Final Paper

Gender and the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693)

During the 17th century in Colonial New England, gender was an influence on society.  Women were living in a male dominated society where the men had the power and the women were viewed as being vulnerable and weak.  Due to this outlook on women, many women were believed to have been possessed by demons due to their perceived susceptibility and helplessness.  In 1692 and 1693, the Salem, Massachusetts’s courts put local residents on trials for witchcraft, leading to many accusations and executions within the community.  Due to these gender beliefs of the subservience of women, gender had a heavy influence on the accusations of these trials.  The focus on witch trials and the possibility of demon possession quickly shifted toward looking at the women.  Women were associated with being witches and practicing witchcraft, and the fear of women spreading their witchcraft in the Salem community spread fast.  The idea of women being vulnerable to the demons, which made them more probable to possess, increased as well.  These women being accused in the Salem community were not only socially castrated, but economically and politically as well.  Women were not only the target, but the main focus during the witch trial accusations in 17th century Salem Massachusetts because of their gender.

In the New England society during the 17th century, one must consider the perceived societal expectations presented by individuals living in these societies in order to gain an understanding of the social differences regarding the treatment of men versus women.  For example, in the New England society, women were believed to be “physically and sexually vulnerable, easily aroused, quick to succumb to flattery.”[1]  Not only were these women viewed as being submissive and easily dominated, but they were viewed as weak and in need of constant outside attention.  Furthermore, in these New England societies, historians note how these women who were in relationships with men were expected to give their body to their significant other.[2]  If they failed to do so, these women were labeled a “whore” by society.[3]  These women were already in a position of subjugation and were perceived to be easily manipulated and controlled by the men in the community.  Women were suppressed by the men and were expected to be vulnerable and submissive.   On the other hand, men were the dominate people of the society, specifically at this time, the white, Puritan male.  Male supremacy was the focus and men would not allow women to threaten it in any manner.[4]  The structure of the New England societies already placed women on the bottom of the social order with no voice to be heard regarding social, political, or economic factors.

Due to the idea of women being linked to vulnerability, ideas aroused from society connecting these women with evil, specifically the Devil.  The thought was that the weaker the individual was, the easier it was for the Devil to possess the soul.  Since society perceived women as being weaker, individuals believed that it allowed the Devil to easily reach into these women’s souls.[5]    This idea began when the Puritans during the 17th century perceived “women’s bodies and souls” as corresponding to “their otherworldly belief in Satan’s powers,” again reinforcing the idea of the close relationship scholars note about women and the Devil.[6]  Already, women could not escape this association with the relationship of their bodies to evil forces from Satan.  Women were viewed as having no guidance, and longing for someone to lead them; therefore, it was thought that these women were searching for the attention of Satan.[7]  Society perceived these women as longing for attention, but the society decided that the attention these women wanted was from Satan himself.

In continuation with women being associated with the Devil, an occurrence that continuously happened throughout the 17th century was accusing women of association with evil when they achieved high positions in society or inherited large amounts of wealth. When women were placed in powerful positions during this era, many male leaders found it hard to believe that a woman achieved this powerful position all by herself.[8]  Therefore, these male leaders believed that these women used some outside power, such as Satan, and that the presence of Satan was around since there was no possible way of a woman achieving this high ranked power without outside influence.[9]  Women were not expected to be able to achieve high positions within society and especially to outrank a man, so for this event to occur, many thought that these women received aid from someone.  The society perceived that this outside force helping women was the Devil, himself.

For instance, the first witch accused and executed during the Salem Witch Trials was the woman by the name of Bridget Bishop.  Bridget Bishop had two previous husbands and was accused of witchcraft by the time she reached her third husband.  She was accused of killing her first husband, being too provocative, and not fitting into the society stereotype of what a woman of her class should act like.  Furthermore, Bishop owned several taverns, dressed of higher-class, had everything given to her due to her husband’s passing.  She had wealth, that she did not own, that was given to her because she was a widow, and she dressed as a higher-class woman even though she was not.  Because of this, Bishop was quickly accused of as being a witch.[10]  During the court case of Bridget Bishop, constant conversation happened between John Hathorne, one of the judges during the Salem Witch Trials and Bridget Bishop herself.  John Hathorne stated, “They say you [Bridget Bishop] bewitcht your first husband to death” in which she replied “If it please your worship I know nothing of it” and then noted by the recorder Samuel Parris, “She [Bridget Bishop] shake her head & the afflicted were tortured.”[11]  As a historian, one must note that the recorder was a man and could have added unrealistic notes to this court case that did not necessarily occur, but helped the Salem court system from looking corrupt.  Because of Bishop’s inheritance from her husband and her provocative nature, she was the perfect candidate to be accused as a witch in the Salem Community.

