The Salem Witch Trials: A Case of Mass Hysteria

Topics: Mass Hysteria

The Salem Witch Trials are an infamous period of American history due to the way in which the death of innocent people resulted from a combination of mass hysteria, misogyny, religious obsession, and a hunger for power considering the political turmoil in America. Essentially, the Salem Witch Trials began when people in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts made unfounded claims of witchcraft toward others in the town of Salem in 1693 (Gilman, 3). While these claims may have previously fallen upon deaf ears, they were fully embraced and fought with fervor, as this happened to be during a time in American history when the perfect storm of factors came together to create the vulnerability that allowed mass hysteria like this to take over.

The following will explain the background of the Salem Witch Trials in terms of its origination and how the event as a whole went on to affect the rest of the country in the following years.

Europe was in the midst of a generalized belief in the supernatural pertaining to one’s fear that witches were disguised as everyday people who had evil intent to harm others around them in exchange for loyalty to the devil.

In colonial New England, these beliefs, unfortunately, spread very quickly in a town that was already suffering. At the time of the Salem Witch Trials, Salem was already amongst deep turmoil due to the recent epidemic of smallpox in the community, the consequences of the war that was fought in American colonies between Britain and France, and the volatile Native American neighbors that threatened the town on a regular basis (Gilman, 4).

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These vulnerable situations for groups often fuel conflict amongst individuals, heighten nerves, and raise suspicions; all of which fused together and resulted in resentment throughout the town and suspicion directed toward any “outsider.” In a town that centered around religion and an individual’s value was based upon their adherence to Puritan values, the ultimate outsider to those in Salem would, therefore, be witches. This fear and animosity, combined with the existing misogyny in American society, allowed women to be the scapegoat of the mysterious manifestations occurring in Salem at the time. In the 1600’s, America was a very patriarchal and discriminatory society against women, while also remaining an ultra-religious era in terms of the level of authority that religious figures held over citizens (Gilman, 17). This combination of intense religious authority, misogyny, and the political turmoil caused a fear of “outsiders” and put women in the position to fill that role as a witch.

An interesting aspect of this story is the way in which people attempted to offer alternate explanations for the phenomena that were originally considered to be witchcraft. One of the leading explanations is that this was a psychological manifestation of mass hysteria amongst the citizens of Salem. More specifically, experts believe that those accusing others of witchcraft were simply affected in a large group by the same hysteria. This has a root in the individual hysteria that begins to spread amongst those close to the source of hysteria (Gilman, 84). In this case, the original person could have been suffering from the hysteria surrounding their religious fears of this “devilish” witchcraft. In the small, highly-religious town of Salem, where Puritan beliefs laid the foundation for behavioral expectations, it would not be surprising to propose that the witch trials were an extreme example of this social phenomenon resulting from group thought. If this were, in fact, the full explanation as to why the Salem Witch Trials occurred, the corresponding effects on Puritanism, the legitimacy of these witchcraft accusations, and the overall premise of why so many innocent lives were lost would be a complete tragedy.

From this reasoning, it is important to analyze why people were put to death without criminal evidence or even a second opinion in the majority of the accused. At this time in American history, small towns like Salem oftentimes did not have their own central government from which issues such as this would be handled. There were simply not enough resources to be applied to these “small” matters in most of these cases. Therefore, Salem was guided in informal and formal manners by their religious leaders in the beginning of the trials. This helps to explain why the accusation that an individual was a witch–the epitome of the devil’s work in the Puritan religion–would be enough to put an individual to death. In the eyes of the church, if someone was practicing witchcraft, this was a direct affront to Puritan beliefs and the only proper punishment was death to avoid contaminating the rest of the community with this “sickness” (Gilman, 48). As the events continued to unfold and more attention was put on the trials, the governor appointed well-known and highly-education judges to decide an individual’s fate, which still resulted in many innocent people being hanged (Gilman, 52). It is important, however, to note that, although great resources and prestigious individuals of the court were involved in the final decision, these verdicts continued to support this mass hysteria.

