Everyone Involved in the Salem Witch Trials Needed Therapy
CW: death, child death, white guys making a mess of things
Before I started researching the Salem Witch Trials, the images in my head were cartoonish: pilgrims dressed in costumes a kindergartner would wear in a Thanksgiving pageant, peasant women being burned at the stake. Cauldrons. But it turns out there isn’t much kitchenware in this story. And there isn’t any burning, either. The truest and scariest fact about the Salem Witch Trials is that they involved real people. Real people with, what sounds to me — someone who is not a doctor — like, real mental turmoil.
If the citizens of Salem had the kind of access to mental health resources we have today, could the entire debacle — one that ended in 25 innocent people dead — have been avoided?
Let’s get into the story:
It was a dark and stormy night in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. Well, I’m not sure if “stormy” is historically accurate, but I’m pretty confident it was dark because it was night. And January in Massachusetts. So.
Ok. It was a dark and presumably very chilly night in Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. The town and surrounding village’s 2,000 residents either went to bed with the sun or hung out all together in their one room by firelight. There wasn’t a whole lot to do once night fell. As I’m sure you can imagine, the WIFI was absolutely terrible, and usually the only book in the house was the Bible. There was virtually NO privacy for ANYONE because of the whole one room for the whole family thing, so please take a moment to think about how hard it would be to be a teenager in those conditions. A repressed in every way teenager. Maybe with undiagnosed Seasonal Depression.
If it had been a Saturday night, pretty much every single person, maybe except those who were very sick or had been born in the last few weeks, planned to go to church in the morning. Some families walked over five miles to reach the meeting house in the center of town. Religion, specifically Puritanism, ruled the lives of Salem’s citizens. The founders of Salem immigrated to the “new world” (can you hear my air quotes?) to create a haven where no king or government could prevent them from making Puritanism mandatory, literally to the point of life and death. Like you could be executed for blaspheming. Blasphemizing. Blasphemy. It was very serious.
Being Puritan meant understanding that you were a mere pawn in the eternal battle between God and Satan, every day, every hour, every minute. From a young age, kids were taught that strong emotions were the work of the Devil, so you better repress them real quick. Just stick to your chores because with any misstep, you were on the dark side. There was no middle ground.
Besides the constant fear of pissing off God and accidentally landing yourself a spot on Team Satan, there was a looming anxiety about King William’s War, one of the many stupid assaults on Native Americans who lived on land white people thought was theirs. I won’t go into detail because I will roll my eyes so far into the back of my head I might pass out, but most Salemites had friends and family murdered or taken prisoner during the last few years of the skirmish and were rightfully worried they could be next.
But don’t talk about your fears, because FEELINGS. And hell fire!
If the Puritan lifestyle was a runway challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the category would be “buttoned up to the gawds.” Life was full of hardships, but no one was allowed to talk about how hard it was. Seriously, no offense if you or your loved ones are Puritan. I’m sure you’re all very nice. What I’m trying to say, is that life back then kinda sucked.
Women, of course, were considered weak and soft and more susceptible to the Devil’s influence blah blah. They were supposed to be seen and not heard, but not seen too much because that would be suspicious.
So it’s interesting that the two most important figures in the events of that dark and presumably chilly night in 1692 were little girls. Betty Parris was the nine year old daughter of Salem’s minister, Samuel Parris, and Abigail Williams was the minister’s eleven year old niece. Remember that dumb King William’s War I mentioned earlier? Well, Abigail’s entire family was killed in an attack during that war. So she lived with the Parris family, away from her old home, probably feeling quietly disturbed by those events.
That January night, Betty and Abigail fell to the ground, writhing in what seemed like unbearable pain. Their family was horrified, especially when the fits came on repeatedly, unpredictability, relentlessly. At a loss for how to help the two children, they called the local doctor, William Griggs.
As he examined the girls, he could only conclude what their ailment was NOT. It was not a cold, it was not pneumonia, it was not any disease he’d seen before. So there was only one explanation. Witchcraft. Obviously.
