Monday, October 27, 2014

Witches and Bullies

How much do you know about the Salem Witch Trials?

Do you think it could happen now? What goes on in 2014 that compares to it? It seems to me that it was a case of Ultimate Bullying.

Let's understand that at the time, the village of Salem was in dire straits economically because a lot of refugees were coming their way, both from surrounding areas and as far away as Canada. This caused a lot of friction between the rich and the poor, and strained their limited resources as well: was there enough food for all these newcomers? Where would they live? And just as importantly to them, Did they have the same religious beliefs?

                                       Here's where Salem was/is: Today it's called Danvers.

Add that to the existing extremely rigid concepts of 'right' and 'wrong', 'moral' and 'immoral,' and you have a good breeding ground for suspicion, judgment, blame, plus the fear of eternal damnation.

-Bullying tactic #1: 'Us v. Them: We have the 'right' beliefs and you do not. That gives us the right to condemn you.

At the time, although the concept of freedom of religion prompted settlers to move to America, many religions still held very set standards and were quick to condemn anyone who strayed from their concept of right and wrong. And so, ironically, these settlers were very judgmental towards those who didn't follow the same religions as they did, rather than insisting on religious freedom for all. People depended on their religious leaders to tell them how to behave, much more than town leaders, and if anyone digressed from it, there was going to be trouble.

There was a solid belief not only in God but in the Devil, and that the Devil could control people if they didn't fight it off with prayer and other religious practices.

In the village of Salem, in 1692, the religious leader of Salem Village was named Samuel Parris. He had formerly been working at a mission in the Carribean, and when he moved to America, he brought with him some very defined ideas. He also brought with a slave woman named Tituba; his wife; and daughter Elizabeth (sometimes called 'Betty'). There was no question in his household who was the all-wise leader.

-Bullying tactic #2: You are different, therefore, you are evil.

The records indicate that Betty Parris, who was all of 9 years old, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam, both age 11, began to have 'fits,' wherein they would talk wildly, dive under tables, wave their arms about, and otherwise act in a bizarre fashion. Their local doctor-not knowing how to diagnose it- declared them to be possessed by evil.

Wanting to blame someone and avoid getting into trouble, (after all, who would respect a church leader with a possessed daughter?), the girls accused Tituba, the slave; Sarah Good, a beggarwoman; and Sarah Osborne, a poor elderly woman, of casting spells over them. The two Sarahs denied any such thing. Being from the Carribean, Tituba believed in and practiced things like spells, voodoo, and what was considered witchcraft; so when she was accused, she did not deny it.

The fear spread throughout the area to the point where almost everyone suspected everyone else of being witches.

-Bullying tactic #3: Don't look at me, I'm perfect. I'm not sure about you, though.

Imagine wondering of every person you encounter on a daily basis: Are you one? Are you one?

Women, in particular, were accused of being witches left and right. Why? Because they might be poor and/or dirty; they were thought to be promiscuous; they were not attending church; they seemed to have magical healing powers (be careful if you give your child chicken soup, it might make him better); they used foul language; they were pretty and therefore tempting to men; they were too clean; they were from another country and spoke more than one language. They didn't dress like the others---not wearing black? How dare you!? Or, they didn't keep their hair tucked under their hats. Even today, when we think of a witch, it's a woman with long flowing hair, not  having it neatly wound up in a knot. And just imagine a woman who knew how to read and write-she must surely be a witch!

While there were men accused of witchcraft or harboring a witch, most of the accused were women. Why? Because men were keen to keep control of all things-especially 'their' women- and to maintain their superiority.

        It appears that what we think of as witches' clothing is just an exaggeration of typical Puritan fashion of that time. Notice one woman (with a pointy hat, no less) is smoking a pipe, and it seems perfectly acceptable.

Fear of the religious leaders and of the courts kept many silent when they knew it was wrong.

It was during this time that a court could try someone based on "spectral evidence"; this practice was later disallowed. Spectral evidence included thoughts or dreams someone might have in a situation such as this: Someone's daughter died, there was no cause known, but the father had a dream that some man cast a spell over her that caused her death. The man seen in the dream would then be charged with consorting with the Devil and put on trial.

Eventually, 19 people were put on trial and then put to death for witchcraft. They were generally hanged or burned at the stake. If an accused person did not 'admit' his or her guilt, they were automatically found guilty.

 Trial Transcript, September 10, 1692.  Hard to read,
but notice the words "that diabolicall art of witchcraft"
in the middle of the page.

Bullying Tactic #4: I don't want to call attention to myself, so I will say nothing. Someone else can deal with it.

After the court of witchcraft was dissolved, out of 56 accused, 'only' 3 were convicted. One was executed by having heavy stones piled on him until he was crushed to death. 200 were sent to prison, where more died.
Marker for one of the executed persons

Scientists have since wondered if the girls who originally reported odd behavior, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam, may have eaten foods contaminated with a fungus that caused their behavior, called ergotism. The fungus was common in rye and wheat, and rye was a staple food in that area at the time.

It's possible that one or more of these girls actually had what we would now call a mental illness, which would not have been understood in those days. It's unlikely that they all had exactly the same illness at the same time, however.

Bullying Tactic #5: I am in control. You have no power. I dictate your punishment.

Keep in mind that these strict religions required twice a week attendance at long church services and did not allow music, dancing, toys and especially dolls, no holiday celebrations, and no interaction of children with any adults, certainly not religious leaders (there is an old saying: children should be seen and not heard). We can also imagine three young girls, bored, with nothing else to do, decide to make up a game that had them act like they were crazy, it got out of hand, but they were enjoying the attention...and then they couldn't admit what they had done so they blamed others. The courts and religious leaders ran with the idea to the point where people were put on trial and executed. Think what would have happened to these girls by the time it reached a point of mass hysteria: That woman I accused? Sorry, just kidding. Oops.

Do you see how this instance of bullying resulted in disaster? How have things changed, or do bullies still operate the same now? Why does it matter that we remember and understand the Salem Witch Trials?

                                      It's not easy being green.

Here are sites giving more information about the Salem Witch Trials:


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