The year 1692 was especially catastrophic for the New England colonies, on the east coast of what would become the United States. Taxes were exorbitant, winter was harsh, pirates attacked merchants, and smallpox wreaked havoc. For men and women brought up in the narrow and rigid evangelical world, the misfortunes of that year were due to the Devil. For the New England Puritans, ever on guard against demons and witches, the existence of the supernatural could not be doubted. The clergy administered the law of God and men in what we could consider an impregnable theocracy.
The “eight bitches witches”
In this world, and specifically in a small town called Salem, Massachusetts, the devil was going to work wonders. It all started when a group of young women got together to listen to the fantastic stories of the West Indies told to them by Tituba, the slave of the reverend of Salem, Samuel Parris. Tituba’s stories impressed the youngest of the group: the reverend’s daughter, Elisabeth, 9, and her niece, Abigail Williams, 11. They began to have fits with sobs and convulsions. Both challenged the world of adults with their disobedient, lawless and insubordinate attitude, reaching unimaginable extremes in the mind of a severe reverend. And her hysterical fits inspired the older girls. Ann Putnam, Elisabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, Mary Warren, Elisabeth Proctor, Mercy Lewis, Susan Sheldon, and Elisabeth Booth, the “eight witch bitches” as defined by a defendant during trial. And what started as a mischief ended in a witch trial.
It’s the devil’s fault
The girls said that some spectral they tormented them. First, the young women made scapegoats of the most disliked people in the community. Later, the accusation was extended to any citizen: no one was safe. The judges who handled the case were convinced of the demon’s action and used the girls as accusers: whom they pointed out as a witch, they accused him.
Surprisingly, no confessed witches were hanged; he only adjusted himself to those who denied it. In 1692 thirty-one people were prosecuted: the thirty-one were sentenced to death, six of whom were men. Nineteen were hanged, two died in prison, one was crushed to death, two managed to postpone the execution by claiming to be pregnant and in the end were pardoned, another escaped from prison, five confessed and saved her life and the poor slave Tituba was imprisoned indefinitely. No judgment. Fourteen years later one of the witch bitches, Ann Putnam, confessed that it had all been a farce. If it were not for this circumstance, there would be no direct evidence of this. Of course, Ann did not deny her actions; she limited herself to admitting that everything had been orchestrated by the devil.
The worst accusers: boys and girls
Most terrifying of all, boys and girls have been formidable accusers. Of all the cases, the most notorious at the end of the 16th century was that of the Warboys witches, in England. There some terrible girls, daughters of the landowner Robert Throckmorton, put to death the elderly couple John and Alice Samuel, and their daughter Agnes. It all started when 10-year-old Jane began to suffer from a strange disease that historians have identified as epilepsy. During one of her attacks, 77-year-old Alice was unlucky enough to have a seizure in front of the Throckmortons; so Jane called her a witch. Her parents didn’t make much of a step for her, but at Jane’s insistence her four sisters joined them. Philip Barrow, a famous doctor of the University of Cambridge, unable to cure the sick, told the Throckmortons that their daughter was a victim of witchcraft. And the cruel fun of those little monsters, aged between 9 and 15 years, began.
At first they only suffered fits in the presence of the old woman, but then they pretended to be grieved when the woman was not in the house. So the parents forced Mrs. Samuel to live with them, but without feeding him. In September 1590 something was going to change the future of poor Alice. The wife of the richest man in England, Henry Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s grandfather, paid a courtesy call on the Throckmortons. Fifteen months later Lady Cromwell died and the girls soon accused her of being responsible for her, along with her husband and her daughter Agnes. All three were found guilty of “murdering Lady Cromwell by sorcery.” Some recommended Agnes to say that she was pregnant to save herself from her execution: “I don’t intend to. no one can say that I have been a witch and a whore”.
This case, which involved the most important family in England, contributed to spreading fear of witches and also served as an inspiration for other boys and girls to play this new game, because everyone knew how a bewitched person should behave.
On very few occasions were they exposed, something that only happened when they were caught red-handed, as happened with William Perry, the ‘Bilson boy’, who was discovered filling out his foreskin with cotton soaked in ink so that his urine was blue. American adolescents also learned quickly. In 1720, five Littleton (Massachusetts) girls convinced their neighbors that they were under a spell; eight years later the eldest confessed to the fraud and that they had chosen a woman at random to accuse her of being a witch.
At no time in history has the human being been free to put a lock on reason. If we are not alert, any of us, at any moment, can end up believing the greatest madness. It would not hurt to remember these wise words of a ninth century archbishop: “The miserable world lies today under the tyranny of stupidity. Christians believe such absurd things that it would be impossible to make infidels believe them.”
Hope Robins, R. (1988) Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and DemonologyDebate