Instead of maybe getting a second opinion, the family accepted the diagnosis and believed that a witch was harming the girls. A neighbor, trying to be helpful I guess, suggested making a witch cake to find out who was torturing the girls. She ordered Tituba, the Parris family’s slave, to make the witch cake. Tituba spent a lot of time with the girls. Historians believe that she was born somewhere in South America before being sold as a slave in the Caribbean. The Parrises brought her with them when they moved to Massachusetts, so she wasn’t just far from home, she was far from her home and her second home. And worse, she didn’t have basic human rights. Imagine the terror, the anguish, and the anger someone would feel being treated like an object in that way. But Tituba was living her life, the best she could. When the neighbor told her how to make the witch cake, she followed orders.
Funny story: A witch cake, as it turns out, is indeed a cake … with a very special ingredient: the urine of the afflicted girls. Yeah, that’s right. Urine cake. The neighbor instructed Tituba to feed the cake to a dog. No one is quite sure why, but I like one of the theories that the dog could then be imbued with the power to sniff out the perpetrator of evil. Go get ‘em!
When the reverend Samuel Parris found out that this kind of spell had been cast in his own house, he lost his shit. He didn’t care if the deed was done to help his daughter and niece — as far as he was concerned, the witch cake was the equivalent of calling up Satan and asking if he wanted to come over for family dinner. (“Hey Satan, want to come over later? We’re having meatloaf.”) Ol’ Sammy Parris was so pissed — pun intended — that he renounced witch cakes and all other forms of witchcraft during his sermon that week. Remember how I said everyone went to church each Sunday? Well, that means the entire town knew about Betty and Abigail’s mysterious fits faster than you could say, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”
Betty and Abigail became instant celebrities. Remember, there were only 2,000-ish people in Salem. I mean the public high school I went to was bigger than that. Word travelled fast.
Out of Control
In what I’m sure was no coincidence, several other young ladies began experiencing fits, just like Betty and Abigail. I want to tell you about more people who were involved with the events leading up to the Salem Witch Trials, but I have to note that Puritan people didn’t seem to have a big variety of names to choose from. There are quite a few Sarahs, Anns, and a surprising amount of women named Dorcas in this tale. It’s short for Dorothy maybe.
Maybe the most important Ann of all the Anns was Ann Putnam Jr. Props to Ann Putnam Sr. Who pulled a Lorelei Gilmore and named her daughter after herself.
Twelve year old Ann Putnam Jr. was the oldest of ten children. TEN. Because Puritan life sucked, older kids were expected to act like adults and help their mom and dad raise the newer kids, so it’s real likely that Ann didn’t get much individual attention from her family. She certainly hadn’t been treated like a child in years. To make matters more dreary, she’d also recently lost a younger sister who was only 6 months old. There is a rumor that her own mother, Ann Putnam Sr. MURDERED her. Oh god, now I’m just spreading rumors. No matter how it happened, losing a sibling that you felt super responsible for would be really confusing and could result in super deep trauma. It might affect someone even worse if they have to choose being pious over being emotional.
Confusion over life and death, no love or affection, and then seeing two girls close to her age getting a bunch of attention from all the grown ups for having fits? Sign me up! … Is what I assume Ann was thinking when she staged her first “witch attack” fit. Shortly after, her servant Mercy and her best friend, Mary, were also regularly having fits. Hmmmm! Worst girls’ night ever!
The Putnam family already wielded a lot of power in Salem, mostly because of their money and land. Thomas Putnam — papa bear Putnam as I’m sure literally no one has ever called him because yikes — was BFFs with the head honchos of the town. Now, I’m not flat out saying he used his daughter and the Salem Witch Trials as a way to punish people he had personal problems with, but I will say that Ann Putnam Jr. was responsible for accusing 17 of the 20 people who were eventually executed. Anyway, we’ll get back to that.
Reverend Samuel Parris, still freaked out by the curse of the urine cake, sent his daughter Betty to live with family outside of Salem before the trials got underway. Oddly enough, her fits stopped after a few weeks away from her drama troupe of Puritan gal pals. Huh!
An Actual Freaking Witch Hunt
After a month of town-wide fits, town leaders wanted the girls to point blame at someone specific. Judging by the accounts I read, I’m inclined to think that at this point the men were genuinely terrified of the concept of the Devil ransacking their homes. They’d been hearing about similar horrors from the witch hunts that’d been going on for the last 300 years in Europe — for the record, those were the ones that ended in burning. And remember, these guys saw the world in black and white: you were either good or you were evil. And they wanted to stay on Team Good.
