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Women, Witches, and The Brewing of Revolution in Americas


Look who's getting in trouble in Salem
Four girls lie writhing on the floor of a courthouse, their bodies shaking uncontrollably. Their screams of agony fill the crowded courtroom, and the judge stares with his eyes wide, too scared to bang his gavel. An old lady sits silently on the witness stand, watching as the girls who have accused her of being a witch pretend to be possessed. The old lady is innocent, but even she has to wonder what has gotten into these girls as their arms, legs and heads shake with violent, unnatural spasms of fury.

After a few minutes the episode seems to end and the screaming stops. Just as everyone in the crowd gives a sigh of relief, a blood-curdling scream is let out by one of the girls. She holds her arm out for everyone to see, and to the astonishment of all in the courtroom, bite marks send drops of blood ascading down her forearm. The other girls examine their own bodies and instantly find bite marks of their own.

"Stop biting me!" one girl screams at the old lady on the witness stand.

"Stop pinching me YOU WITCH!" another girl yells out as the old lady looks down with worry and bites her lip.

"You see everyone?!?" one girl says, "She is using her black magic to HURT us by biting her own lip. Witch!"

The lawyer steps forward, "Madame, I demand you cease to do the devil's work in this courtroom!"

"But I do no such thing," the old lady replies.

"Witch!" A man in the audience exclaims, "Witch! Witch! WITCH! WITCH! WITCH!"

The whole courthouse is filled with screams of terror and accusation.

"She rides a broomstick! I see her fly at night," one woman screams.

"The devil visits her house and strange noises erupt from her window!" another neighbor offers.

"She has the mark of the devil himself, look!" says a man pointing at a mole on the old lady's neck.

The old lady tries to cover her neck, but it is too late. Audience members of the court rise up and attempt to tear her hands away from her neck. The bailiff has to charge in to save the old woman from the violence of the mob. But the old lady already faces a deadly inevitability. The jury returns with the verdict on the accusation of witchcraft: Guilty as Charged.

A few days later, the old lady is put to death by hanging.

Witch or myth?
This happened in Salem, Massachusetts less than a century before the Declaration of Independence. The Salem witch hunts are an infamous example of the irrational ways people can behave when they act as a group. In the cold winter of 1692, almost two hundred people were accused of witchery, nineteen of them were hanged and one unlucky fellow was crushed to death under stones.

What could make an entire town of adults so murderous?

Quite a few fears were at work in the small village of Salem in the winter of 1692. These were the days before electricity. When the sun went down, it was bedtime. Goblins, trolls, ghosts and monsters were not just in the imaginations of children. Grown adults were scared of what lurked in the night. People's only explanation for disease, weather, and life's unknown questions was the struggle between God and Satan. If a cow got sick and died, it was the work of the devil. If the crops were plentiful, then God must have given a helping hand to the good farmer.

At this time, Isaac Newton was just coming out with his laws of motion, explaining natural occurrences according to scientific principles. His revolutionary vision of life was known to only a small handful of scientific thinkers. Common people still relied on their Pagan belief system, based on thousands of years of religious practice. The Pagan religion is based on the worship of countless gods and spirits, the most important one being the Earth Goddess. Pagans are the ones who brought us the original Christmas (a celebration of the end of winter), and Halloween (originally called "All Hollow's Eve," the Pagan new year where the layer between reality and the spiritual world is thinnest). In England, France, and America, Pagans began to be seen as a threat to the structure of the Church and Kingdom. They were labeled witches, and thousands, if not millions, were put to the stake and murdered for their beliefs.

Who were the witches in America?

Women and men were equal
Chances are that one of your great-great-great-great-grandmothers could have been a witch. Before women were allowed to be doctors, "witchcraft" was the method that some women used to treat the sick. Midwives used herbs, roots, and prayers to gods and goddesses to heal wounds, bring babies into the world, and help painfully suffering people die peacefully.

In a Puritan society where power lay in the hands of a few wealthy landowners, being a witch gave women limited power. Still, the little power a witch gained did not go unnoticed by those in charge.

To convince their followers that the devil was responsible for various calamities, those in power often used witches as scapegoats. Witches were not only convenient people to blame; they also served as examples of what could happen to you if you did not follow the rigid rules of Puritan society.

Once a witch had been accused, her future was grim. Sometimes a mob of people would take the accused to a lake or a river and place her in a drowning chair. The chair was attached to a long pole like a seesaw and after lifting the accused above the water the pole was released and she was dunked into the water. If her body floated to the surface this was seen as proof that "the waters hath rejected her" and that she was indeed a witch. If she sank to the bottom it meant that she actually was not a witch, but it was too late now because she was a goner.

A real witch, not so scary
The witch-hunts happened in Salem because people were scared and ready to believe that some "black magic" was responsible for all the misfortune in town. The first few women accused were outcasts who did not fit in to puritanical society. But eventually the hysteria snowballed, and people who had before been seen as upstanding citizens were being charged with witchery. At one point, the governor's wife herself was accused of witchcraft.

The lesson to be learned from this unfortunate episode in American history is to always think critically of what others tell us to do. Just because somebody is in an authoritative position does not automatically make what he or she says to be true. Always use your own judgment to decide between right and wrong, and never be afraid to speak your voice.

Can he decide between right and wrong?
And finally, to wrap up all this witchery, the most fun witch quiz you'll ever take:

Witches in America:
a) rode broomsticks
b) helped birth babies
c) had green skin from eating Costco packs of "eye-of-newt"

Salem, MA is known for
a) its world class cheese fondue
b) its mistreatment of witches
c) the largest collection of frozen whale blubber in the lower 48 states
d) all of the above

If your cow got sick and died back in 1692 America, some people would think:
a) it was the work of Lucifer, king of Hades, the devil incarnate
b) it was the work of Sylvia the cowgirl, who you never really liked in the first place
c) it was the work of infectious bacteria the cow ate
d) all of the above


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Nathaniel Bacon: a rebel with a cause
Kevin - Another slab of Bacon: a rebel without a clue
Stephanie - You go, colonial girl wonder!
Becky - Rock the vote the colonial way
Irene - Burning down the house: land riots in early America
Neda - The Regulators take on the big, bad tax men
MAD - The indentured servant trade: still rearing its ugly head