Database: Academic Search Premier
CREDULITY, SUPERSTITION, AND FANATICISM: THE "WOMEN'S HOLOCAUST"
The history of the Salem witch trials raises disturbing questions for our own
"I believe that never were more Satanical Devices used for
the Unsettling of any People under the Sun, than what have
been Employ'd for the Extirpation of the Vine which God
has here Planted."
Cotton Mather, "Wonders of the Invisible World"
There is nothing about the Rebecca Nurse house in Danvers, Massachusetts, to
physically mark it as a link to the Salem witchhunt. A tiny, wood framed
building surrounded by rolling fields, it appears today pretty much as it did in
March 1692, when its 71-year-old occupant, "in a weak and Lowe condition in
body' was dragged from her sickbed to answer charges of witchcraft. Her spectral
body, according to eyewitnesses, had been roaming the New England countryside,
tormenting the godly, afflicting their livestock, murdering their babies. Nurse
was examined by local magistrates, jailed, tried, convicted, and then taken to
Gallows Hill in Salem Town on July 19, 1692, and executed.
Christian burial, her body--along with those of four other women killed that
day--was flung into a nearby ravine.
"I can say before my eternal father that I
am innocent" she told her inquisitors, "and God will clear my innocence."
Twenty accused witches--14 women and six men--were hung or tortured to death in
Salem that year, while another four died in prison. At least 150 others, most of
them women, were imprisoned, and still hundreds more were accused, their cases
pending as the witch craze ended. In the town of Andover alone, more than 50 of
its estimated 600 residents were uspects. . . .
By all accounts, the winter of 1691-1692 was a bleak one, and residents of the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts faced another year of harsh weather and poor
crops. The colony was under attack by Native Americans and their French allies,
and larger communities, such as Boston and Salem Town, were flooded with
refugees from the threatened frontier. Cotton Mather, one of the colony's most
respected clerics, noted the rising incidence of suicide among the faithful,
while contemporary sermons were filled with references to the Day of Judgment,
associated by some with the coming turn of the century. There had been a recent
outbreak of smallpox, and clerics wondered aloud if the great Puritan
experiment--the attempt to build God's kingdom on earth--would survive
The gravest threat, however, came not from Indians or nature but from the
English Crown, which had revoked the Massachusetts charter in 1684. A new
charter, imposed in 1692, curtailed the colony's autonomy, restricted its
ability to compete commercially with England, and doomed Puritan political
hegemony. For the first time, non-Puritans--despite all efforts, a rapidly
growing part of the white population--would be allowed a voice in government.
The charges of witchcraft at Salem came at a time when the institutions of the