The Mass Hysteria Perpetuated By Stereotypes In The Salem Witch Trials

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Dating back to early times, things that were beyond common understanding always had a way of effect the masses in many different ways. More often than not, it takes the form of fear, this fear causes people think irrationally and can allow them to cause significant damage. A good example would be WWI when the US created concentration camps for anyone who appeared to be or was of Asian descent in fear of them being spies, but I want to bring attention to “The Salem Witch Trials”. These trials took place in the Puritan district of Salem, MA 1692. Revealed between the 1300s and 1600s, there had been an uprising of Witch accusations in Europe. These trials were started after people had been accused of witchcraft, primarily teenage girls such as 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard as well as some who were younger. When it eventually died down, this hysteria soon made its way into the settlement of Massachusetts Bay. The people of Salem’s strong religious beliefs acted as a magnet that pulled them towards influential and important leaders for guidance causing their actions to have implications in the Salem Witch Trials. This is where people such as The Mathers and William Stoughton come into floriation.

As the Reverend of Salem, Cotton Mather son of Increase Mather was a socially and politically influential Puritan minister and prolific author. He was seen as a pillar of help and security; his motivations in the start of these trials, which were driven by his Puritanical thinking, held strong beliefs in Biblical law. Mather was one of the people who teachings caused interventions that let the Salem Witch test transcend into the Salem Witch Trials. His mindset seemed to be warped behind his black and white beliefs without any shades of gray to cloud his judgement. It was these ideals of his interest in witchcraft that gained him the audience of other great figures that were involved in the trials, such as ministers and judges alike all throughout Salem. He believed that witches were tools/agents for the devil and that had been sent as a form of divine judgment against sinful people. His mentality portrayed that the witches and sin had to be eradicated before puritans could achieve their destiny as “people of God” and then God would bless them with eternal happiness. Mather book he called “Wonders of the Invisible” was published in 1693 preceding the outbreak of all the hysteria and accusations. In his books, he defended allies in the government as well as the Salem trials with religious terms and biblical references to support their views as puritans to the new world. For example he defends the trials, depicting New England as a battleground where the forces of God and the forces of Satan will clash. Spectral evidence, which is a form of evidence based upon dreams and visions, was admitted into court during the Salem witch trials by the appointed chief justice, William Stoughton to convict any and all those who he deemed to be witches. 

Mather, though defended the use of spectral evidence, the warded caution to the court’s use of it. He had previously written a letter to one of the magistrates in the trials, John Richards, about caution in the use of spectral evidence. Mather was also the author of the ‘Return of the Several Ministers,’ this was a carefully-worded documented report sent to the judges of the Salem court that also advised caution in the use of spectral evidence. It seemed as if it was more of a warning rather than a simple document. it said that the devil could assume many different shapes such as innocent people, and decrying the use of spectral evidence in the trials their ‘noise, company, and openness’, and the utilization of witch tests such as the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. However, his final paragraph seemed to undercut this cautionary statement in recommending ‘the detection of witchcrafts’. Thus, the courts interpreted the letter as Mather’s seal of approval for the trials to go on. He also goes into details about why witchcraft is real and a danger to the people, at the end of his book is plain to see that he is strongly convinced that only the guilty were executed in the trials and therefore they were all justified by this concept.

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Another Key influential and important figure in the Salem witch trials is William Stoughton. As a colonial magistrate and administrator of Massachusetts Bay, Stoughton was in charge of the Salem Witch Trials. His impact began as the Chief Justice of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692, then continuing when he became the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693. In these trials, he accepted spectral evidence based on supposed “demonic visions”. Due to his arrogance (unlike a vast majority of other magistrates), Stoughton never admitted to the possibility that his acceptance of spectral evidence was in anyway wrong. As a result, he was harsh in his active pursuit to convict and punish the accused witches who came into his courtroom. As Chief Justice of the special tribunal, Stoughton played a dominant role in the court’s proceedings. With Stoughton’s friendship with Cotton Mather, in addition to an intense Puritan background and his political ambitions, it was not surprising that he decided to admit spectral evidence in his courtroom, showing he was in full sympathy with Cotton Mather. Both men believed that God would not allow any specters to take on the form of innocent people, so anyone who was seen in the form of a specter was guilty. By making this exception, Stoughton provided additional information to the court that could convict accused witches. He was very anxious to cleanse the community of supernatural afflictions, and spectral evidence implicated more people and strengthened already existing cases. In regards to Mather’s views on spectral evidence that were put forth in his “Wonders of the Invisible World”, Stoughton to write, “I find that I am more nearly and highly concerned than as a mere ordinary reader to express my obligation and thankfulness to you for so great pains; and cannot but hold myself many ways bound, even to the utmost of what is proper for me, in my present public capacity, to express my singular approbation thereof,” Stoughton was expressing his gratitude to Mather for his enlightenment.

