The Most Famous Series Of Witch Trials
The Salem Witch trials were a series of immoral injustices among a small village known as Salem. In the trials, a few young girls convinced the entire population of the village that witches lived among them and, in turn, doomed dozens into a position of death or imprisonment with no evidence of their claims. They achieved this through a process known as spectral evidence in which they appeared to be possessed in the courtroom while the trial was taking place.
This appeared to be clear evidence to the citizens that the defendant on trial was in fact guilty and thus would be convicted of their crime despite having little to no other evidence to base their claim on. This strange story prompted many historians to research the true intentions behind the young girls and what made them commit these unjust accusations. While many theories have been constructed around the Salem Witch Trials, the one that seems to be supported with the most evidence is that the townspeople, including the young girls, were being affected by some illness that caused them to think unclearly and led to the mass hysteria.
Two possible candidates for this illness that changed the course of this small village forever include, as is stated in Kekla Magoonr’s The Salem Witch Trials1, encephalitis lethargica( a disease causing headaches, double vision, delayed physical response, pains, tremors, and neck rigidity) and convulsive ergotism (a food poisoning that causes hallucination along with many other symptoms the girls were exhibiting). Convulsive ergotism is also supported by the fact that it occurs when molded rye bread is consumed. The villagers did in fact eat and make rye bread, creating a link between them and the possible illness. This illness would also explain why the girls seemed to …shriek and twitch and show other strange symptoms.2.They were most likely under the influence of this hallucinogenic illness that the townspeople were not aware of and thus could not diagnose.
This theory of illness would also explain the strange story regarding a woman named Tituba. Tituba was a Native American slave living in Salem. She often invited the young girls into her home and showed them her witchcraft. She played a large part in beginning the witch trials as she was accused and admitted to performing witchcraft. She also stated that many others in the village were working for Satan, and that outside the village many were performing acts for Satan and were infiltrating the church3. While this could be mad rambling from a slave that had nothing to lose, it is likely that she, along with the young girls she showed her magical abilities to, were being affected by ergot or encephalitis lethargica. This would explain why the girls believed she was performing magic and why Tituba herself had this idea of Satanic followers taking over the Puritan church. This, in turn, caused the village to go into a state of chaos, which was only worsened by the same illness that had affected Tituba and the girls.
The mass hysteria portrayed by the Salem village residents is largely the reason why this story has been remembered so many years after its occurrence. Men and women of all ages were frightened by the insight Tituba provided and took any action possible to eliminate it from their settlement. This often resulted in imprisonment or even death. The Salem Witch Trials…dragged at least 162 people…before the law, tried 52, condemned 30, and put 20 to death.4 This level of superstition and hysteria is unprecedented for such a small, seemingly peaceful village. The reason these people may have been so on edge is because of this mind altering illness. It is likely they were unable to think rationally as they were being affected by this, and thus were thrown into a state of chaos. After the trials ended, many villagers, including one of the accusers Ann Putnam Jr., admitted what they had done was wrong and they showed clear regret for their actions.5 This could be a product of them getting over this epidemic illness and being able to think clearly once again.
The Salem Witch Trials are the most famous series of witch trials throughout all of history due to the level at which the villagers exhibited mass hysteria and superstition. However, this might not simply be a product of ignorance, but of an illness that swept through the entire village during this time period. This could be either encephalitis lethargica or convulsive ergotism or even a combination of the two. Regardless, these witch trials were likely being affected by a mind altering illness that led to one of the most horrific judicial trials throughout all of history.
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