What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?

Looking into the underlying causes of the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century.

By Vicki Saxon / 10.27.2015

In February 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony town of Salem Village found itself at the center of a notorious case of mass hysteria: eight young women accused their neighbors of witchcraft. Trials ensued and, when the episode concluded in May 1693, fourteen women, five men, and two dogs had been executed for their supposed supernatural crimes.

The Salem witch trials occupy a unique place in our collective history. The mystery around the hysteria and miscarriage of justice continue to inspire new critiques, most recently with today’s release of The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Pulitzer Prize-winning Stacy Schiff.

But what caused the mass hysteria, false accusations, and lapses in due process? Scholars have attempted to answer these questions with a variety of economic and physiological theories.

The economic theories of the Salem events tend to be two-fold: the first attributes the witchcraft trials to an economic downturn caused by a “little ice age” that lasted from 1550-1800; the second cites socioeconomic issues in Salem itself.

Emily Oster posits that the “little ice age” caused economic deterioration and food shortages that led to anti-witch fervor in communities in both the United States and Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Temperatures began to drop at the beginning of the fourteenth century, with the coldest periods occurring from 1680 to 1730. The economic hardships and slowdown of population growth could have caused widespread scapegoating which, during this period, manifested itself as persecution of so-called witches, due to the widely accepted belief that “witches existed, were capable of causing physical harm to others and could control natural forces.”

Salem Village, where the witchcraft accusations began, was an agrarian, poorer counterpart to the neighboring Salem Town, which was populated by wealthy merchants. According to Benjamin C. Ray, “it was an economic difference that eventually divided the village geographically into two conflicting groups…the poorer agrarian householders who lived on the western side of the village set their hearts and fears against their more prosperous and commercially minded neighbors who lived in the eastern part of the village, nearer the town, and economically benefited from it. Ultimately…the conflict between the two groups was between differing visions of community: an agrarian-based, older Puritan sense of the public goodwill contrasted with a later emergent capitalist sense of private interest. This clash led the frustrated westerners to respond by charging the easterners with witchcraft.”

On the other hand, the physiological theories for the mass hysteria and witchcraft accusations include both fungus poisoning and undiagnosed encephalitis.

Linnda Caporael argues that the girls suffered from convulsive ergotism, a condition caused by ergot, a type of fungus, found in rye and other grains. It produces hallucinatory, LSD-like effects in the afflicted and can cause victims to suffer from vertigo, crawling sensations on the skin, extremity tingling, headaches, hallucinations, and seizure-like muscle contractions. Rye was the most prevalent grain grown in the Massachusetts area at the time, and the damp climate and long storage period could have led to an ergot infestation of the grains.

One of the more controversial theories states that the girls suffered from an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, an inflammation of the brain spread by insects and birds. Symptoms include fever, headaches, lethargy, double vision, abnormal eye movements, neck rigidity, behavioral changes, and tremors.  In her 1999 book, A Fever in Salem, Laurie Winn Carlson argues that in the winter of 1691 and spring of 1692, some of the accusers exhibited these symptoms, and that a doctor had been called in to treat the girls. He couldn’t find an underlying physical cause, and therefore concluded that they suffered from possession by witchcraft, a common diagnoses of unseen conditions at the time.

The controversies surrounding the accusations, trials, and executions in Salem, 1692, continue to fascinate historians and we continue to ask why, in a society that should have known better, did this happen? Economic and physiological causes aside, the Salem witchcraft trials continue to act as a parable of caution against extremism in judicial processes.

Originally published by JSTOR Daily, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.