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U-M HISTORY 375 - WGS Paper #3

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1The Role of Gender and Psychology in the Salem Witch TrialsBy: Krupa PatelThe events that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 have had historians puzzled over the causes for years. There have been several theories about how the situation became so out of control. A deeper analysis of primary sources such as the Salem Court Records of Mercy Lewis, testimony of Martha Carrier, and account of Sarah Osborne’s case suggests that the role of gender expectations, the lack of knowledge of psychiatric illness, and the presence of mob psychology were the primary catalysts behind the Salem Witch Trials. The Puritan society did not allow women to be outspoken or in any position of power. Thus, the girls' afflictions were likely a response to their personal insecurities – both economic and social. One notable example is Mercy Lewis, who experienced a traumatized childhood and lived in relativelyinsecure social and economic circumstances. "I veryly believe in my heart," began 19 -year-old Mercy Lewis on April 19, 1692, "that Giles Corey is a dreadful wizzard."1 Mercy Lewis acted as a member of the core group of accusing young women in the Village, blatantly accusing several persons of afflicting herself and her friends. As an orphan, she had no money or dowry to offer, thus, her chances of getting married and escaping her social position of servitude seemed futile2. Arguably, girls – who possessed no social standing before the trials – were greatly empowered by their accusations. Thus, the accused are examples of people who managed to climb the social ladder to become assertive women – something Mercy Lewis was unable to accomplish. Furthermore, Mercy Lewis got involved 1 Essex County Court Archives, “Statement of Mercy Lewis v. Sarah Osborne,” SWP No. 95.62 Massachusetts Historical Society, “Testimony of William Bradford, Rachel Bradford, and William Rayment, Jr.,” SWP No. 89.12with the accusations alongside Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard, likely motivated by a desperate need for social empowerment and belonging.In psychology, mass hysteria has been defined as the “rapid spread of conversion disorder, a condition involving the appearance of bodily complaints for which there is no organic basis. In such episodes, psychological distress is channeled into physical symptoms.”3 It is arguable that this is exactly what the afflicted girls were experiencing. The stress of living in such a rigid and religious society on the dangerous wilderness frontier may have led these girls to convert this stress into physical symptoms—what we may diagnose as psychiatric disorders in modern society. At the time of the Salem Witch Trials, little was known about hysteria, epilepsy, and delirium, thus, women with mental illness were often associated with witchcraft. In all of the trials, the accused were brought into the courtroom during which the girls would claim to be attacked by “familiar spirits” of the accused; this kept them in the spotlight and made it extremely hard for the accused to deny the accusations. If they denied or pleaded with the girls to stop, the girls would scream and plead with the “spirit” of the accused to not attack them. This is evident in the case of Martha Carrier, a woman who didn’t conformto the gender expectations of the harsh Puritan society. During her courtroom examination, when Carrier was asked to look upon the girls, seemingly possessed, without their writhing in pain, she said she would not, for "they will dissemble if I look upon them."4 Martha's independent spirit and lack of submissiveness not only alienated her from the rest of the community but caused her to challenge the psyche of the accused. Thus, it was Martha's established reputation as a disagreeable woman and 3 Coale and Golden, “Ghost Hunting: The Scientific and Metaphysical Approach,” 924 Essex County Court Archives, “Examination of Martha Carrier,” SWP No. 24.33claim of the accused being mentally unwell that made her a target once the momentum of accusations got out of control in Salem.Mob or groupthink psychology can be defined as thinking characterized by an excessive emphasis on group cohesion. Often, group harmony is prioritized over making an accurate judgment, allowing for a more extreme view than what an individual would make on his/or her own. Additionally, groupthink is usually fueled by social norms being challenged, which was evident in the case of Sarah Osborne. According to gender roles, a woman who betrayed her society's social and family conventions was worthy of being accused of witchcraft. Although Osborne died before coming to trial, her offense would have gone to court for threatening the social order: the Putnam family's economic interests and inheritance grew less secure by Sarah's attempt at social and economic independence.1 When she attempted to gain full ownership of her late husband's estate, she disregarded her society's set practices of inheritance and land tenure, and challenged the tradition of strong family alliances. Sarah Osborne’s accusation is unique because she didn’t confess nor accuse anyone else of witchcraft. In fact, she stated she "was more like to be bewitched than that she was a witch."5 Thus, it was societal conformity that cost Sarah Osborne’s life; she upset the social norm as a woman who threatened the growth and stability of Putnam family alliances in Salem Village.Psychiatric, emotional outbursts of the afflicted girls, the growing fear of the public, mob mentality, and disgust towards women who disobeyed societal norms led to the outcome of these trials, which quickly spun out of control. One of the main causes of the hysteria surrounding the trials was the restrictive gender roles for Puritan women. Thus, the pressure to conform and to limit personal beliefs increased significantly once accusations were being made; someone who dared to 5 Essex County Court Archives, “Examination of Sarah Osborne, as Recorded by John Hathorne,” SWP No. 95.24speak her mind would implicitly be threatened by the groupthink conditions of the stressed and isolated place of Salem Village. It’s possible that the community members of Salem put a stop to themadness because the stress eventually damaged the group cohesiveness. However, despite the public apology made in 1697 by Judge Sewall, who had overseen many of the trials, the horrific deaths indicated the terrifying power of mass hysteria and


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