The fact to emphasize is that some saw the accumulation and hoarding of wealth as a religious issue; it was morally wrong. Yet in the New World in the 1690s the social order was undergoing a fundamental change. A primarily agrarian way of life was being superceded by mercantile capitalism. Fortunes were being made, and a segment of the population viewed the shift, in which value was placed primarily on worldly goods, as signifying the ascendancy of the Old Adam in man. Indeed, during the witchcraft craze those who claimed to be visited by the devil or his demons often spoke of being offered riches beyond their wildest dreams, if only they would sign the devil’s book.
As Shakespeare wrote, “Enter witches.”
Salem was endowed with a natural harbor on the Atlantic, and several rivers enabled the transportation of goods from the interior to the port. So, at its founding, Salem was destined to be a commercial center. It soon prospered as such, eclipsed in the New World only by Boston in volume of trade. Grain, lumber, fish, meat and furs were the major products shipped to other colonies in America, the Indies, West Africa, and Europe (mainly England). Ships returned filled with goods (tobacco, sugar, cloth, rum) that found a ready market. Merchants prospered.
To the Puritans a congregation was a gathering of people where religious services were led by a minister. A meetinghouse and a minister were all they needed. The minister must be provided with a home and paid a salary; firewood was also supplied. The funds for this came in the form of taxes (a graduated tax — those with more wealth paid more, and the tax rolls, still in existence, are a source for information as to the financial status of the residents of Salem Town and Village). A segment of the villagers began, more and more strenuously, to demand that they have their own congregation. Finally, grudgingly, Salem Town granted permission for them to build a meetinghouse and hire a minister. The first was Reverend James Bayley, who took the pulpit in 1672. Before Samuel Parris assumed that role in 1689, Bayley had been succeeded by George Burroughs and Deodat Lawson. In seventeen years Salem Village had three ministers. Puritan ministers did not normally come and go; they settled into a community to stay. The departures reflected a conflict in the Village, one based on the same opposing economic interests and moral values that divided Town and Village.
In Salem Village there was an eastern section (bordering Salem Town) and a western section (which included the town center, where the church meetinghouse stood). Those in the east were more prosperous. Their farmland was better; also, they were closer to the market for their goods and had navigable rivers and well-kept roads to move those goods to the Town. They acquired the money to purchase equipment that made farming more efficient. The farms in the west covered a larger area, but the land tended to be rocky and some areas were hilly or marshy. No rivers went through this section, so products had to be moved long distances by oxcart over primitive roads that were often muddy and sometimes flooded.
Though the original land grants had been substantial, the acreage of holdings was shrinking over time. Since the Village was bordered on the west by seven other towns, expansion in that direction was not possible. When a farmer died his land was traditionally divided among his sons, so existing farms were being portioned into smaller and smaller tracts. This shrinkage had less effect on the easterners, who, besides having the advantages which made those smaller tracts of land productive, used their proximity to the Town to diversify from agrarian pursuits; they built sawmills, wharfs and ship works. Some young easterners abandoned farming altogether and became established in businesses in the Town. Such options were not open to those in the west, so the young men there often took monetary compensation for their inherited portion of land and left the area altogether.
Not that those in the west were an impoverished group. They grew crops and raised cattle and pigs on farms that were still sizable (in 1690 the average was 124 acres); they had no trouble selling their products at a decent price. It was a matter of degrees. Most were doing well enough, but not as well as many of the easterners. And they worked harder for what they had.
From this economic divide grew other divisions in the Village. The western farmers generally adhered to the simple Puritan values. Many felt uneasy when venturing into Salem Town, with its brick mansions, its fancy carriages, its women dressed in finery, its cosmopolitan airs. How could they not see, with disapproving eyes, the tainted city of Vanity? The wealthy Easterners, on the other hand, had established ties with the ruling class in Salem Town. Their sons and daughters often married townspeople, and they were even elected to positions in the Town government. After the Village had its own congregation, they continued to attend church in the Town. For this group, what was good for the Town was beneficial to them. They too saw the independence of the Village to be a danger. They recognized that the western faction, which was clamoring for autonomy, had larger numbers. With them in control politically, the economic repercussions might be troublesome.
