Witchcraft: nowadays, society relates the term with the magical spectacle and the Harry Potter franchise. However, in the 1600’s it meant something entirely different. At the time, the idea of witchcraft and the connection to the supernatural world sparked fear and hate into society’s mindset. This fearful hate led to the persecution of “witches” which resulted in the witch trials. Women would be tried and if found guilty, executed. But why is that? How could a group of people resort to such mad accusations based on no factual evidence? And how did the witch trials in America differ from those that occurred thousands of miles away in England?
In America, the Puritans were the people who persecuted the poor victims of the trials. In order to explain the motives of these persecutors, it is important to understand their background. At the turn of the 17th century, the Puritans had begun to form small communities in America after leaving the religious oppression that they faced in England. They left the culture and stability of Europe and were now in their own age of exploration and experimentation. The Puritans were burdened with the obligation to establish their own culture and societal laws. While they did establish some different customs, like an incredibly strong emphasis on the importance of hard work (Kerber, De Hart, Dayton, Wu 53), the Puritans still managed to import some of the norms of English society. This is where the idea of witch trials had spawned from in the first place. Witch trials were practiced long before the Puritans persecuted some in the New World. In fact, while the Puritans had conducted hundreds of witch trials, that number is minuscule compared to the tens of thousands of trials that had occurred in early modern Europe (Kerber et al. 53).
There are several reasons and theories for why witch trials had occurred in the first place. The most obvious reasons was to exist as a tool of oppression against women. The entire world based itself upon patriarchal rule. From the top of the government to the poorest of the households, men sustained control everywhere. This lifestyle built false beliefs of female inferiority, which would often make women the group to blame when things went wrong.
When men persecuted “witches,” they full-heartedly believed that the women held or consorted with evil powers. They did not consciously think, ‘we are doing this to maintain power and patriarchal control’; they thought they were preventing evil, a mystical evil brought on by the devil and his demons. However this type of mindless, disturbed fear usually consists of multiple factors and multiple causes. In Europe, the Catholic Church encouraged many of the witch trials. Most of the women who were brought to trial were outsiders- a group that could be easily ostracized within communities. The Church and many commoners feared the idea of women becoming more independent and the possibility of changes to the power structures in Europe. This fear was expressed in the accusations and witch hunts.
Independent women, who tended to have no male heirs, were also the victims in the American witch hunts; although in America, the reasoning also held a strong economic basis. These women were either set to receive inheritance of property or couldn’t pass down their property to a male family member (Kerber et al. 61-62). I theorize that since the Puritans valued hard work and equality (or lack of hierarchy) so much, they desired a culture of hard work and equality. They felt threatened about the idea of inheritance, because people who received property without performing any work evoked the old system that was left behind in the Old World. Women- an easy scapegoat to all societal problems- with inheritance were made the victims of witch hunts.
Kerber, Linda, et.al. Women’s America. 8th edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.