Women accused during the Salem witch trials were “moderately poor” – not the poorest women, but surely not the wealthiest.[12]  The Salem society had rules about transferring wealth from one generation to another.[13]  These social rules created an economic and political atmosphere in relation to inheritances which was typically dominated by men.  Most of these inheritances never made it into the hands of a woman, and when it did, it was suspected that the woman was a witch for being able to gain the inheritance.  Women of higher classes did not have to worry about being prosecuted because of their social status since these women were not thought of as being associated with the evil gestures and witchcraft.[14]  Most of the witches during this time period “were middle-aged or old women eligible for inheritances because they had no brothers or sons.”[15]  For instance in a letter written to Nathaniel Higginson, a well-known male figure in the Salem community, the author, who is unknown, notes the trial of  an “Old Woman named Dayton, of whom it was said, If any in the World were a Witch, she was one.”[16]  She was described as a “a decrepit woman of about 80 years of age” and “so that by the Goodness of God we are once more out of present danger of this Hobgoblin Monster.”[17]  This idea of older women being linked to being a monster was prevalent in the society.  Because of these perceived monstrous looks of these older women, they were being linked to evil forces.  Due to these older women being perceived as a monster, that caused anxiety for the society of an evil presence being within their society.  The idea of something as dark as a monster was commonly associated with the Devil; therefore, it was inevitable that these older women were accused of being a witch.

Protestant Christianity played a major role in the accusations of witchcraft.  The Puritan religion is an extremely strict and structured religion that has definite boundaries and rules.  Because of this, the followers were very similar in their behavior, so if an individual did not fit into this stereotype, many assumed that individual was worshipping the Devil or at the later 17th century, practicing witchcraft.  In most court cases recorded during these witch trials, God and the relationship to the accused were continuously brought up.  In Colonial New England, witchcraft was a non-traditional Christian practice and the idea of women practicing this act reinforced the idea of them having a natural connection to the Devil.  Accusations of witchcraft focused on women and their relationship with the Devil since there was a perceived “special association of this crime [witchcraft] with women and womanhood.”[18]  These women were considered a growing threat to society due to their abnormal behavior, and therefore, the society decided that these women needed to be eliminated before their witchcraft influence spread throughout Colonial New England.

In the court case of Martha Corey, who was accused of witchcraft and later executed, she was asked by John Hathorne, “Who is your God?” in which she replied, “The God that made me.”[19]  Then he asked Martha Corey, “Who is that God?” and she replied, “The God that made me.”[20]  Then Hathorne stated, “What is his name?’ and she said “Jehova,” in which he replied “Do you know any other name?” and she said “God Almighty.”[21]  Then Hathorne stated, “Doth he tell you that you pray to that he is God Almighty?” and she responded, “Who do I worship but the God that made [me]?” and then he asked “How many Gods are there?” and Corey replied, “One.”  Hathorne asked, “How many persons?” and Corey replied, “Three” in which he responded, “Cannot you say so there is one God in three blessed persons?”[22]  Then noted by the recorder, Martha Corey was then “troubled.”[23]  These judges interrogated these accused women of their religion and try to find any mistake from their communication taken during the trials in order to accuse them of the supposed witchcraft practices.  Religion was a heavy influence in these trials since the fear of the Devil was apparent in Colonial New England.

The threat of the spread of witchcraft by these perceived devious women was a huge issue seen by society.  Women were believed to be more talkative, naturally, so it was believed that they would not be able to keep their witchcraft to themselves.[24]  Women tended to host events, care for children, and be very family orientated, and that rose concerns within the community.  Women were viewed as the natural caregivers, constantly being around children; therefore, society thought that these women would teach their children or even their house servants witchcraft due to their talkative nature.[25]  For instance, Reverend  John Hale discussed in the court trial of Sarah Bishop how “the said Bishop [Sarah Bishop] did entertaine people in her house at unseasonable houres in the night to keep drinking and playing at shovel-board whereby discord did arise in other families & young people were in danger to be corrupted.”[26]  This quote directly illustrates the supposed effect that these women accused as witches had on society, specifically harming the children or people she associated with on a daily basis.  These suspected women were perceived to be bringing innocent children into their household, where behind closed doors, these women were believed to be persuading these children to practice witchcraft.  During society at this time, women were the main individuals having the close interaction to children, so when various children started acting on witchcraft, the blame quickly shifted to the women.