Salem Village was beset by strife. As a villager described the situation on the eve of the witchcraft outbreak, “Brother is against brother and neighbor against neighbor, all quarreling and smiting one another.” Though surely an exaggeration, it’s a fact that the Village had many stone fences. Besides the opposition between the eastern and western factions, lawsuits — over boundary lines, about damage done by a neighbor’s pig — were common; even in families disputes over inheritances led to wills being contested. The Village became notorious throughout the Colony for its contentiousness; on several occasions the General Court of the Church reprimanded the villagers, enjoining them to conduct themselves in a charitable manner. To no avail. Salem Village had strayed far from the ideal community envisioned by John Winthrop.
In this volatile setting the church that was established was unable to settle differences and unite the Village. To some it stood as a bulwark and refuge against the values of the Town. Others not only shunned it, they refused to pay taxes that went to support the Village ministry. A minister was a person of importance to a Puritan; but — particularly in Salem Village — the value of his words depended on what words he spoke. With Reverend Parris’s arrival the already raw divisions were exacerbated, and that stems largely from the personality of this man.
Samuel Parris studied theology at Harvard, but instead of entering the ministry he moved to Barbados, where his father had willed him a sugar plantation; he leased the plantation and made a comfortable living as a sugar broker. But after eight years a series of setbacks — a hurricane and a drop in world sugar prices — led to his selling the plantation and moving to Boston (accompanied by two slaves he had purchased, Tituba and John Indian). He tried to compete in the commercial world there; but, not meeting with success, he turned to the security offered by the ministry. At this time Salem Village was seeking a new minister. Parris gave an impressive sample sermon (at the pulpit he was a impassioned speaker, something the Puritans valued) and was offered the position. But there followed a long period of haggling over what his compensation would be; perhaps Parris had doubts about the fractious Village and wanted to insure his financial stability. But by driving a hard bargain (he was granted ownership of the ministry house, the barn and two adjoining acres, something which had been denied to the previous ministers) he alienated those in the community who were already not receptive to him. Before he accepted the position in 1689, there were some who strongly opposed him, some who firmly backed him. Once installed, he worked hard to fulfill his ministerial duties, but his harsh and rigid personality did not take him on the path of appeasement. Differences became more intense and vindictive. Pro-Parris and anti-Parris factions formed. The pro-Parris group was primarily made up of farmers living in the western section of the Village, while those in the anti-Parris faction were easterners who identified their interests with Salem Town. The business leaders in the Town had not relinquished their dominance over the affairs of the Village, and they made sure that their allies — the wealthier villagers in the east — were in control politically. These easterners began to resist the reverend in ways large and petty. Just before the outbreak of the witchcraft craze, Parris learned that the village rate committee had decided against levying a tax for his 1692 salary; there was also the likelihood that he would lose title to the parsonage that he had been originally granted. Money to make repairs to the meetinghouse was not allocated; it was so cold and dark as to be almost unusable. He was not even provided firewood sufficient to warm his home. In his sermons he drew battle lines in which he had his allies (the godly) and his enemies (the evil); a martial tone emerges: “It is a woeful piece of our corruption in our evil time when the wicked prosper & the godly party meet with vexations.” He warned the “elect” members of his congregation that they were under attack by “wicked and reprobate men, the assistants of Satan.”
But difficulties arise when one tries to make the case that the volatile atmosphere in Salem Village resulted in accusations directed at the wealthy easterners. The only records we have (apart from the identities of the accused) are the names on complaints and depositions and the names of those who gave testimony against or in defense of the accused. And these names amount to a total of sixty-four people (some, such as those of the afflicted girls, appear repeatedly). The names of more than three quarters of the adults in the Village are not to be found on any surviving document. Though we can assume that all villagers were intensely interested in the trials, a majority didn’t attend the hearings. An aspect of human nature must have been at work: many decided that the safest course was to keep a distance from the proceedings.
Further complicating matters is that some accusations were directed at social pariahs (Tituba, Good, Osborn, Bishop); in these cases, ideological or economic factionalism was not the issue. Also, the girls accused anyone who criticized or cast doubt on them, be it an eastern villager or a Boston minister. As the craze spread throughout Massachusetts Colony — and it did so like a wild fire — a multitude of accusers from outside the Village joined in. The situation became so diffuse and complex that clear-cut generalizations are not possible. As matters progressed, villagers came to make up only a small portion of the total accused. More lived in Salem Town and many more lived in neighboring villages (Ipswich, Topsfield, etc.); the distant town of Andover was the single highest source of accusations. The population of Salem Village was not sufficient to feed what became a full-fledged conflagration.
