Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Reptilian Witchhunt

In 1692, stress got the better of Salem, Massachusetts. Betty and Abigail Parris caused a mayhem that I’m not even sure they could have predicted. All manner of townspeople were imprisoned, some even put to death upon their accusations of witchcraft.

Betty and Abigail were two daughters of Reverend Samuel Parris. The girls loved to spend time reading books about prophecy and fortune telling, which were quite popular in New England at the time.

The girls of the town would form groups to act out the magic and fortune telling they read about in the books. They invited Tituba, a slave from Barbados to join in. Tituba had many of her own mystical tales to tell. She told their fortunes by dropping an egg white into a glass of water, interpreting the picture it formed. This started the paranoia in Salem.

The girls were displaying convulsions, which at first I thought they were doing on purpose as a cruel trick to accuse the people they didn’t like of witchcraft. But then I read about ergot poisoning, a fungal infection derived from rye bread, which did indeed cause convulsions.

The doctor was called in to treat the girls, but couldn’t find any physical cause for the behavior [he didn’t know about ergot poisoning] and simply said that they were bewitched. Let me begin by saying that Puritans believed in ghosts. Indeed, their testimony was even permissible in court. So this was a more valid fear for them, than for us. Today this would seem an outlandish diagnosis, but since there was no physical explanation for the convulsions, and since the belief in ghosts, and their ability to harm people, was plausible at the time, this was not so far fetched.

The unexplained has confused and vexed people for as long as life has been.
‘Twas no different in Salem. The predominantly Puritan townspeople of Salem found themselves unable to explain certain behaviors, and therefore created their own narratives to explain them.

17th century life was a little tense, to say the least, especially in the colony of Massachusetts. There were economic tensions. There was always the threat of an attack from warring Indian tribes as well as rivalry between colonists. Not to mention the various epidemics that spread through the area, small pox, as well as the aforementioned ergotism and encephalitis poisoning.

The townspeople were reacting from fear. Any reaction from fear is going to be potentially dangerous. It is for our protection, after all. Fears that are not rooted in reality will produce ridiculous reactions, at best. But often they will produce very harmful reactions.

Even prominent people were not exempt, including the Governor’s wife.
More than 150 people were accused of witchcraft and put in jail, 18 put to death.

And then the witch trials ended as quickly as they began. Apologies were issued, losses were compensated. But the harm was done, all because of the stress of some unchecked fears.

c. 2011
image credit: elfwood.com

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