So, the afflicted girls were pressured to start naming names.They claimed that nearby witches were sending their ghostly forms to pinch, claw, and bite them. And even though no one else could see these ghouls, the girls swore this was what caused their convulsions. They accused three women: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne (yup, two Sarahs), and Tituba, the slave of the Parris family. Remember who got tricked into making that pee pee cake?
Sarah Good was a homeless pregnant woman who regularly visited the Putnam house on her daily trek around the town, begging for food and money. Her first husband left her bereft and bankrupt, and her second husband talked a loooot of shit about her, despite knocking her up constantly. Generally, she was considered cantankerous. I mean who could blame her? One account described Sarah Good muttering under her breath when people sent her away without any charity. With all the talk of witchcraft, rumors circulated that these whispers were a curse. And you know what, I’m sure there were some four letter words in there. But Sarah Good was a poor, unfortunate outsider. Ann Putnam Jr and her little girl gang had witnessed their mothers banishing Sarah from their houses and overheard conversations about what a grumpy freeloader Sarah Good was. It makes sense that the girls made her a scapegoat, and I bet the adults were relieved to hear it. Thank the lord it wasn’t someone they liked.
The second Sarah, Sarah Osborne, hadn’t been to church in a while. The scandal! Definitely devil servant material. What the witch hunters blissfully ignored was that Sarah Osborne was an older lady, and she’d been sick, so sick she’d been bed ridden for the last two years. Some historians believe she suffered from depression, and I know some of us with depression would love to be bedridden for two years. She couldn’t make it to her own kitchen, much less the however many miles of walking it took to get to church. But the town was familiar with Sarah Osborne, because she had a bit of a salacious history: apparently, she had an affair with a much younger indentured servant from Ireland and then had the nerve to marry him. I guess in a Puritan town, that’s some Brangelina level news.
To complicate matters, Sarah Osbourne was involved in some dumb land disagreement that affected Ann’s dad, Mr. Putnam. What a coincidence!! With her failure to attend church and her reputation as a sinful cougar, Sarah Osborne’s soul was already as good as tarnished in the eyes of Salem. Might as well add witch to her resume.
And the last of the three was Tituba. Are you freaking kidding me. As a person of color, a woman, and a slave, she was more of an outsider than anyone. Tituba was an easy target, no one would vouch for her innocence.
The two Sarahs and Tituba were publicly questioned by town leaders. This wasn’t a formal trial, but there was such a huge audience that it might as well have been. The meeting house was basically a sold out Ariana Grande concert. People didn’t have a lot going on. Seeing three women — that they all knew — get hounded by dudes about spells they’d been performing on rich kids? Standing room only, baybeee!
Sarah and other Sarah insisted that this was all a big mistake. “We’re not witches. We don’t even know how one would go about doing that. We don’t have google.”
The town leaders said something along the lines of, “You say you’re innocent, huh? That sounds just like something a guilty person would say.”
Tituba was the last to be called up for questioning. She was asked the same questions as Sarah and Sarah. But, she shocked everyone when she admitted guilt. In fact, she not only admitted that she participated in witchcraft, she also said that the two Sarahs MADE HER do it. The crowd went wild. What a plot twist.
All three women were sent back to jail. Sarah Osbourne died there before she even got a real trial. Sarah Good gave birth to her baby in jail. And the baby didn’t make it. Like that wasn’t horrible enough, Sarah Good’s four year old daughter, Dorcas — lol sorry this is really sad — four year old daughter Dorcas was ARRESTED and put in jail until she testified against her mother. The court used her testimony to sentence Sarah Good to death, and she was hanged with four other women soon after. By the time poor Dorcas was released from jail, she’d reportedly become catatonic. She never recovered and would need a special caretaker for the rest of her life.
Historians and this one guy on YouTube speculate that Reverend Parris might have beaten Tituba until she agreed to a false confession. No one thought to fricken ask her because they didn’t see her as a person. Even though she eventually was freed from jail, she was never freed from slavery. No matter how her confession came about, Tituba was never allowed agency of her own life. She can’t be blamed. As Catherine Zeta Jones famously said during the Cell Block Tango, “I betcha you would have done the same.”