While the previous explanation of hysteria spreading from one individual throughout an entire community certainly is plausible, that still does not offer a reasonable explanation for the physical symptomology of those afflicted by the “curses” of these purported witches. A core motivation for looking into these accusations of witchcraft in the first place was due to the large number of residents that experienced physical and mental symptoms that could not be explained. The set of symptoms that were attached to this state of being supposedly bewitched by a witch’s curse included violent episodes of vomiting, hallucinations, contortions of the limbs, uncontrollable screaming, behavioral outbursts, and generalized “fits.” Upon the diagnosis by the local doctor that the only explanation for these behaviors must be witchcraft in the town, many other people followed Abigail’s strange symptoms. While it is possible that these symptoms really were due to the conclusions of the physician, it is narrowly plausible.

Modern toxicologists present another explanation–ingestion of ergot. Ergot is a fungus that is found in many commonly-ingested foods, such as rye bread, wheat, cereals, etc. If one is exposed to the ergot fungus over a long period of time and is sensitive to this exposure, they could develop symptoms of ergotism. Ergotism is a poisoning that would have been very likely to occur in Salem with the swamp-like environment with the primary crop of rye (Haarmann, Rolke, Giesbert, & Tudzynski, 1). This poisoning results in the exact symptoms that were claimed to be the result of a witch’s curse on the sick individual. Therefore, a possible source of this strange behavior and set of physical symptoms could be directly due to ergotism (Haarmann, Rolke, Giesbert, & Tudzynski, 2). While doctors would have had neither the scientific nor medical knowledge to discover such causes at the time of the Salem Witch Trials, it is important to draw one’s attention to the fact that religion was also the source of authority over the medical field as well in this region. This is important to consider because it represents the power of religion and historical theology that would come to be replaced with present-day law enforcement, politics, modern medicine, and the sophisticated technological systems available.

If one were to look no further into American history, it would be easy to say that the Salem Witch Trials were an isolated example of a town full of Puritan extremists acting on unfounded fear. However, to consider the symbolism of what this event represented in terms of the environment that contributed to its manifestation and the way in which America proceeded with the knowledge of what happened in Salem, is to see that it had a massive impact on the rest of the country at the time. The first way in which these events became so integral to American history is the movement from the harmony and unified work of religious figures and government officials to a distrust of the government and phasing out of the Puritan religion overall (King & Mixon, 2). In essence, the way in which ministers would previously guide government officials and advise their decisions was no longer a feasible option because of the way in which the Salem Witch Trials unfolded, causing an issue with the authority the government held over citizens compared to religious leaders (King & Mixon, 4). While the trials began with only the supervision and authority of local religious figures, it grew to be taken over by political figures that disregarded a great deal of their perceived value in Salem. This effect was seen all throughout America in the way that religion and government began to separate more than ever before (King & Mixon, 6).

One specific historical example of the way in which this continued to appear in America in subsequent years is through the writing of The Crucible. The play was written by Arthur Miller, who had taken the accounts of the Salem Witch Trials and utilized them to present an allegory of the societal and political struggles at the time of McCarthyism that he was living in. McCarthyism is the term used to describe Senator McCarthy’s 1950-1954 hunt to isolate the accused communists amongst United States government officials and other individuals of prestige in America (Deery & Schrecker, 1). Anyone accused of being a communist was either fired or blacklisted as a result, regardless of the fact that the majority of the accused were innocent (Deery & Schrecker, 2). This historical account of McCarthyism is a direct reflection of the events that unfolded during the Salem Witch Trials, as displayed through the play The Crucible. This was right around the exact time that the state of Massachusetts issued a formal apology pertaining to their actions and lack of action as a government during the witch trials over 250 years prior. This is one instance of the way in which the message delivered through the actions of the Salem Witch Trials continues in modern society.

Overall, it is clear that the events that unfolded in Salem, Massachusetts had such a large impact that not even centuries of succeeding American history could erase this tragedy from the common mind. From the intense research that followed the trials, to the attempts to explain its origins and the events leading up to the trials that set the stage for this mass hysteria to manifest in the first place, the Salem Witch Trials will forever remain a mysterious and profound account of how political unrest, disease, misogyny, and an intensified authority of religion can clash together causing unfathomable disaster.

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The Salem Witch Trials: A Case of Mass Hysteria. (2022, Apr 23). Retrieved from

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