Still, the Village was where that conflagration originated, and there exists a source which indicates that the economic and moral/religious conflict in the community did play a role. This source is a map of the Village. Historians are able to determine where every villager lived in 1692. When we look at the place of residence of the sixty-four people whose names were recorded for posterity, we find that thirty-three of those who made up the ranks of accusers were from the west while only two eastern villagers were accusers. As for those who came forward to defend an accused witch or wizard, five were from the west and twenty-four from the east. And of those villagers accused, five came from the west (though four of them were the social pariahs mentioned above) and seventeen from the east. This geographic polarization gives credence to the theory that the more affluent easterners were singled out by the villagers of the western sector.
In the story of the witch hunt the name of Reverend Samuel Parris is pervasive. The two original accusers lived in his home, and, though his daughter was soon removed, Abigail Williams, one of the main accusers throughout, continued to stay with him. Not only did he use his pulpit to fan the flames, but he drew the battle lines and provided the reasoning to validate the actions being taken. In incendiary sermons he repeatedly told his congregation that they were under assault and that they must band together and eradicate the evil forces amongst them — those he identified as “wicked and reprobate men, the assistants of Satan.” After the arrest of Rebecca Nurse, he explained how a seemingly pious person could be a witch by citing the case of Judas; he used for his text Christ’s words: “Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil.” Later his sermons became more inclusive. A witch need not be a supernatural being but a “vile, wicked person,” a devil in “quality and disposition.” Into this category fell the covetous and greedy; they too must be punished as were wicked angels or spirits. In the legal realm, his name appears on many complaints and depositions; he was active behind the scenes, going into prisons to interrogate accused and confessed witches; he was present at the hearings and trials, transcribing testimony and testifying. In this matter about which he was so passionate, it is highly unlikely that he did not exert an influence on the young girls.
Samuel Parris was a key figures in Salem’s ordeal. He was one of two: the other was Thomas Putnam, Jr.
If the witchcraft craze can be compared to a conflagration, much of the fuel for the fire came from the Putnam house. Thomas Putnam, Jr. was the wealthiest of the western villagers and was the driving force of the pro-Parris group. He not only vigorously supported the witch hunt, but his family played a part in it to a degree beyond any other in Salem Village. Thomas signed complaints against twenty-four persons and testified against twelve. His wife, his twelve-year-old daughter and his maidservant Mercy Lewis were among the afflicted. The young Ann Putnam, Jr. testified against at least twenty-one persons and was the leader of the afflicted girls; her performances in court were particularly convincing. Close relatives of the Putnams were also active: his brother participated in thirteen cases, and his brother-in-law’s daughter, Mary Walcott (who stayed in the Putnam home part of the time), was one of the afflicted girls and testified against sixteen accused witches. A man as strong-willed as Thomas Putnam surely was a force in determining who was targeted by the members of his household.
John Putnam’s son, Thomas Putnam, had two sons from his first marriage, Thomas, Jr. and Edward. When they reached age twenty-one he carved land from his holdings and set them up with sizable farms of their own. For Thomas, Jr. this was not enough. His marriage to Ann Carr seemed to open up new opportunities for him. She came from a wealthy family in Salisbury. The Carrs owned a variety of businesses, including a ship works. With those family ties, Thomas could, like the Porters, move beyond agrarian pursuits. But when Ann’s father died she was left out of her father’s will; he had remarried, and Ann believed her disinheritance was due to the scheming of her stepmother. Ann and Thomas unsuccessfully contested the will in court.
Six years before the witchcraft outbreak Thomas, Jr. suffered another blow to his aspirations. When he was thirteen his mother had died and his father had remarried; he and his new wife, Mary Veren, had one son, Joseph. When Thomas Putnam, Sr. died in 1686, he left his entire estate to his second wife and Joseph, then sixteen years old.. His two adult sons, Thomas, Jr. and Edward, vigorously contested the will; they believed that Mary had manipulated her elderly husband into doing her bidding. Their efforts in court failed. Joseph came into full inheritance when he was eighteen. He was suddenly the wealthiest Putnam; when he was twenty he secured his position by marrying a Porter. Like the Porters, he resided in the eastern part of the Village and allied himself with the Town’s entrepreneurial circle and its social/political life. He would be the only Putnam to join the anti-Parris faction.
