Witch Hunts: Then And Now Essay

3111 words - 12 pages

As empirical evidence discovered by 21st-century science allows the world’s understanding of the physical universe to increase exponentially, more people grow skeptical of superstition. During the 16th and 17th centuries, however, a phenomenon of worldwide mass hysteria came out of the medieval period and swept across Europe and Colonial North America with speed. The concept of magic versus religion, specifically witchcraft, became the prominent collective-obsessional-behavior problem around the beginning of the 15th century. By the end of the 16th century, it had spread to the Puritans in the British colonies of New England and soon resulted in the shattering of due process through religious extremism. Roughly 400 years later, the U.S. mainstream media, political system, and popular literature still reference these events, coined as the “Salem Witch Trials,” or collectively “a witch hunt.” Some would say that the overwhelming attention it received was the very reason why it thrived so violently for so long. Others argue that the important social lessons it taught carry on today, just in different form, due to the close-minded dismissal of superstitious folklore and concepts. Regardless, the “Salem Witch Trials” remain significant still today as the same themes of fear, mass persuasion and extremism continue to permeate modern American culture.
The facts of the case are this: a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft were conducted in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693 leaving hundreds dead or imprisoned (Foner, 2008). Those that remained free but exiled, at the very least, carried a stigma that tarnished their reputation. The most infamous of these trials were by the Salem Town Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692. They sent “nineteen people to the gallows, one to be crushed, fifty to be condemned for their confessions to avoid execution, one hundred fifty to prison, and hundreds more accused” (Calef, 1700, pp. 110). Even royally appointed Governor of Massachusetts Bay, William Phips claimed “when [he] put an end to the Court there were at least fifty persons in prison in great misery by reason of the extreme cold and poverty, most of them having only spectre evidence against them and their mittimusses being defective.” (Phips, 1693). After 50 more in prison, even parts of the government started to doubt the system by which these accusations were handled.
Supernatural forces were a part of everyday life in 17th century colonial America. For one to believe in God, they had to believe in Satan. To believe in angels means one believed in demons. Any deviation from this was heresy and severe punishment from both church and court was inflicted. The concept of witchcraft drifted from Europe to colonial America mostly due to the overwhelming amount of agriculture and farming where it was known that farmers and peasants sometimes used charms in hopes to bring about a bountiful...

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