691 for this to occur.
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There are detractors for this theory. Some argue that this poisoning only occurs when villagers have severe vitamin A deficiencies. Salem had plenty of vitamin A-filled foods, like dairy and fish, that make such a condition seem unlikely.
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Many other sicknesses, like Encephalitis Lethargica, epilepsy, and Lyme disease, have been proposed as well. There are others who believe another type of plant, Devil’s Trumpet, caused the physiological and psychological symptoms in the townspeople.
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But Emerson doesn’t think it’s as simple as one cause. “None of these suggested diseases fit because a close reading of the testimony suggests that the symptoms were intermittent. The afflicted had stretches when they acted perfectly normal, intersperse with acute fits,” he wrote.
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Another theory involves frigid weather. “The 1680s and 1690s were part of the Maunder Minimum, the most extreme weather of the Little Ice Age, a period of colder temperatures occurring roughly from 1400 to 1800. Strikingly cold winters and dry summers were common in these decades,” the professor recalled.
The cold weather caused crops to fail, and made the locals physically stressed, due to the much harsher conditions. During the Little Ice Age in Europe, there were scatterings of witchcraft accusations, so Salem would fit the pattern.
Salem locals were prone to fighting about everything, which Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum explore in Salem Possessed. “Predictably enough, the witchcraft accusations of 1692 moved in channels which were determined by years of factional strife in Salem Village,” they wrote.
For instance, Daniel Andrew and Philip English were accused of witchcraft when they won local elections. Rebecca Nurse’s husband earned a spot on an influential committee before she was accused.
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Still, historian Elaine Breslaw argues against this theory, as “other towns in frontier Massachusetts that experienced the same socio-economic-political difficulties did not spark a similar witchscare. Several communities suffering from less stress did suffer from contact with Salem as the witchscare virus spread.”
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What if the villagers simply lied about their illnesses? Even Emerson admitted, “Most historians acknowledge that some fakery took place at Salem. A close reading of the surviving court records and related documents suggests that more fraud took place than many cared to admit after the trials ended.”
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Some huge proponents of this idea were the supposed witches. During John Alden’s trial, he explained that people in the courtroom were manipulating the “victims” and exacerbating their conditions.
In another trial, the girl claimed that spirit stabbed her and brought a broken knife to court. A man in the room stood, declared it was his knife, and that he’d broken it. He had the tip of the knife, which easily fit with the section she carried.
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Maybe it was simply a culture clash. Some of the religious officials of the time blamed the Salemites for practicing English folk magic. Not everyone approved of this practice, but a healthy group of people were keeping it alive.
Well-known practitioners were accused of cursing the residents, even families who were using spells to fight whoever the ‘bad’ witches were. One practitioner who didn’t get off easily was Tituba, a slave of Samuel Parris.
Tituba and her husband, John, baked a magic cake made from rye meal and urine from a girl with the mysterious illness. They then fed it to a dog, which was supposed to reveal who was responsible for the spells.
Tituba was arrested and tried for witchcraft. She confessed, saying she worked with the Devil and there were others like her in the area. Obviously, she wasn’t the cause of the witch scare, but her testimony prolonged it. Popular culture also helped perpetuate falsehoods about this strange time.
Thanks to Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, history remembers Abigail Williams in a vindictive light. She led the charge as the first accuser of witchcraft, with her cousin Betty Parris. In reality though, she was 12 years old, and the romantic angle with a married adult man was pure fabrication.
Once the girls let it rip, wielding the power of accusation looked pretty tempting to the other townsfolk. Soon everyone was doing it. The numbers of alleged witches grew to 200, and ultimately 140-150 individuals were charged with the crime of witchcraft.
Jailhouse conditions were worse than bleak for the accused. The Salem outfit wasn’t built to hold such numbers, so those arrested were scattered throughout the jails of neighboring towns. Shackled to the walls, they consumed only bread and water and watched as bodies continued to shuffle in.
When someone was suspected of wrongdoing, the Puritans called the witch hunters. You needn’t look far to find one. Volunteers knocked on doors pushing neighbors and friends to betray each other or blurt accusations.
Landowners in and surrounding Salem realized quickly that being named as a witch had scarier consequences than exorcism. Accused witches had their reputations ruined, and worse, all their property seized by the state. Without land, their survival was hardly guaranteed.
When you think of trials, you’d expect that the Puritan courtroom was filled with all the usual characters familiarized by the dramas on TV — the judge, the jury, and the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense. No one accused at Salem had a remotely fair trial.
Sitting in that courtroom, while your character was trashed, your personal life dissected, lies about your evilness spreading like wildfire, it was common for the accused to put it all to rest. They’d offer a confession, knowing they’d already been convicted in the court of public opinion.
Other confessions were taken through sheer force. Reverend Samuel Parris beat his slave Tituba until she gave an admission of guilt, then she later said he coached her through the trials. Her cries about serving Satan should be framed within the context of torture.
Some Salem residents were immune to the growing hysteria, including Martha Corey. Sadly, her attempts to convince her neighbors to see reason made them instantly suspicious of her. She found herself in the hot seat without allies, as even her husband, Giles Corey, testified against her.
Perhaps the guilt of selling out his wife was what led to his nervy last words. Giles was accused of being a witch after his wife, though his refusal to plead his guilt or innocence made prosecutors reach for the medieval punishment of pressing.
Over three days, they stacked rocks on top of the naked body of Giles Corey. Intermittently they’d ask him to declare a plea, the fate of his life rested in a simple answer. Famously, Giles refused to crack, groaning out the final words, “More weight.”
But man’s best friends weren’t immune to suspicions of witchcraft, either. Notably, a girl taught her neighbor a lesson by claiming her dog had bewitched her. The dog wasn’t granted a trial; he was shot. Priest Cotton Mather confirmed the pet’s death meant no demonic activity. Small comfort.
