6 Logical Explanations For The Hysteria Behind The Salem Witch Trials

Published November 12, 2017
Updated February 28, 2019
Published November 12, 2017
Updated February 28, 2019

In 1692, "witchcraft" swept through the Salem. But these modern theories may explain what actually caused the Salem witch trials.

Salem Witch Trials

Wikimedia Commons

In 1692, the settlement of Salem, Massachusetts came under intense duress. The cause? Witch hysteria.

Within the span of a year, 20 people had been executed and hundreds arrested after being accused of witchcraft. Since then, the events of the Salem witch trials have fascinated and perplexed scholars like few other episodes in American history.

What caused this quiet Puritan town to descend into total paranoia and persecution?

Salem Witch Trials: Impact Of The Native American Wars

Natives At Garrison House

Getty ImagesProtected by a smoke screen caused by burning dry grasses, this wagon proceeded towards a garrison house and in ramming it, the Native Americans tried to ignite the wooden forts.

A number of new theories have suggested that the Native American Wars which raged during the 17th century close to Salem may have contributed to the witch hysteria that took hold in 1692.

King Philips War was ongoing at the time, and the front lines were only about 70 miles away from Salem. Most people in Salem had been impacted by the wars in one way or another and many in the Salem were refugees from the war.

Memories of Native American raids and fear of future attacks created an atmosphere of intense anxiety in which violent death could come suddenly.

Several of the “afflicted” had witnessed Native American attacks first hand. It has been suggested that post-traumatic stress from witnessing these terrifying attacks and the culture of fear generated by the continued threat may have played a large role in the hysteria.

Historian Mary Beth Norton suggests the Native American Wars may have impacted the trials in another way.

She contends that the accusation and execution of ex-minister George Burroughs for witchcraft, who led a number of small failed campaigns against the Native Americans, is indicative of the town officials attempt to shift “blame for their own inadequate defense of the frontier” to supernatural causes.

Either way, the Native American Wars played a significant role in the Salem witch trials.

Teen Angst And Patriarchal Oppression

Girl At Salem Witch Trials

Wikimedia CommonsA witch takes the stand during the Salem witch trials.

When examining who exactly was accused of witchcraft, there are a number of demographic discrepancies which have hinted at the possibility of ulterior motivations.

In his book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the culture of Early New England, John Putnam theorizes that the witch trials were essentially a teenage rebellion against the authority of their elderly parents, as most the accusers were teenagers and most of the accused adults.

Feminist historians have interpreted the trials as just another means of the patriarchy to persecute women who acted in ways contrary to the accepted social norms of the time. In Salem, as is the case in most witch trials, women were the primary targets of accusation and particularly women who did not prescribe to the social norms of the time.

While the exact cause of the Salem witch trials remains contested there were certainly underlying themes at play.

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