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Slaves, Puritans and Poisoned Wheat
Popular history has tried to find pat answers to the causes of the Massachusetts witch trials of 1692. Convenient myths point an accusing finger at the severe and unforgiving Puritans. Others point to a dark-skinned Caribbean slave who supposedly brought witchcraft to Massachusetts from Barbados, or hallucinogenic microbes in the wheat causing the girls of the village to convulse and appear bewitched. In fact, these explanations have little basis in reality. Tituba and her husband, John Indian, black slaves from the Caribbean had no central role in the trials. There is no mention in any of the historical records of Tituba dancing in the woods with the girls, or practicing witchcraft.
While the Puritan religion makes an easy target for blame, most of the ministers of the day signed petitions declaring the innocence of the accused. In general, they were against the tactics of the Salem Judges.
There was even a theory that blamed the seizures of the girls on a microbial infection of the local wheat. In fact, the erratic behavior and gyrations of the accusers was carefully choreographed. This was not random, pathological movement caused by infected food.
There is no easy, convenient and neat explanation. The tragic events in Essex County, Massachusetts were initiated by ill-behaved girls who accused for sport. The court made a tragic situation worse. The accused, presumed guilty by the judges, were tortured until they pleaded guilty, accused others and were set free. If they pleaded innocent, they were executed. One man refused to plead at all and was tortured to death over a three day period. With these judicial tactics it is easy to understand why the number of accused increased dramatically over a short period of time.
What makes tragedies like this all the more tragic is that we do not always learn by our mistakes. How many “witch trials” have there been since 1692 and who have been the accused?
Dr. Len Radin
See our video on theatre etiquette at: youtu.be/lRwFj7aQZyo
Drury High School
North Adams, Massachusetts