Buoyancy, strangely enough, was an indicator of meddling with evil spirits. They tied the accused’s hand to their opposite foot, then dunked their bodies into the water. Whether they sank — as non-witches would — or floated — a total witch thing — they were in hot water. The absurd tests didn’t stop there, either.
For the touch test, during one of the afflicted’s regular fits, the accused would be forced to make physical contact. Wouldn’t you know it, the tremors and hysteria stopped instantly…indicating witchery. Witches were also believed to be identified by something else.
If they’d danced with the Devil, witches would have a specific mark, the Puritans thought. What that mark actually looked like, well, no one was sure. Interchangeably called witches or devil marks, the accused were stripped and examined for any blemish that could be classified as a hellish stain.
The witches of Salem were so supposedly hellbent on terrorizing the community they could break free from their corporeal forms. George Jacobs, in particular, stood accused by every one of the witnesses in his case of haunting them as a ghostly figure.
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If pointing fingers and public execution weren’t enough, an outbreak of smallpox was rippling throughout the Salem community. Naturally, citizens declared the illness another devious act of witchery. Somehow eliminating the “evil” didn’t cure ailments.
The culprit was none other than the “rampant hag,” “Queen of Hell” herself, Martha Carrier. That’s what records tell us that Reverend Cotton Mather called her. She came under suspicion for her disobedient nature and notoriously independent wills.
Man of the Lord, Reverend George Burroughs was shaken after he landed in the suspected witch hot seat. His conviction was swift. His hanging, swifter. Though the crowd shifted uneasily afterword because he’d recited the Lord’s Prayer, an act impossible for a witch to utter.
To add to the callousness, George Burroughs body was immediately taken from the gallows to a ridiculously shallow grave. In the hast to bury him, people noted how the chin, a hand, and a foot breached the soil.
Theorists have tried to rationalize the killing at Salem with medical explanations. One idea is the New Englanders were suffering from the rye grain born poison ergot. A harsh winter followed by a wet spring produces ergot, with symptoms like spasms, vomiting, and hallucinations. Whatever the cause, the mania continued until the accusers really crossed the line.
It was all fun and games until the fingers pointed at the governor’s wife. William Phips knowingly let the trails continue for a year, fully aware of the rising death count. After his spouse, Mary Spencer Hull, was named as a potential witch, he signed a proclamation ending the madness.
Witch burning conjures a monstrous level of inhumanity; that, thankfully, never took place at Salem. Their chosen method of execution was strictly hanging, 19 of the 20 deaths were carried out that way. The other was Giles Corey’s pressing.
The infamous executions were carried out on Gallows Hill, and the location was hotly contested amongst Salem locals until 2016. Proctor’s Ledge was officially identified at the spot the convicted witches hung. It now serves as a memorial park.
Undoubtedly many innocent people were killed by ramblings of children. If they’d hung a real witch, there was no guarantee they’d vanished. Some say sorcerers resurface over time, like the legendary Bell Witch.
According to legend, way back in the summer of 1817 in the town of Adams, Tennessee, something terrible befell the Bell family. It all started one evening when patriarch John Bell was walking through his 360-acre farm.
It was during this walk that John saw something strange in the corn field: it was what he would later describe as a dog with a rabbit’s head. He shot at the strange animal a number of times and then joined his family inside.
Later that night, the mysterious sounds of knocking and rattling chains were heard by the whole family. Each proceeding night it became louder and louder and was eventually joined by the sound of a strange voice chanting hymns. The Bell children then began hearing rats gnawing on their bedposts. But the horrors were only just beginning…
For over a year, John was so afraid of being called crazy that he told his family to hide what they’d seen and heard. Yet he decided to confide in his best friend, James Johnston, after his youngest daughter, Betsy, woke up with hand prints and welts on her face.
To investigate his friend’s claims, James stayed in the Bell house one night, ultimately confirming that he heard unusual sounds as well. Soon enough, all sorts of people were visiting the house to try to do the same. Even a young Andrew Jackson, back when he was still in the military, tried to visit. But once he arrived at their farm, the wheels of his carriage weirdly became locked.
According to lore, the spirit haunting the Bell family claimed to be a former neighbor named Kate Batts, and she believed John treated her unfairly on a land deal. Not only did she want to kill him, but she was determined to prevent a boy in town named Joshua Gardner from marrying Betsy. Kate, later referred to as the Bell Witch, apparently caused John to suffer several choking attacks over the next few years, which he said felt like a sharp stick in his mouth.
On December 20, 1820, John Bell died after falling into a coma. The family found a vial of poison in the room, and the Bell Witch was allegedly proud to claim responsibility for forcing him to drink. Betsy broke off her engagement to Joshua just three months later.
Apparently having finally achieved what she wanted all along, the Bell Witch bid farewell to the family… although she promised to return someday. She apparently wasn’t lying, because John Bell Jr. said she visited him in 1828 and told him a number of secrets from throughout time, including a prediction of the Civil War.
Not only did strange things continue to happen on the property, but the activity spread to the cave behind the farm; the witch supposedly still resided there. Some people claim that there was never a witch at all, but it was simply someone else trying to force the breakup between Betsy and Joshua.
Betsy ended up marrying Richard Powell, her old schoolteacher who took a liking to her years earlier. Strangely, it wasn’t long after they’d first met that the creepy activity started. Richard was rumored to be an occultist, and in 1821—around the same time that Betsy broke off her engagement—Richard’s wife mysteriously died.
Whether Richard was behind the devious hauntings remained to be seen. To this day, the Bell Witch is said to be the cause of other unexplainable sights and sounds around the property. While the Bell farmhouse may not be around anymore, there is a recreation of the cabin and other attractions at The Bell Witch Cave!