The Salem Witch Trials – 5 Insane Theories on Its Causes
Today we’re beginning a five-part investigation on Salem Witch Trials causes. We’re going to examine five insane theories as to what actually caused the executions of some 20 people. Some of these theories are true, while others fall pretty short.
How the Series Works
It turns out that doing a deep dive into the Salem Witch Trials causes is kind of an exhaustive affair, so we’ve broke this series up into five super short, easy-to-digest videos that will each examine a different theory or set of Salem Witch Trials theories.
We begin with a question that is sadly underrepresented in the conversation surrounding the causes of the Salem Witch Trials theories. Was there any actual witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts?
The answer is somewhat surprising. There was totally witchcraft in 1692’s Salem and it was directly responsible for the Trials! In Part One, we explore the real-world witchy events that led to the prosecutions. Parts Two through Five each examine a separate theory relating to The Salem Witch Trials causes, so be sure to watch the entire series. It’s all set into a single playlist, so you can bounce back and forth between videos.
If you enjoy learning about the Salem Witch Trials, please check out our YouTube channel. We’re also implementing several new features here at ToSalem.com to help you discover all the great content we’ve got to offer. As a part of this effort, going forward full reference materials are available for each video or article here on the site so you can see where we’re getting our information. You can find the link to the series’ reference materials in the video description on its YouTube page.
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Full Transcript for the Video
Below you can read the transcript for the entire series. It was initially intended to be a single, longer video, but I decided to break it up into separate parts. So the transcript has all episodes included. This was the recording script, so some things have changed in the actual performance, but it’s a good general outline of what I was thinking when compiling the episodes. Enjoy!
5 Insane Theories About the Cause of The Salem Witch Trials
Today we’re going back in time to 1692 to examine what exactly transformed America’s most infamous Puritan town from a bustling seaport to a psychotic murder village. We’re going to cover five insane theories as to the causes of the Salem Witch Trials. Some are well-grounded in history, while others are knocking on the door to crazy town. Let’s get going with number
Actual Witchcraft (True-ish)
Let’s start things off with the theory that the Puritans of Salem Village actually bought into: actual witchcraft. Believe it or not, if you’ve ever been told that there was no actual witchcraft in Salem in 1692, you’re as wrong as an ungreened crone.
In truth, there are two absolutely undisputed accounts of real witchcraft from the time, both of which directly led to the horrific events to come in the Salem Witch Trials and subsequent murders. The first is perhaps the best well-known and centers around a Caribbean slave named Tituba. She and her husband John Indian were owned by Reverend Samuel Parris, who would go on to be perhaps the most integral figure to the proliferation of the accusations, depending on whose account you believe. What is not in dispute is that multiple first-hand participants testified in court that Tituba and several of Salem’s teenage girls danced in the woods and that those midnight jigs began chronologically prior to all the events that would follow.
The second 100% documented case of actual witchcraft also has to do with Tituba, but was not directed by her. When the first whispers of witchcraft in Salem began dancing on the wind, Mary Sibley suggested to John Indian that he and Tituba make a “Witch Cake” in an effort to determine if the cause was indeed Satanic. You can actually make a witch cake at home. All you need is a little rye meal and the urine of the person you believe is afflicted. Bake those things, then find yourself a dog and try to feed it to the poor creature. If it’s hungry enough to gobble it up and begins acting kind of like the person whose urine they just drank, congratulations you’ve got a witch on your hands!
As far as we know, this is the only 100% undeniable witchcraft that was connected to The Salem Witch Trials. And both of them did definitely contribute to the deaths of everyone to come. So I think we can definitely say that there’s some validity to this Salem Witch Trial theory.
Mental Illness (True-ish)
Something else that was seemingly legitimate at the time of the Salem Witch Trials was the symptoms of the afflicted. Some of these included convulsions, barking, hallucinations, and much more. Now many researchers and historians have used the symptoms themselves to try and explain what caused the hysteria.
To that end, several potential diagnoses of mental illness have popped up over the years as attempted explanations. One is an outbreak in Encephalitis Lethargica. Symptoms of this include things like behavioral changes, shaking, strange pains, fever, and more. It’s spread by insects and birds and the originator of this theory says makes the point that a doctor was called to treat the girls and supposes that, unable to diagnose this ailment at the time, instead went with witchcraft.
Another psychological potential psychological explanation to The Salem Witch Trials comes from Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University. Baker argues that the cause of the trials is multifaceted, but adds to the conversation that, although some girls were most likely faking their symptoms, this was probably not true for all of them. Some of them, according to Baker, might’ve actually believed they were afflicted. To this end, Emerson has proposed that perhaps the afflicted were under the effects of mass conversion disorder, otherwise known as mass hysteria or Mass psychogenic illness. Believe it or not, this is still a pretty controversial topic, despite its exploration by several noted psychologists and clinicians, including Sigmund Freud. Regardless, the folks at Wikipedia define it as, “the rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affecting members of a cohesive group, originating from a nervous system disturbance involving excitation, loss, or alteration of function, whereby physical complaints that are exhibited unconsciously have no corresponding organic cause.” Sounds pretty accurate to me.
Speaking of the symptoms of the afflicted, one lesser-known explanation that’s been getting some traction in recent years also attempts to explain the causes of The Salem Witch Trials, but from a different angle. Linda Caporael has floated the theory that explains the hallucinogenic, bizarre behaviors not just of the Witch Trials girls, but others throughout history. The culprit? Ergotism. Ergotism is caused by the consumption of ergot, a fungus which causes trouble when embedded in rye or other cereal grasses. When it’s in there and it’s consumed by people, it releases a chemical that is similar to LSD and may lead to hallucinations, muscle contractions, convulsions, and issues with the internal organs. Linda also found that Ergotism thrives in weather conditions similar to the ones the Puritans of 1692 were living within in 1692 and considering the fact that rye was a staple crop of the Salemites at the time, this theory is beginning to seem pretty sound.
