Historical Context: Witchcraft in Puritan New England

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Historical Context: Witchcraft in Puritan New England
In 1650, when the Puritans left England and set off to seek religious freedom in America, the fear of witchcraft was very real. For thousands of years, Satan was blamed for any and all oddities or mysteries in life; anyone who was in opposition to the concepts or ideas of Christianity was said to be connected to Satan and his evil work, and therefore considered a heretic.
Under the duress of extreme torture, many accused heretics “confessed” to flying on poles, practicing magic, engaging in sexual misconduct, and seeing Satan in various forms. In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was published, and quickly became the official text for the detection and persecution of witches.
The Malleus Maleficarum told tales of women (the weaker and less intellectual beings, according to the text) who, under the influence of the Devil, had sexual intercourse with demons, killed babies, destroyed crops, and caused general mayhem. Witches were blamed for unexpected deaths, natural disasters, sterility, sick livestock, and even strange weather. Also within the text were methods for prosecuting a witch, including stripping the accused and inspecting the body for signs such as unusual birthmarks (believed to be the Devil’s mark). When the Malleus Maleficarum was written, the idea of witchcraft was not popularly accepted, but the text quickly convinced many of the threat and danger of witches. Between 1500 and 1650, approximately 70,000 accused witches were executed throughout Europe— approximately eighty percent of whom were women. Those who were accused were usually social outcasts, elderly women, single mothers, widows, the disabled, the poor, husbands of the accused, and those who publicly denied the existence of witches. The most prevalent times these “witch-hunts” occurred throughout history were times of political and social strife. People wanted someone to blame for their misfortune, and would literally hunt down their scapegoats.
The accused were guilty until proven innocent. The courts of New England recognized two forms of evidence of witchcraft: either an eyewitness account or a confession. Since very few confessed of their own will, torture was used to coerce a confession. The accused was jailed, then subjected to several forms of torture to elicit a confession. Some of the torture devices included:
Strappado— The accused was bound and hung by her arms, which were tied behind her back. Weights were often hung from her feet to increase the pain, and usually caused her arms to break at her shoulders.

Swimming—It was believed that a witch would not sink in water. The accused was tied up and thrown into a lake or pond; a witch would float, and the innocent would sink. Many drowned as a result.

Ordeal by Fire—The defendant was forced to carry or walk on hot coals. The burns were wrapped and treated. After three days, upon examination of the wounds, if there was an open sore, the defendant was found guilty.

Ordeal by Water—The defendant was forced to repeatedly place her arm in a pot of boiling water. Again, if there was still evidence of the burn after three days, she was found guilty of being a witch.

Thumbscrews—The accused’s thumbs were place in a vice and crushed incrementally to extract a confession.

Pricking—Since it was a widely held belief that witches did not bleed, those who were accused were subjected to hundreds of pin pricks or cuts, as the court diligently looked for the absence of blood.

The Rack—The accused was laid on a large board of wood with her hands and feet tied. As the accusers tried to extract a confession, her arms and ankles were pulled in opposite directions, often resulting in dislocation of the limbs.
Under these various forms of torture, many falsely confessed to practicing witchcraft. After the courts had a confession, trials resumed, and the witches who were found guilty (as were all who confessed) were publicly hanged or burned at the stake.

©2006 Secondary Solutions - 17 - The Crucible Literature Guide

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