Why did neighbors or acquaintances launch accusations of witchcraft against particular persons?
Neighbors and acquaintances launched accusations of witchcraft against particular persons because according to Anthropologists, witches are defined as people whose behavior enacts the things that the community fears. This is one of the keys to understanding a society during this period and how they associated witchcraft to things they thought wrong or they were fearful of. Women were the most prominent of the accused, which caused a fear of “women-as-witches” epidemic during 1450-1750. Most of the women accused were moderately poor and were economically dependent on male members within their family. But, about 20% of accused women were impoverished and would often come before local town selectmen to sell their families land that was inherited to them in order to support themselves, place claims on their children or executors of their deceased husbands estates to get money, or even just to beg for food and basic necessitates. (Karlsen, 54)
Overall, neighbors and acquaintances would launch accusations of witchcraft on just about any woman from all levels of society because they were vulnerable and easy to target during this period. Karlsen lists many different examples of women accused, like wives, daughters, and widows of “middling” farmers, artisans, and mariners, and even women who belonged to the gentry class, which is the highest level of class. Accusations made on women who come from very wealthy estates were often ignored unless they were single or widowed, while accusations on married women from moderately wealthy families did not always have the easy way out unless their husbands testified on their behalf, and women with very low wealth estates were the most common of the accused. It was very common of husbands to act on behalf of their wives and slander their accusers in order to win over the jury. So, it’s a point to make that if you didn’t have a husband or you weren’t very wealthy back during the trials, you would have no protection against prosecution and would ultimately be tried for witchcraft. (Karlsen, 55)
What do you think this tells us about gender and about this time in American history?
When it comes to gender, neighbors and acquaintances launching accusations against women shows that women were most valuable during this period of history and men were held in a superior class above women and feared women taking power and gaining independence. Gender division was very prominent during this period, where men and women were expected to follow certain behaviors and ideals of this time. This takes us back to fear of “women-as-witches” epidemic and if a woman’s behavior enacts things that communities may have feared, she would easily be tried for witchcraft. Women’s gender and inheritance was also targeted simply if the woman’s parents had no sons or their son has died, also women who gave birth to only daughters, and women who were in marriages with no children. Because of the fears, gender roles, and ideas that communities during this period believed in, women were most commonly the target for witchcraft accusations. (Karlsen, 60)
When it comes to looking back at this time in American history, it tells us a lot about how certain types of women were viewed within society, as well as how important wealth and land is to people because it ultimately defines their social statuses within their communities. It also showed how much communities valued religion and far they were willing to go to protect their colonies from the Devil and evil in general. Accused women who could not recite to Lord’s Prayer, even if they didn’t practice religion and refused, would be tried as witches. Additionally, it paints a picture of how naive people were about the law and how corrupt their court system was back then because “innocent until proven guilty” did not exist and women who were tried would be presumed guilty indefinitely. It’s crazy to see how our American history has changed throughout the centuries, as well as how more fair and civilized our judicial system has become.
Citations: Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Kerber, L. K., Sherron, D. H., Dayton, C. H., & Wu, J. T. (2016). Womens America: Refocusing the Past. New York (N.Y.): Oxford University Press.