The Personal Politics behind the Salem Witch Trials

The Rebecca Nurse House, home of one of the accused

Today is the first day of autumn. A beautiful time of year. But historically speaking, in an age of superstitution, people associated this season with darker things. There was much for a colonial New Englander to fear during lengthening autumn nights.

Fall always makes me think of Salem. And clearly, judging by the throngs of people who pack into the town as Halloween approaches, I’m not the only one. The Salem witch crisis began in late winter and continued for more than a year, so there is no particular reason to associate it with October. But the reasons for that are self-evident, I suppose.

It seems there’s always more to learn about the Salem Witch Trials. My interest in this episode is derived primarily from the complex historical events but also from the sometimes outlandish explanations advanced by historians and scientists seeking to explain those events. Take, for example, the theory advanced by an accomplished behavioral scientist who argues that the people of Salem Village suffered from ergot poisoning–the results of a fungus in rye bread that produces hallucinations similar to LSD. That seems to me to be making things rather more complicated than they need to be. There is ample evidence that the Witch Trials (or at least the manner in which the crisis began) were personal. One need not seek any further than that for explanations.

I’ve always felt that history is driven largely by personal politics. Larger economic, social and cultural factors do come into play. But when people do things, they are rarely thinking about the bigger picture. We generally do what is best for ourselves, our families and friends. For reasons that are quite personal, we tend to cooperate with the people we like, and we work against the people we don’t like. In some cases, our personal actions can have a ripple effect that affects history. The Salem Witch Trials are one of those cases in which personal choices, what at first seemed like small actions, had a tremendous impact on historical events.

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum explored the bitter factionalism within Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) in their groundbreaking work Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, demonstrating the manner in which the Putnam and Porter families were at odds throughout the 1670s and 80s. Their thesis has been reinforced by other historians including Frances Hill in A Delusion of Satan. The Putnams were farmers, conservative, and disliked change. The Porters an up and coming family, branching into maritime trade in adjacent Salem Town. They had a more worldly view and were a bit more liberal in politics and religion.

The two families had locked horns over land disputes, but things became hotter when it came time for Salem Village to pick a new minister in 1689. The Putnams and their camp wanted Rev. Samuel Parris, a conservative minister who did not tolerate unorthodox views on religion. They got their wish, but in 1691, just months before the hysteria burst, the Porter camp managed to take control of local affairs and took steps to cut Parris’s salary.

Now we come to February 1692 and nine year-old Betty Parris (the minister’s daughter) playing games with her friend Abigail Williams. The girls fancied that they could foretell who their husbands would be by dropping an egg into a glass of water and interpreting its shape…a trick they may or may not have been taught by Parris’s slave Tituba. The minister caught them in the act, Betty went catatonic, and the local physician proclaimed that they had been bewitched.

Soon some of Betty’s friends started throwing fits and claiming that they, too, were bewitched. One of the most convincing at this game was 12 year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., daughter of Thomas and Ann Putnam. Before long, the girls were singling out people in Salem Village as witches. These people included Rebecca Nurse (the Putnams had been embroiled in a bitter land dispute with her family), the previous minister Rev. George Burroughs (the Putnams had had him imprisoned back in 1683 because he owed their family money) and three of those who voted against collecting the revenue for Parris’s salary–Philip English, Daniel Andrew and Francis Nurse.

Shrieking accusations from hysterical children weren’t enough to begin investigations, however. Written complaints had to be registered with the magistrates for the accused to be questioned and/or imprisoned. The majority of these, at least in Salem Village before the hysteria spread, were signed by brothers Thomas and John Putnam.

It seems the crisis evolved into a means for Parris and the Putnams to take out their rivals. One can only wonder to what degree the girls might have been coached to do what they did. It’s a terribly sad thing. Their rivals, the Porter camp, tried to put a stop to the hysteria. As a result, many of them were singled out as witches. It snow-balled from there, and became much bigger than the Putnams. But it certainly started with them.