Furthermore, Martha Corey, tried and executed later on, was consistently questioned during her trial of harming and manipulating children.[27]  She kept telling the judges, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, that she was innocent and that it was simply the wandering minds of the children due to their young age and creative imagination.  Judges Hathorne and Corwin responded, “You charge these children with distraction: it is a note of distraction when persons vary in a minute, but these fix upon you, this is not the manner of distraction.”[28]  Martha Corey was accused of inflicting pain and suffering on these children, trying to manipulate them, because of her simply having a conversation with them – most likely watching these young girls.  Furthermore, society depicted women as constantly demanding and commanding; therefore, the Devil would be more likely to recruit them as witches.[29]  It was believed that the Devil needed individuals who could easily influence and persuade others, so many individuals thought women were the perfect candidates.  Society’s perspective perceived women as naturally being closely linked to the darker, satanic personality characteristics when compared to men; therefore, these women were perceived as being the perfect contenders for witchcraft.

Even though much of the literature, especially the secondary sources, illustrate the entire society inflicting and enforcing these witch trial accusations, much of society had different perspectives that were not necessarily gender based, but rather moral based.  For instance, a letter written by an unknown author to John Foster states:

My notion of these matters is this. A suspected and unlawful communion with a familiar spirit is the thing inquired after. The communion on the devil’s part may be proved, while, for ought I can say, the man may be innocent; the devil may impudently impose his communion upon some that care not for his company. But if the communion on the man’s part be proved, then the business is done.[30]

Even though this letter appears to be gendered, it is a broad statement, to John Foster, to show that people are being accused of the rising presence of witchcraft and the Devil, but not necessarily are connected in any manner.  This individual, who signs it as the servant of John Foster claims that these accusations are unfair.  Prior to this, the author claims that individuals should receive a rightful trial and not receive the biased accusations occurring.  Already, the author claims that these accused persons are not receiving fair trials in the Salem community.  Furthermore, the author targets the idea of the Devil possessing and manipulating individuals living in the Salem community and notes that it is not fair to execute these individuals.  The accused, as the author of this letter explains, are innocent individuals – never have been convicted of any felony before.  Therefore, it is not fair to be convicting these individuals if it is not actually the person themselves conducting these witchcraft activities.  Even though the Devil is at play in the Salem community, it is not right to accuse the individuals being possessed by the Devil himself.

On the other hand, some of the accused individuals did claim that they took sides with the Devil himself.  Historians are not sure if it was due to peer pressure, mental breakdown, or if these women being accused did truly believe that the Devil possessed them.  For instance, evidence is shown in a letter written to Nathaniel Higginson, previously mentioned, from his father John Higginson, who was the Reverend of the society, in which Reverend John Higginson writes:

When these Witches were Tried, several of them confessed a contract with the Devil, by signing his Book, and did express much sorrow for the same, delareing also thir Confederate Witches, and said the Tempters of them desired ‘em to sign the Devils Book, who tormented them till they did it.[31]

Some of the accused witches did explain that their actions were carried out by the Devil himself and that the Devil indeed persuaded them to join his side which would reinforce the idea of these women being easily succumb to possession and persuasion.  Since this is a letter written from a man to another man, as a historian, one must question the legitimacy of the letter and the factual data to support this.  This could be a parental warning to his son Nathaniel, this could be completely imagined, or this could be a personal attack on a woman because not a single witch is mentioned by Reverend John Higginson in this letter.

One source illustrates this idea – a young girl, by the name of Hannah Post, became persuaded by the Devil and signed his book.  From looking at the court case, it was noted:

She made a Marke w’th her finger in the Divels book & that the Marke was Red She also Showed her finger tep where it had been Cut & S’d She made the Red mark in the Divels book w’th the blood of that She owned She had been at Some of the witch Mettings & that She thought their meight be about 200 at the witch metting at Chandlers Garison at Andivor.[32]

Furthermore, the idea of women being easily succumb to the Devil’s persuasion was a theme consistently mentioned throughout the Salem community.  In the same case of Hannah Post, it is noted that the Devil directly targeted this child.  Post herself claimed that the Devil came to her as a pig first, and when that did not work, he came to her as a bird.[33]  During the court case, it was noted:

. . . next appeared . . . like a bird flying at the window of her Master Chamber wher She was at work & the bird Spoke to her promised her new Cloths if She would Serve & worship him & She did bargain to Serve him Soe long as She lived She s’d the Divel has Come to her.[34]

Once again, the illustration of the Devil easily persuading this girl into the dark, satanic witchcraft rituals was shown as being easy.  She simply had a pig and then a bird speak to her and due to her naïve behavior and her gender, it is thought that the Devil chose her as the next victim that he was going to control next.  It could have been due to her small stature, but within the community, it was thought that because she was a woman, she would be easily possessed by the Devil.