Thomas and Ann Putnam had, to their way of thinking, been grievously mistreated, cheated out of what was rightfully theirs. To be passed over by your father was a bitter pill for each to swallow. Also bitter to Thomas was how his half-brother had so easily attained the prosperity he desired.
Before the financial setbacks, Ann Putnam, Sr. had lost a number of babies in childbirth. Though she would later bear other children, she attributed her miscarriages to witchcraft. She also blamed supernatural intervention for the financial setbacks she and her husband suffered. In the ancient lore of witchcraft evil stepmothers had long played a prominent role, and had not she and her husband twice been victimized by stepmothers? She was obsessed with the subject. When the girls began to exhibit symptoms of possession she became one of the afflicted. She progressively showed signs of breaking down mentally and physically. At Rebecca Nurse’s examination she screamed and thrashed about until she collapsed and was carried from the meetinghouse by her husband. Could the atmosphere in the Putnam home be anything but morbid?
Prior to the outbreak of the witchcraft craze Thomas was constantly engaged in lawsuits; notable were those against George Burroughs and Rebecca Nurse. Both Burroughs and Nurse would be accused by the Putnams and would be hanged. During the witch hunt the accusations, warrants for arrest and testimony that poured out of the Putnam house could be seen as a manifestation of a suppressed frustration and rage that had long festered and which had found an acceptable means to express itself. Though one person who was never accused was Thomas Putnam’s half-brother Joseph; possibly this was due to the fact that they bore the same name. Nor were any of the Porters accused; their wealth and long-standing position of importance in the community gave them a degree of immunity. So Thomas exhibited restraint, which actually shows that he acted in a calculated way. It’s obvious to the modern mind that Thomas Putnam lied; he lied again and again. When Martha Corey learned that she had been accused by Ann, she made a visit to the Putnam home to settle matters. Thomas wrote a deposition describing what occurred after she left. He claimed that he and another man engaged in a long, desperate struggle to keep the chair Mary Walcott sat in from being drawn into the fireplace by an invisible force (obviously that of Martha’s specter). Did this struggle really take place?
It’s notable that the two major players in Salem’s ordeal, Samuel Parris and Thomas Putnam, were men who sought wealth. Samuel Parris would have liked nothing better than to have succeeded in business. Thomas Putnam, though he was a prosperous man, was not as prosperous as he had hoped to be. Both men attacked the very class they had aspired — and failed — to be part of. Such hypocrisy was surely not limited to two individuals. In this time of radical destabilization, many western farmers no doubt stood firm in their simple Puritan beliefs. But others must have felt conflicted. A Vanity-Fair had arisen near them, with its tantalizing array of worldly goods and pleasures. Some surely, in their hearts, coveted what they could not have; but, being Puritans, they condemned themselves for succumbing to temptation. Allying with the pro-Parris faction against those who possessed wealth allowed them to vent their jealousy and also appease their guilt with a display of moral righteousness.
But no simple summary (nor the actions of any two men) can explain something that became so convoluted. What occurred has been compared to a fire out of control; another analogy can apply: Salem Village was the breeding ground of a virus that infected a population which had no immunity to it. It first fed on the longstanding personal enmity of many villagers, based mostly on disputes over money and moral values. It spread throughout the entire colony not only because of religious-based fear and suspicion; also playing a role were the Old Guard Puritans who disapproved of the rational thinking and emphasis on entrepreneurial matters gaining precedence in their midst. Salem Village will remain in history as the focal point of the epidemic. Its nine girls were the first afflicted and the first accusers; the preliminary hearings were held in its meetinghouse; its Gallows Hill was the site of the executions; most of those hanged were villagers.
