The History of Hysteria

Topics: Mass Hysteria

Hysteria is defined as being “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement” (“Hysteria”) and from 1231 until 1957 a large cause of hysteria was witchcraft. The Inquisition to rid the world of witchcraft started by Pope Gregory the 9th was justified by the Bible. Exodus 22:18 states that ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ meaning that punishment was made in the form of death. Jumping forward to 1484, Pope Innocent the 8th, declared that witchcraft was heresy, belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (especially Christian) doctrine (“He (“Heresy”), to be punishable by death.

For over 300 years witch hunts were being conducted all across countries like France, Italy, Germany, and England. ‘Early 14th century central Europe was seized by a series of rumor panics.” (Peréz, 9) Black cats came to be known as omens or death or incredible back luck and 14th century Europeans began to kill them in large numbers which consequently increased the rat population, the real culprits that were spreading the plague.

“Some malign conspiracy (Jews, lepers, Muslims, and witches) were attempting to destroy the Christian kingdoms through magic and poison. After the terrible devastation caused by the Black Death [bubonic plague] (1347-1349), these rumors increased in intensity and focused primarily on witches and ‘plague-spreaders.’” (Peréz, 9).

By 1629 English settlers called the Puritans wanted to leave England to sail to the Americas and start a settlement there, a perfect society based on and run by the Bible, a ‘city on a hill’ (“The Salem Witch Trials”). King Charles I, granted this small splinter group the ability to leave England.

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Many of the Puritans settled in Massachusetts in a town called Salem. Salem was split into two areas, the bustling merchant seaport of Salem Village, and Salem town a rural farming area. Most of the 500 occupants living in Salem Village were liberal merchants while the bulk of Salem Town were conservative farmers. Salem Town was considered a wilderness colony despite only being about six miles away from the seaport.

A central belief of the Puritans was that witches are evil and must be found and punished. They were regularly thinking and worrying about them being in their midst. They believed that they were living in an invisible world constantly around them attempting to disrupt the Godly community. Some, however, used witch hunts to their advantage, they accused their enemies. After a witch was hung their land was forfeited from their family and sold at a public auction and it is believed this was used this against people with land that they wanted. In order to find witches, there were several tests or methods used.

The first most popular method was called ‘finding the devils mark’ or ‘witches teat’. It was believed that when a witch struck a deal with a devil to gain supernatural powers, they grew teats on their bodies to be able to suckle familiar spirits. The suspected witch was stripped naked and shaved from head to toe. Any teat found was then stabbed with a needle, if there was pain or blood then the teat was natural. If there was no pain or blood draw from the needle the teat was unnatural and was solid proof of witchcraft.

The second method was called swimming a witch. Water was believed to be a pure substance that would reject all evil so the person suspected to be a witch was suspended over water and then dropped in. If the person sank, they were innocent, if they floated, they were a witch. This method always produced a witch.

The third popular method for finding witches was torture to gain a confession, commonly they would tie the victim’s arm behind their back and tug hard for hours which is excruciatingly painful. Other torture methods like crushing with large stones and generally applying force to the victim were used. Witchcraft was considered an act of treason and was a capital offense punishable by death, commonly by hanging the victim. From the 14th-16th Century, it is estimated that 40,000-50,000 people died due to the witch hysteria running rampant through the Salem area.

Over 500 documents (warrants, indictments, depositions, and death warrants) tell the story of the worst of the witch hunts, the Salem Witch Trials. These documents have helped historians’ piece together how the mass hysteria in Salem caused 25 deaths and 32 sentences of witchcraft. The beginning of all the trials starts in the kitchen of a Salem Reverend, Reverend Paris. His daughter Elizabeth and her cousin Abigail Williams sat listening to fanciful stories of magic and voodoo told by the family Kareeb-Indian slave, Tituba. The strict Puritan society forbad any such things and the guilty pleasure spread to involve six other girls ages 12-20.

