The Salem witch trials of 1692 may be the best known outbreak of such a panic but they were not typical of the usual neighborhood suspicions.
In "Six Women of Salem: the Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials" (DaCapo Press) I focus on the tragedy through the eyes and minds of six specific individuals, real women with lives before and (for the survivors) after 1692.
The six are: Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Mary English, Ann Putnam Sr., Tituba, and Mary Warren. Of these six, five were accused, three were accusers, two were hanged, one escaped. One was Salem's wealthiest woman and one owned nothing -- not even herself.
Witchcraft, according to the laws and common assumptions of the era, was the cooperation of mortal humans with devils in order to harm others, a spiteful alliance with the forces of Evil rather than an allegiance to God. Neighborhood discord could lead to suspicions about this possibility (which might fester for years), and such suspicions could lead to accusations -- but not necessarily to a conviction.
What did it take to be accused of witchcraft in colonial America? What would your odds have been if you had been there?
Granted, the Salem panic was unusual in the number and diversity of suspects as well as in the duration of the crises. In general, however, an assortment of characteristics could get a person accused of witchcraft, according to the 17th century British sources used by Massachusetts courts in 1692 -- Richard Bernard's "Guide to Grand Jury Men...in Cases of Witchcraft," William Perkins's "Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft," and John Gaule's "Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts" -- and more recent studies such as John Demos's 20th century work "Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England" (Oxford).
Here are nine of them.
1. You are female.
All through western history more women than men have been accused of witchcraft. It took less for a woman to be considered out of line.
2. You are middle aged.
Although suspects in 1692 ranged from Mary Bradbury in her 80s to the approximately five-year old Dorothy Good, most supposed "witches" were in their late 40s and 50s. Maybe other adults were resentful of a bossy mother-figure, or maybe not.
3. You are related to or otherwise associated with a known suspect.
As William Perkins pointed out "witchcraft is an art that may be learned," so even if you weren't a middle-aged woman you might be accused if you were friends with a suspected "witch" or if the neighbors had had their doubts about your mother, especially in 1692.
4. You are of an English Puritan background.
For the most part, the accused came from the same majority ethnic group as the accusers.
5. You are married but have few or no children.
Neighbors suffering misfortune might think you were attacking their larger families from jealousy especially if you lacked kin to speak up for you. Unprotected widows were at even more of a risk.
6. You are contentious and stubborn with a turbulent reputation.
Where a man might be considered forceful, a women might have been labeled as contentious. The situation would be worse if you were also at odds with your own family. After all, the Devil encourages discord.
7. You have been accused of other crimes before such as theft or slander.
As John Gaule put it a "lewd and naughty kind of life" was just the sort of thing that attracted devils.
8. You are of a relatively low social position.
Status and rank was stronger in the 17th century. Being too often dependent on the neighbors' help could cause them to resent you.
9. A confessed "witch" accuses you of being a fellow witch.
This was a big problem in 1692 when so many suspects "confessed" from fear, confusion, or an attempt to curry the court's favor. These confessing accusers generally named people already under suspicion.
The lesson from all this?
In 1692 anyone might have been accused of witchcraft. But if you were a widowed middle-aged English Puritan woman with few if any living children and slim financial resources, were known for having a temper and suspected of petty crimes (whether justified or not), and were related to or friends with someone else who was suspected of witchcraft -- watch out for the neighbors.
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