This first confession of the Salem Witch Trials did set a bizarre precedence. Basically, if you pleaded not guilty, you were put on trial and were more likely to be hanged. But if you confessed to witchcraft and pointed the finger at other people who were involved … you were off the hook. It was like the worst multi-level marketing scheme ever.
The Salem Witch Trials: WORST MLM Ever
Over the next four months, 200 men and women were arrested. Forty-four of them confessed and had to live with the guilt of throwing the blame on someone else. Get this — when you were arrested, you had to PAY RENT on your jail cell. Food and blankets cost extra. In some families, both parents were imprisoned at once, so their kids or really nice neighbors had to scrape together some money so they didn’t die in jail. Meanwhile, rich people paid off guards to let them escape. It was MADNESS!
Don’t even get me started on the trials. They were bonkers. First of all, there were no defense attorneys. So these men and women were dealing with this life and death situation by themselves. And because of their Puritan mega fear of the Devil, they were terrified to LIE. So in doing the right thing and telling the truth, they were putting themselves in line for the gallows. If anyone came to these people’s defense, then THEY fell under suspicion. So it was blame or be blamed.
Ok, and get this. The court allowed something called “spectral evidence,” which is where you can claim someone’s ghostly form hurt you. Young women, probably scared out of their minds that they would be accused of witchcraft themselves, would have “fits” out in the audience. They would scream and convulse faint and howl and in a couple cases, scratch at themselves and tell the court that the person on trial’s SPECTER was responsible. Like while the person was on the stand, their ghostly form that was invisible to everyone else, was pinching and kicking these girls. Just right there. At that exact time.
It’s easy to be like, ok these tweens were playing a giant dangerous prank, but THINK ABOUT THE GROWN MEN WHO WERE LIKE, “OH, HER GHOSTLY FORM YOU SAY? SOUNDS LIKE STRONG ENOUGH EVIDENCE TO PUT THIS PERSON TO DEATH.”
Ann Putnam Jr. was a star during the trials. She was always like front row, VIP, had done her vocal warmups and had already practiced pointing fingers in the mirror. Ann testified against 62 people, which was more than any other woman involved. And you know back then, they weren’t giving out participation trophies. Like, she really earned it. Again, she was TWELVE and lived in fear of the devil and her powerful father and was the oldest of ten kids and had way too much pressure being put on those tiny Puritan shoulders. So, yeah. We should find it in our hearts to pity her.
By the summer 1692, 150 people were in jail (and the jailers were putting a down payment on a house in Malibu from all the money they were making). Four more people died while imprisoned and 19 people were hanged. And then there was one guy named GILES. Who completely freaked out when his wife Martha lost her trial and was hanged. Reasonable. He was so upset that he demanded he also be put to death because he was a big witchy witch mcwitcherson. He was like, “I don’t even need a trial, just do your worst.” And the guys in charge of executions were like, “hold my beer.” “or my mead,” whatever they were drinking. Very warm well water.
Anyway, so they squished him. It’s called being pressed to death. Giles laid down on the ground and people just kept putting big rocks on him. Legend has it that his last words were, “more weight,” right before they placed the boulder that knocked him out. Is it weird that I think that’s kind of romantic? Yes, it is. Poor Giles. I hope he and his wife are enjoying the big Salem in the sky. I hear it has a great gift shop.
All of these executions were public, by the way. So if at home you were like, “I would NEVER falsely accuse someone of witchcraft,” you might change your mind after seeing your friend and neighbor getting flattened like Wile E. Coyote. It was a really scary cycle of fear and self preservation.
So how did it finally end, Christina?
Oh, I’m glad you asked, Christina.
The trials didn’t stop until someone accused the wife of the governor of Massachusetts of being a witch. That really caught his attention. He was like, “this has nothing to do with my wife, but uh, I think we should rethink this whole spectral evidence thing? Maybe go back to needing actual physical evidence?” It’s almost like he had the power to stop it all along.
Eventually, everyone who survived the Salem Witch Trials were pardoned, which I’m sure erased all traumatic memories and they could simply go back to their normal lives because that’s how that works.
Which leaves really only one question right: What the fuck happened?!