In the society of Colonial New England, during the 17th century, women were the target of these accusations and executions of witchcraft due to their gender and the common societal expectations that followed.  Women faced constant criticism from society and were consistently targeted for unlikely occurrences happening because of their perceived relationship to witchcraft.  Before the idea of being a witch flourished in Colonial New England, women were commonly linked to evil and the Devil solely due to their societal expectations.  The perceived societal expectations of women being vulnerable and easily influenced reinforced the idea of women being easily persuaded by the evil forces and the Devil himself.  Men viewed women as constantly longing for outside attention, and commonly linked that this outside attention was commonly used from the Devil.  If this attention was from the Devil, then women were expected to fall straight into the Devil’s arms.  Due to this stereotype of the women in Colonial New England, when weird occurrences started appearing within villages, such as the Salem Village in Massachusetts, the finger was immediately pointed towards women.  During the Salem Massachusetts Witch Trials in the 17th century, an overwhelmingly high amount of the individuals accused as practicing some sort of witchcraft and executed were women.  During many of the court cases, gender was used as a reason for the behavior of these women as well as their social, political, and economic standpoints which eventually lead many to executions.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Laurel Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, 1st ed. (New York, N.Y.: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1982), 97.

[2] Ulrich, 97.

[3] Ulrich, Good Wives, 97.

[4] Ulrich, Good Wives, 47.

[5] Elizabeth Reis, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 93.

[6] Reis, Damned Women, 95.

[7] Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Women and Religion in Early America, 1600-1850: The Puritan and Evangelical Traditions, Christianity and Society in the Modern World (New York: Routledge, 1999), 71.

[8] Westerkamp, Women and Religion in Early America, 71.

[9] Westerkamp, Women and Religion in Early America, 71.

[10] “Bridget Bishop 1692,” accessed April 12, 2018, http://www.historyandwomen.com/2010/06/bridget-bishop-1692.html.

[11] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Volume 1: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692 / Edited and with an Introduction and Index by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum / Revised, Corrected, and Augmented by Benjamin C. Ray and Tara S. Wood,” accessed April 11, 2018, http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/swp?div_id=n14.

[12] Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 79.

[13] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 80.

[14] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 79.

[15] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 117.

[16] “Letter to Nathaniel Higginson | Salem Witch Trials,” accessed April 11, 2018, http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/letters/lawsons_london_letter.html.

[17] “Letter to Nathaniel Higginson | Salem Witch Trials.”

[18] Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 3.

[19] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[20] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[21] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[22] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[23] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[24] Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 32.

[25] Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 32.

[26] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[27] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[28] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[29] Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 32.

[30] “Letter to John Foster | Salem Witch Trials,” accessed April 11, 2018, http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/letters/to_foster.html.

[31] “Letter to Nathaniel Higginson | Salem Witch Trials.”

[32] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[33] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

[34] “The Salem Witchcraft Papers.”

 

 

Bibliographies

Primary Sources:

“Bridget Bishop 1692.” Accessed April 12, 2018. http://www.historyandwomen.com/2010/06/bridget-bishop-1692.html.

“Letter to John Foster | Salem Witch Trials.” Accessed April 11, 2018. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/letters/to_foster.html.

“Letter to Nathaniel Higginson | Salem Witch Trials.” Accessed April 11, 2018. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/letters/lawsons_london_letter.html.

“The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Volume 1: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692 / Edited and with an Introduction and Index by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum / Revised, Corrected, and Augmented by Benjamin C. Ray and Tara S. Wood.” Accessed April 11, 2018. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/swp?div_id=n14.

Secondary Sources:

Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Ulrich, Laurel. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. 1st ed. New York,: Knopf, 1982.

Westerkamp, Marilyn J. Women and Religion in Early America, 1600-1850: The Puritan and Evangelical Traditions. Christianity and Society in the Modern World. London; New York: Routledge, 1999.