Prof: Lessons to be learned from history of 'witches' in America
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The popular witches in today's film, television and pop culture are often portrayed as hip and heroines, but a Purdue University history professor reminds people that witches are tied to the dark and tragic past of the colonial Salem witch trials, which had more to do with politics than potions.
"This tragedy may have happened more than 300 years ago, but we've seen similar 'witch hunts' throughout history, such as in the 1950s with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Communism, when people start insisting on groupthink and that if anyone dissents there will be consequences," says Franklin T. Lambert, a professor of history who studies colonial and revolutionary America. "The Salem witch hysteria wasn't sparked by supernatural happenings, but rather by a political power vacuum, land disputes and gender issues."
In 1692 the witch hysteria began with accusations from a group of young girls who attributed their bad and odd behavior to others they identified as witches. Within just a few months, 20 people and one dog were executed and 200 people imprisoned, says Lambert, who teaches "Witches, Wenches, Pirates & Heretics: Misfits and Castoffs in Colonial America."
"The trait that all of the accused had in common was that they were nonconformists," Lambert says. "Some of the accused, which were mostly women, wore nontraditional clothing that didn't accurately represent their economic class, they publicly disagreed with their husbands or they didn't conform to the Puritan work ethic. Many of them were widows and they were set to receive property, and owning property meant power."
The trials were based on non-scientific evidence where witnesses, including the young girls, testified that they observed others engage in witchcraft.
"Why were the accusations of these little girls taken seriously? The Puritans didn't want the devil loose in their midst," says Lambert, who is author of "The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America." "But there was a political vacuum because the area's leaders were in England trying to negotiate the Massachusetts Charter, which had been revoked by the English monarchy. As a result the local merchant community was struggling, and during the leader's absence the court was lacking in oversight. Also, long-term property feuds came up during the witch hysteria."
A year later, court officials issued apologies saying a "miscarriage of justice" occurred.
"It didn't take long for people to realize and admit what had happened was wrong, and scholars today continue to examine and teach the lessons from this horrific event," Lambert says. "Hopefully, today's growing interest in witches will encourage people to learn and understand the history of this event and be conscientious of history repeating itself."
Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, email@example.com
Source: Franklin T. Lambert, 765-494-4132, firstname.lastname@example.org