Well, let’s start with Betty and Abigail — the first two girls to experience fits. A more recent fan theory suggests that their symptoms align with ergot poisoning. Which sounds gross. Because it kind of is. Ergot is a fungus that grows on grains — mostly rye — and when ingested can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and crawling sensations on your skin. Eeee. That could explain why the girls thought a witch could be pinching them. So creepy.
Ergot thrives in wet, cold conditions. Historians READ PEOPLE’S DIARIES. My freaking nightmare, and confirmed that the grain Salemites were eating during the winter of 1692 was grown and kept in cold damp darkness. Very sus!
These days, we know that ergot can be used to make LSD and migraine medications, which is cool and great. Love modern medicine. But back then, it was normal to blame diseases on higher powers. Like, a lot of people thought that the plague was a result of people sinning too much, when in reality it’s actually caused by bacteria.
My question about this, as someone who is absolutely not a scientist but has listened to several true crime podcasts, is: why didn’t everyone else get sick? Like Samuel Parrish wasn’t tripping out giving his sermons, and I’m sure he ate bread. There’s no historical record of him being keto. Also, getting poisoned by ergot is really serious — it usually results in death. So … Abigail and Betty. But did you die?
Personally, I like a theory that points to mass conversion disorder as the culprit. You’ve probably heard of mass conversion disorder as its more common name: mass hysteria. The American Psychiatric Association actually “retired” the word hysteria in 1952 because of its sexist connotation — hysteria was once thought to be a lady problem. But mass conversion disorder is for everyone!
I love this definition of conversion disorder: “a psychogenic disorder where mental anguish gets converted into physical symptoms.” Essentially it’s an illness that starts in the mind but manifests in the body. Causes of this phenomenon vary, but include repressive family life. I think it’s safe to say not being allowed to show emotion is pretty repressive, not to mention the constant threat of hellfire. Holding in emotions can really get our bodies’ wires crossed. There’s a nerve called the Vagus nerve smack in the middle of our brain, and it connects the brain to the rest of the nervous system, signaling to the heart, lungs and intestines about danger levels. We’ve talked before about being nervous for travelling for vacation can cause poop problems. Imagine what being scared for your life would do to your body. And don’t forget, those kids had either seen or heard of people in their community being killed in King Williams War. Abigail freaking saw her own family get murdered. I mean, that’ll do it.
There are lots of examples of conversion disorder throughout history, but one that I loved happened in Tanzania in the 1960’s. Apparently, during a school day, one girl started laughing. And couldn’t stop. Soon, students AND teachers were suffering from this “laughing epidemic” and the school had to shut down for a while. The laughing lasted for two years.
Our brains are so smart but they are also so stupid. You know?
So we have two potential explanations for how the witch hunt started, but what made it snowball into such a huge mess?
Don’t you think it’s fear? Being really fucking scared and not knowing how to handle it?
Even though it’s interesting to speculate about the fungus and the conversion disorder stuff, it doesn’t really matter what caused those girls to have fits. What actually matters is that adults were so scared of their own feelings that they started killing each other. They needed someone to blame so badly that they started seeing Satan everywhere. Like imagine if the head town dudes had a few sessions of behavioral therapy. Learned some breathing exercises. I still have a worksheet somewhere from therapy that has a guide to help you realize if you’re catastrophizing or not. They could have really used that!!
I saw some scholar compare hysteria to a stampede in the wild. One antelope gets scared and in moments, the whole herd is running without really knowing why. It’s dangerous. Like it’s how Mufasa died. (I’m so sorry. I had to.)
Anyway, maybe the lesson I’m taking from all this is to take a deep breath before you get sucked into modern day conversion disorder. We see mild cases of it all the time on Twitter. Do you want to be an antelope or do you want to be Simba? Do you want to be the governor of Massachusetts or do you want to be Ann Putnam Jr?
Speaking of which, Ann Putnam Jr. became an orphan when she was 17, leaving her to care for aaaaall of those siblings. She never married and when she was 29, she publicly confessed in church that the people she’d accused during the Salem Witch Trials were innocent. In true Puritan form, she said that she’d been, “deluded by Satan.”
SIGH. She probably needed therapy more than any of us!!
This story was originally told on Sobcast the Podcast. You can see my list of references here. I want to shout out my favorite book, “A Delusion of Satan,” by Frances Hill, which got me through many long, depressing quarantine walks.