In the 1600s, Puritans settled on the East coast of the United States. They brought with them the hope of religious freedom, but instead became embroiled in hysteria over the existence of witches. They had been persecuted in their native England, but they created a theocracy and eventually persecuted others.
Most of those accused of being witches were women. Many were healers, and used plants to heal people. Many were without family, and this made them easy targets. They were people who did not fit in with the mainstream for some reason.
One of the ways most witches were accused was with the use of “spectral evidence.” If someone said they had seen the accused with the devil in a dream, or that the accused had visited them in the night, or had hurt them, it was taken as evidence that the devil was at work. 20 executed Between 175 to 200 imprisoned
How did it start? In 1692, several girls in the village of Salem, Massachusetts became intrigued when a West Indian servant told them stories of magic and voodoo from her native land. Bored and restricted by the oppressive Puritan life, the girls slipped into the woods one night and “conjured” love charms and hexes. One girl, Betty Parris, slipped into unconsciousness when her father caught them. She wouldn’t wake up, and this started the discussion of witchcraft. To avoid punishment, the girls created the story of the “witches” who made them dance and conjure the spells.
Why did it happen? It began as a way for the oppressed girls to avoid being punished. It then became an ideal way to get revenge on anyone whom you disliked. People started accusing their neighbors of being witches so they could steal their farmland. People accused others of being witches if they wanted to steal their husbands or wives or possessions.
Those accused of being witches were most often found guilty. Sometimes they were sentenced to be tied to a rock dunked in a pond, and if they sank, they were declared innocent. Innocent. If they somehow survived the dunking, they were obviously witches, and they were executed. Most of those found guilty of witchcraft were hung. One man was pressed to death with rocks because he refused to plead guilty or innocent, insuring that his sons still inherited his lands.
Why Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” Arthur Miller, one of America’s most famous playwrights, lived during the 1950s and experienced the Communist hysteria of the era. People thought their were Commies everywhere, and one man, Senator Joseph McCarthy, made it his personal mission to find Communists and destroy their lives by bringing them before something called the HOUSE UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE.
Senator McCarthy accused many people— actors, writers, people in media, people in the military — of being Communists. He held hearings where people were commanded to give names of other Communists in order for leniency. People were afraid they might be named as Communists, and it was called the Red Scare. (‘Red’ was a word used for a Communist.)
The Crucible was Arthur Miller’s way of protesting the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings. He compared the Communist hearings to the witch hunts of Salem, where gossip, rumors, and fear were evidence enough to convict people. The term “witch hunt” now applies to any activity where people are looking for a scapegoat or where they are using accusations to get revenge or to get personal gain or attention .
REFLECTION (150 + words) Based on what you’ve heard about the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy hearings, write a paragraph detailing any connections you see between the two occurrences. Why do you think Arthur Miller chose to use the period of history (1692) that he chose? Why didn’t he just write about the Red Scare and the McCarthy trials?s Are there any differences between the two occurrences (other than the obvious things, like time periods and clothes, etc.) How do you think both of these “witch hunts” were stopped eventually?
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