Unfortunately, this theory has some giant holes. Namely that the symptoms cited as connected to the accusers and Ergotism are kind of cherry-picked to make it seem like there’s an obvious thru-line. Ergotism also causes gangrene, vomiting, diarrhea, and alteration to skin color – none of which presented themselves in Salem. Ergotism is also super toxic to animals. It’s known to thrive in places deprived of vitamin A. It’s also true that children younger than 10 are the most succeptible to the symptoms. In each of these cases, and more Salem is not clearly connected. Due to location and diet, there was Vitamin A everywhere. Most of the accusers were in their teens and there was no outbreak of symptoms among Salem’s children, apart from the youngest accusers. And there was no reported ergot poisoining or symptoms similar to the ones you’d expect in Salem at the time.
Now, we’re moving into some pretty dicey territory with the rest of this video because as I put this thing together, we’ve currently got a lot of conversation floating around the national discourse surrounding things like “witch hunts” and “false accusations.” The final two insane theories as to what caused the Salem Witch Trials may sound very familiar to us American living in the late 2010s and the first is rooted in economics.
Something you may not have gotten from The Crucible is the total instability of the area in 1692. There were a lot of things that made daily life a challenge, in some ways more than other, similar places. One of these was a near constant threat of attacks from First Nation peoples who would literally descend from the woods at night and slaughter any and all in their path. There was a constant awareness of the physical insecurity, especially among the agrarian residents that made up the lion’s share of the parties in the Salem Witch Trials.
But perhaps the most central economic influence of the trials was poverty. Yes, you heard me correctly. The conflicts between poor folks and rich folks led to the Salem Witch Trials. This conflict manifested itself in a myriad of ways, but probably the most obvious was the separation between Salem Village and Salem Town. Most of the people and events we typically associate with the Salem Witch Trials were actually centered in Salem Village, which is in present-day Danvers and the surrounding area. Salem Town, where all the tourist attractions are today was a metropolitan, wealthy, seaport that levied harsh taxes against the agrarian and relatively poorer members of Salem Village. Over time, this economic division became religious as Salem Village decided it wanted its own church in an effort to distance itself from what it viewed as its overly-individualistic, out of touch with God neighboring city. This occurred and eventually that church was occupied by none other than Reverend Samuel Parris and initially occupied by a congregation over half-filled with members of the Putnam family. Parris’ daughter Betty and niece Abigail Williams would go on to become the first witch accusers and the Putnam family would benefit greatly from the fallout following the trials. Throw into this mix the fact that something called The Little Ice Age was also making harvests particularly lite and I’d say there’s no doubt that one of the more insane Salem Witch Trials theories is absolutely true.
Lastly, that tidbit about the Putnam family made you squirm a little, you’re in for a world of discomfort. Because one of the more insane theories about the cause of the Salem Witch Trails is that it was caused nearly entirely by political and social disputes. This theory postulates that the accusers should be viewed as little more than consenting puppets who themselves weren’t totally aware of what they were doing. But who was pulling their strings? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Thomas Putnam and Samuel Parris. These notorious gangsters have popped up a few times so far, but let’s go on a deep dive and try to discover if there’s any truth to the idea that they were indeed behind the entire affair.
Thomas Putnam is an obvious culprit in this case because, well not to put too fine a point on it, but if someone were going to fabricate a whole witch hysteria thing at the time in an effort to benefit from it, he was the best candidate for such behavior. For starters, he was a member of the family of one of the two main economic powerhouses in Salem village, the other being the Porters. Once the accusations began, he, his wife, and one of his daughters Ann all threw folks under the Satan bus and were responsible for several deaths. Guess who many of those accusations were pointed at? The Porters. Why? Well, there was a handy law at the time that if you were convicted of witchcraft, your land didn’t follow normal familial lineage procedures and was instead put back on the market. So, which family would benefit the most in an agrarian society if the Porters lost their land? Who could snatch it up and double their foothold, essentially taking control of the entire region? And who leads that family? See where I’m going with this?
And then there’s Reverend Samuel Parris. Honestly, you could teach an entire course on this dude. But, the abridged version is that if there is a single party who is the most to blaim for the events in Salem in 1692, it’s probably Reverend Samuel Parris. Irony, thy name is Salem. So, Parris fails as a minister in Boston after failing as a farmer in the Barbados. He then goes to Salem Village to set up their new church and immediately has beef with the congregation. Then, he attempts to resolve the disputes he was walking into in all manner of not very effective ways, fought with the village over his compensation, and spent church money on lavish adornments at a time when the bloody Puritans were bloody Puritans and wanted none of that business. He saddles up next to the likes of the Putnams and before you know it, his slave, daughter, and niece (all of whom are in his home and under his direct influence) are the first to cry witchcraft. This was not an entirely new phenomenon for Parris as a similar incident had very famously taken place in Boston and he almost certainly knew all about it when he arrived at Salem village. He then goes on to rain fire and brimstone from the pulpit and is an active prosecutor in the trials. The question remains, though, why Parris would participate. One theory is that he simply wanted to control his new congregation of entirely out of control farmers. Another is that there were secret dealings going on. Probably the most likely is that he was simply a somewhat arrogant and inexperienced kind of guy who thought he could handle a situation that was way out of his league. In any case, one can hardly argue that personal rivalries were at the backbone of the Salem Witch Trials.
That’s all for today witches. Thanks for checking out the video. Please take a second to support the channel by subscribing to it, liking the video, and getting notified when a new one is released. Stay weird, witches. I’ll see you next time.