What happened in Salem can be seen as a conflict between an emerging social order and the gleaming “city on a hill” that Governor Winthrop had hoped for. What he proposed was a utopian society, one which would serve as a model: people working together as one body, in which they would “delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together.” He told his followers that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” and this indeed became true in Salem. His noble dreams went the way of all utopias. The Old Adam in man prevailed; the “city on a hill” crumbled in ruins. Today the word “Puritan” has a negative connotation. Capitalism and individualism have come to dominate the world. The attainment of wealth is considered a laudatory pursuit, and the opulent goods money can buy are displayed with pride. Those who reign supreme in the economic struggle are generally held in high esteem, though there are many who view them with deep-seated feelings of aversion.
Has this merely been a story illustrating the ignorance and brutality of the distant past? And no more than that? The virus that led to the events in Salem has not been eradicated when its ideal hosts — hate, fear, greed, selfishness and jealousy — are present in the human heart, and its antidotes — fair-mindedness and compassion — are in short supply. In this Age of Enlightenment negative emotions abound, and they can be seen on both a large and small scale. In the world — including our own society — a struggle is going on in which sides stand in unwavering and virulent opposition.
Belief — that one word lies at the core of the matter. Belief that negates reason. That you do not believe in witches is to beg the question. The question is, What do you believe in? I’m referring to any belief, be it religious, economic, moral, political or racial, that you hold to so strongly that it elicits an emotional response. Any belief you embrace unquestioningly, summarily rejecting dissenting opinions. Any belief that causes you to perceive people with divergent views to be a threat.
On the world stage we see a deadly struggle between ideologies. Men and women strap explosives to their bodies, drone missiles are launched. Street demonstrations in the Middle East escalated to the point where governments were toppled. Demonstrations have also taken place in cities in Europe; in some instances the police have responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. In all cases the root cause of the conflict involved economic and/or religious and moral beliefs.
If we look at the inner workings of our country, we find the same type of conflict. Though it has not escalated to violent confrontations, it is a divisive force in our society.
The Puritans fled an aristocracy (where a hereditary ruling class was in control) to set up a theocracy (in which religion played a major role in the social, political and legal life). We don’t consider our government to be either a theocracy or an aristocracy. But is this true? Politicians affirm their deep religious convictions (no avowed atheist could be elected to high office in this country); the stands some take on public policy have a religious/moral basis, and a growing contingent vigorously promote an expanded role for Christian values in the life of the nation. If we examine the aristocracy issue, our federal government is in the hands of millionaires financed by billionaires. In a capitalistic system the wealthy are the equivalent of an aristocratic ruling class. Roughly 10% of our population controls over 70% of the nation’s wealth. This class can afford weddings for their daughters that match in opulence those of a seventeenth century English duke. They resist any threat to their wealth (such as higher taxes, regulation, etc.) by hiring lobbyists to influence public policy and by forming super PACs which flood the airways with attack ads aimed at swaying the outcome of elections.
That’s the status quo, and many stand in opposition to every aspect of it — some to the point of moral outrage. It’s not necessary to list their objections. Suffice to say that we’re a country divided into hostile camps that adhere to differing belief systems.
Ideally a democratic form of government can reconcile differences. We call our government a democracy — and it is, in that we vote for those who represent us. Yet the candidates we have to chose from are only those with sizable war chests — no others have a credible chance of being elected to national office. These men and women have agendas that cater to a set of beliefs held by a sizable portion of the population (or by the majority of people in their gerrymandered districts). Mainly these beliefs represent the split in our society noted above. Politics today is a struggle in which factions have become polarized, entrenched, vindictive. The result is a deadlocked, non-functional government; problems aren’t solved, they’re intensified. Cooperation or compromise with the opposing side — even if it’s for the good of the country — is seen as a sign of weakness. Belief has trumped reason; emotions prevail over thinking that is moderate, rational, logical, unbiased. Anger has eliminated civil discourse. Facts are cherry-picked, distorted. Groups idealize their values, and this mind set has led to moral disapproval for those who hold different views.
Who are we to condemn the Puritans? The tensions that existed in Salem Village in 1692 — and which set off a tragic episode in our nation’s history — are present today. What happened in Salem is a cautionary tale, if only we will recognize it.
What Happened in Salem
The story of the Salem witchcraft craze.
1. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18
2. The road to Gallows Hill.
3. Doubts and voices of dissent.
4. "We walked in the clouds and could not see our way."
A mystery at the heart of the darkness