Rev. Parris House foundation

It’s been a few years since I’ve managed to get to Salem and Danvers. I want to get there this year. Last time I was in Danvers, I was with a group of friends and we managed to find a site that had eluded me on prior trips as it’s hidden well off the road…Rev. Parris’s house…or what’s left of it. There’s just a foundation now.

There’s so much mythology around the Salem Witch Trials that at times the whole thing can seem like fiction. When sitting by this foundation, it seemed difficult to believe that this was the spot, a very real and tangible place where Rev. Parris caught his daughter practicing “magic.” Ground zero, as it were, for the Salem Witch crisis.

Note: In addition to Salem Possessed and A Delusion of Satan (from which the above interpretation is taken), I recommend Frances Hill’s Hunting for Witches, for those seeking a succinct version of the events. It also serves as a great guidebook to the historical sites in Salem and Danvers.

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

11 responses to “The Personal Politics behind the Salem Witch Trials

  • Jeff Lawrence

    Very cool post. While my fascination with the Salem hysteria & trials have not run as deep as yours, I have long held an interest, and have made a number of pilgrimages (heh) out there myself. I’ll most definitely be checking out Hill’s Hunting now. Have you perchance read The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol Karlsen? While not limited to Salem, I found it to be a great read on the socioeconomic and gender-attributable aspects of many of the New England trials.

    • Historicist

      Yes, I think I read that back in grad school days. Isn’t that the one that focuses on the generational conflict? The girls singled out older women out of rebellion and all that?
      Hill actually has a couple books on the subject, both very good.

  • Alan

    Nice post, I enjoyed your perspective on the history. It is a very chilling story. I had a wonderful experience in Salem a few years ago. I was performing a piece based on one of trials in the Witch House museum. After the first performance I noticed a warrant framed on the wall which included the name of the man I was portraying and the the warrant was dated on the same date we were performing 311 years earlier.

    • Historicist

      That is VERY cool. Coincidences like that can just stop you in your tracks. I can’t help but think that things like that mean something…And how cool to perform in the Witch House! Most interesting building in Salem Town.

  • The Haunting of the Capt. Phillips House in Plymouth | Historical Digression

    […] The whole episode, from my perspective, has echoes of the Salem Witch Trials. Individuals motivated by financial and/or political issues alleging supernatural phenomena in order to win the upper hand. But you can read about that in an older entry. […]

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I know you wrote this several years ago, but it’s an excellent read.

    And these lines really resonated with me: “Apply Occam’s Razor here, for God’s sake. This was personal and that’s all there is to it.

    “I have a theory about history. It is driven mainly by personal politics. When people do things, they are rarely thinking about the bigger picture. We generally do what is best for ourselves, our families and friends. For reasons that are quite personal, we cooperate with the people we like, and we work against the people we don’t like. Our personal actions can have a ripple effect in some cases that literally affects history.”

    Indeed, the saying that all politics is local could probably be adapted to something akin to “All history is personal,” or at least begins at a personal level.

    If you’ve ever incorporated your paper on how personal preference was linked to the history of the antislavery movement into a blog post, or the paper itself is available online, I’d like to read it.

    • Patrick Browne

      Hi, Kevin. Thanks for the good feedback. Funny you should put it that way about adapting Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” to “all history is personal.” I’ve said that very thing in many, many lectures. I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about the personal politics of antislavery…not sure why not, come to think of it. The paper is available on JSTOR, here.

  • Bob Albert

    Patrick,

    I enjoyed your article, but wonder if the Porter vs. Putnam idea oversimplifies the underpinnings of the events. I am descended from Putnams (both accusers and defenders,) Porters, Proctors, Nurses, Popes, Hathornes, Dodges, and various other participants in the hysteria. It seems to me that the inter-family rivalries extended well beyond those two.

    Bob Albert

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks for the comment, Bob. To be sure, there were plenty of rivalries to go around and once the panic started to spread, it all got very complicated very quickly. But I think if you examine the roots of the thing, the very earliest origins, it did have a great deal to do with the Putnams/Porters. This whole theory was best advanced, I think, by Frances Hill in her succinct volume, “Hunting for Witches.” She has also written other books on the topic.

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