Since the Salem Witch Trials threatened New England’s independence of faith and conservative opinions. It became a problem so much in fact, that government had to get involved. Between the years 1692 and 93, the people of Salem Village experienced panic over witchcraft, the effect of which caused 20 people to be executed and well over 200 accused of being witches. The witch trials were a major cause for the persecution of people who did not believe in God, they were a catalyst for the spread of witchcraft and many people believed that witches were people who did not believe in god or those who had no belief in a God. These beliefs were based on the fear and superstition, which led them to believe in evil spirits. The Salem witch trials were a very important event because they brought about religious change in the community. People began to question what was good and bad about God, but it wasn’t until the Salem witch trials that people started to realize how much more evil there is than good in the world. This is when people started to think that God was testing them, and all things were possible and that he could be trusted. If you are a believer in God, then you will have faith those who did not have faith were considered condemned for their sins. Even though many people believed in God, some still did not believe, and this action was the real cause for the witch trials. Though some of the convicted were guilty of demonic worship, many innocent people were killed based on false accusations. The puritans pious is the reasons that they would do anything including jeopardize on their own civilization, to try to create a pure land free of all forms of sin.

Stereotypes are one of the most prominent groupthink symptoms. According to Irving Janis in Groupthink, “the victims of groupthink hold stereotyped views of enemy groups: they are so evil that genuine attempts at negotiating differences with them are unwarranted…” (pp. 366) There were various stereotypes that colonists used to control Puritan women and the mass hysteria that caused the Salem Witch Trials to become so prominent. During this time there were the normal stresses of a 16th-century Puritan in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong fear of the devil and competition among Salem Village families and conflict with nearby Salem Town produced a fertile ground for suspicion. This suspicion turned into the Salem Witch Trials that resulted in more than 200 accusations and 20 executions.(Blumberg, 2007) Most of the accused and executed were women, although some men. The Salem Witch Trials originated in a patriarchal society, a belief that men are the superior gender. To understand the stereotypes that originated in the Salem Witch Trials, we must first understand how women were seen in this Puritan community. 

Puritain women were without a doubt, as mentioned before, inferior to the men in the community. Women and young girls were both somewhat distanced from the teachings of the Bible during this time. According to Josephine Colburn and her thesis Gender and The Salem Witch Trials, “Women only learned what the men in the town taught them. They did not read the Bible for themselves.”(pp. 4) This separation between women and the disciplines of the Bible established the assumption that women seem to have more of a connection with the devil than men. The Puritan community during the mid-16th century was centered around “the witch,” a stereotype used to control women at the time. Stereotypes, while destructive, do not emerge from thin air; they have a past. This “witch” stereotype began with postmenopausal women who could no longer bear children. One of the primary roles of women during this time was to produce more Purtian children and when this was longer achievable, women were seen as “wicked” and “evil.” (Rosen, 2007). Witch-hunting was a method to castigate Puritan women who did not display femine acts set for them by the community. According to Maggie Rosen, in her Feminist Perspective on the History of Women as Witches, “Physical attributions that correspond with age, socioeconomic status, or deviance were used as tools to incriminate women.” (pp. 28) This stereotype was accepted by members of the Purtain society purely because, as stated in Groupthink By Irving Janis, “once the group has accepted this stereotype, it becomes almost impossible for any adviser to introduce a more sophisticated viewpoint.” The remedy of stereotypes interpreted by Irving Janis in Groupthink can be summarized as adopting an impartial stance. This means to make decisions and solve problems while being as unprejudiced as possible 

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