The Salem witch trials were the result of a number of factors that were likely not obvious to those involved in them. They were a reflection of the colonists coping with local conflict, political turmoil, poor legal procedures, the trauma of war, and self-defense. However, despite most of the community members being affected by a number of adversaries, the accused often shared a number of characteristics. These included being a woman, behaving in non-conforming ways in terms of Puritan standards, and being in conflict with local residents or neighbors. The culmination of all these features would often make an individual very susceptible to being accused of witchcraft, with the accuser’s goal often being self-defense, vengeance, or some form of attempt to profit from the trials.
Around Europe, England, and New England, the number of accused women was disproportionate to men. As in most cases of accusations, women were much more likely to be accused of committing witchcraft, with seventy-six percent of those that were accused in Salem being female (Godbeer, 2018). This may have been explained through Puritan beliefs, such as a women’s body being weaker than a man and therefore more susceptible to being possessed by the Devil. However, it was actually the result of social issues, personal conflict, and religious beliefs. Both men and women had internalized opinions regarding women’s vulnerability to the influence of what Puritan’s considered evil, which is why accusations coming from women were as common as those coming from men. However, being a woman was not a prime reason for being accused of witchcraft, as is supported by primary evidence, but being a woman that did not follow social norms or live by other enforced community standards was likely to result in an accusation.
This pattern can be noted in individual cases, especially in early accusations of Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. The three women were named by Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams after a number of girls begin to present similar symptoms. Tituba’s background varies completely from the other citizens of Salem, and while her ethnicity has not been confirmed, it has been noted that she was once a slave that lived in Barbados (Locke, 2019). Sarah Good was an impoverished and lower-class, often seen asking for money on the streets and disliked by most in the community. Unlike the previous two accused, Sarah Osborne was wealthy and upper-class, but a widow who had married a servant and acquired the inheritance of her children. As such, she was considered immoral by many and was generally shunned as an outcast. Because of the hierarchical structure of the colonist society, in which those below certain authorities were expected to respect and obey them, women that stood out were especially vulnerable to accusations. While women had valued roles and often fulfilled them to society’s standards within locations like Salem, any disturbances to the status quo could lead to drastic consequences. As such, by observing primary evidence, a person could identify that women, and to some extent even men, that disobeyed the expected functions of Puritan society were much more susceptible to being accused of being a witch. Some examples of actions that were considered non-conforming included wearing certain types of clothes, marrying more than once, or partaking in a local rivalry.
Personal conflict within the community also played an integral and nearly invisible role within the Salem witch trials. This was especially visible when cases of accusations showed a pattern with the accused and accuser being neighbors. The antagonism that lead to an accusation often began with a number of events. Some of these included being denied a loan or temporary shelter, blaming a neighbor for a family member’s sudden illness, or unexplained death of livestock. In other cases, an exchange of goods that were not mutually satisfying, a series of misfortunes, and damaged property resulted in similar acts of vengeance. Frequently, the neighbor who experienced the loss, rejection, or difficulty would accuse the other of witchcraft. Because the nature of Puritan society, especially in small colonist settings, was deeply personal and involved, neighbors and residents were familiar with aspects of each other’s lives. When paired with an intense belief in the occult, this allowed many, either through deceit or not, to use the social culture to punish neighbors. As such, it is essential to understand the relationship between many of the accused and the accusers, their living situations, and recent events in their lives. It was likely that many of the accused were neighbors that were blamed, likely without any true evidence, and later tried as witches.
The combination of all the factors, including being female, non-conforming lifestyles, and communal tension were common traits found in those accused of witchcraft. Within the context of a Puritan society, these aspects made individuals very susceptible to being accused and tried for being a witch. Many of the accused were not that far out of the definition of an ‘ordinary’ Puritan colonist, but the involvement of personal tension and conflict resulted in them being treated as outcasts nevertheless.
Godbeer, Richard. The Salem Witch Hunt. McMillan Learning, 2018.
Locke, Joseph, L. The American Yawp: A Massively Collaborative Open U.S. History Textbook, Vol. 1: To 1877. Stanford University Press, 2019.