I did some research on the origin of the Salem witch trials in the 1600’s and I was amazed by what I found. We all know the stories of accused witches being burned at the stake at Salem’s Gallows Hill. I wanted to know what sparked the craze. The accusations of witchcraft amongst the early colonists seemed to suddenly appear out of the blue, but I uncovered some information about the roots of these troubling times.
In 1689, a few years before the witchcraft hysteria began, English rulers William and Mary waged a war against French settlers in the American colonies. The war ravaged sections of Quebec, Nova Scotia and upstate New York. Refugees from the war sought sanctuary in the American colonies. Undocumented foreigners began streaming into the county of Essex, with a large influx arriving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony known as Salem Village.
Displaced immigrants put a strain on the town’s meager resources, causing much tension between the families in control of the port of Salem. Distrust also was brewed over the choice of Salem Village’s first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel Parris. The townsfolk disliked his strict conservative rules which were a throwback to the constraints they left behind in England. The Reverend’s perceived greedy nature didn’t win him any friends either. Some Puritan’s were sure the Devil was behind the rising internal tension in the colony. Anger was bubbling under the surface of the once peaceful settlement.
For the next few years, stories of witches and witchcraft were whispered on the wind. A sideways glance from a neighbor was all it took before accusations began to fly. Soon, mass hysteria seeped into every inhabitant of the colony and the witch hunts began. No one was safe.
In the spring of 1692, the witch trials began. A group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. A newly created division of the court was put in place to begin hearing cases brought before them. Bridget Bishop, the first convicted witch, was hanged that June. Eighteen other convicted colonists were also executed at Salem’s Gallows Hill. Hundreds more men, women and children were accused by friends, neighbors and clergy over the next several months. It wasn’t until the following September that the tide of public opinion turned against the insanity of the situation. Some of the guilty verdicts were annulled by the court. Settlements were paid to some families, but it was too little, too late. The damage had been done. We are still talking about this dark time in our history even to this day.
Who would have thought the Salem Witch trials have parallels to the illegal immigrant/refugee crisis facing today’s society. Xenophobia has been running rampant for hundreds of years. Sealing our borders can’t be the right answer. Isolationism and a closed door policy will not help our country move forward financially or economically. And yet we have to do something. Anything.
The Salem Witch trials burned themselves out after many months (and many perceived witches being burned alive as well). Our country has made great strides over the hundreds of years since the colonists arrived here from England seeking religious freedom. Have we gone too far? Is there a limit as to how much freedom a country can handle before the country ceases to exist? Like the early settlers who were gripped by fear and terror, we are still blaming each other for our troubles instead of working on ways to solve our problems. Sadly, Gallows Hill doesn’t seem so far away.