These young women felt guilty for listening to these forbidden stories and began to act out in strange ways. They started having fits, claimed they felt they were being pricked and stabbed by needles and knives, and they even wanted to throw themselves into the fire to commit suicide. When the town physician William Griggs found no physical problems with the girls, he claimed that it was supernatural or spiritual problems that were afflicting these girls. He concluded that they were ‘under the hand of witchcraft’ (“The Salem Witch Trials”). These reactions or convulsions were believed to be the girls’ reaction to fighting against the witch that was trying to convert them into witches themselves. To find the source of the issues Reverend Paris interrogated Elisabeth and Abigail until they named Tituba as the witch. Later they went on to accuse Sarah Goode, the town beggar of low status. The next victim to be accused was Sarah Osborn, a bedridden villager already scorned for marrying her indentured servant John Osborn. Another reason both Sarah’s were easy targets is that neither were churchgoers which was further proof of their evil ways. On March 1st, 1692 all three women were put on an informal trial to see if there was any concrete evidence worth taking to an official trial.

One important thing to note about these pre-trial hearing was suddenly a new kind of ‘evidence’ was accepted as fact. “Spectral” evidence had a horrible effect on the number of guilty verdicts. This kind of evidence is when a victim sees a specter of the accused or familiar (commonly a bird) that only they can see. The specter attacks and attempts to convince the victim to become a witch. Ann Putnam Jr., one of the eight girls that listened to Tituba’s stories, swore that Sarah Goode’s specter had visited her and tried to get her to sign the devil’s book and become a witch, the other seven girls back this story up.

During the hearing, Sarah Goode denied all the accusation against her and every denial caused the girls to have convulsive fits, let out unearthly screams, and claims of her specter attacking them. Tituba, on the other hand, knew that her best bet was to admit her ‘guilt’ almost immediately and confess that she was a witch. She claimed that a tall Boston had appeared to her and made her sign the devil’s book. When she looked into the book, she claimed to be able to see nine names written in there. One was her own, one was Sarah Goode’s, and one was Sarah Osborn’s. All the other six names she said that she could not see them.

The girls were in a rare position of power and soon that went to their heads. The began to accuse people in the Town of a higher status, more upstanding members of the community that didn’t seem like they would ever be witches. One of the higher status villagers to be accused of witchcraft was Rebecca Nurse, people were so shocked and felt that this was wrong that 39 people went as far as to sign a petition accounting to her moral behavior. As accusations became wilder, Dorcus Goode a four-year-old was accused. They had to make a special set of chains to hold her since she was so small. She confessed in order to join her mother, Rebecca, in jail. The family members of the original ‘witches’ were now being attacks and suspected. Ironically the only way to survive being charged with witchcraft was to confess. The Puritans believed that once you confess of sins then you are in God’s hands; your fate will be determined by a higher power. Approximately 55 of the 200 guilty confessed to survive.

One way that hysteria was managed was through witch hunts. People felt better while things were ‘getting done’ and fining the guilty. Once the trials died down female hysteria became a problem once again. Victorian-era women who were diagnosed with this hysteria were often “prescribed a manual ‘pelvic massage’ meant to cause ‘hysterical paroxysm’ in the patient (translation: orgasm)” (“Hysteria”, 1). Doctors would then massage women for long periods of time that was exhausting. Eventually, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the electronic vibrator to eliminated the long and hard process. In 1899 the battery-powered vibrator became a common household item that doctors struggled to convince patients that it was worth paying a few dollars a visit to have the doctors do that.

Men used the witch trials to control women’s bodies. 75%-80% (Peréz, 14) of all victims were women. They were able to ‘prove’ that women were evil by using witch hunting methods and gain control over them. People became fearful of one another and easier to control through their fear. The vibrators also helped to keep control over women. They were labeled as hysterical and brushed off after they had finished their paroxysm. Both the Salem Witch Trials and the invention of the vibrator were used to control bodies, especially women.

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The History of Hysteria. (2022, Apr 23). Retrieved from

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