Witchcraft, Religious Fanaticism and Schizophrenia — Salem Revisited
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Winwar points out in his writings that when the doctors of Salem were not able to diagnose the cause of the girls' behavior, they were (the afflicted girls) declared to be possessed by the Devil and his Demons. Indeed, their behavior was peculiar, and thought incapable of being the result of a medical, or physical, cause, no matter how rational such an explanation might be. The afflicted girls' behavior is described by Winwar in the following passage.
The girls performed peculiar antics. They screamed without visible provocation, thrust out their tongues, crouched under beds and tables, suffered from horrible convulsions and were unaccountably tortured by unseen beings, who left, nonetheless, obvious marks upon the bodies of the afflicted.[xxi]
Such exotic behavior, it was thought, had to come from the Devil. We can recall, that the folks of Salem then began to believe all the girls claimed. When the folks heard the names of the accused, Salem turned from a New England town into a court of death. The ensuing trials were merciless.[xxii] The town was turned up-side-down.
The jails overflowed with prisoners awaiting the arrival of the new governor from England for the trials to begin. Salem prison could hold no more; cartloads of the accused were sent to neighboring jails in Ipswich and Boston.[xxiii]
It would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to compare the Salem witchcraft trials with those of the French Revolution during the Jacobin rule of The Terror, a century later, or even the Red Scare or McCarthyism of the 1950's and 60's in the U.S.
We have now considered the way in which Puritan life was dominated by religion. We have understood that the Puritans of New England fervently belied in the existence of the Devil. We have considered the behavior and symptoms of the afflicted girls of Salem. We have seen how the town of Salem was turned from a New England village into a merciless court. What we must next discuss is the behavior of the accused witches and why they weresentenced to death.
Furthermore, a confession of witchcraft could have saved the lives of many of the executed accused, but they refused to admit to witchcraft, which should saysomething for the accused. Lets start with Bridget Bishop.
We have learned Bridget Bishop was the first of the accused witches of Salem to stand trial and be sentenced to death.[xxiv] By considering the events of her trial we will understand why so many lost their lives. Why was Bridget Bishop seen as guilty upon being accused by the afflicted girls of witchcraft? The following is one explanation.
Many enemies had the high-handed, sharp-tongued hostelry keeper made for herself among the people of Salem. The women hated her because she scorned the drabness of their garb and disregarded the Puritan laws that fixed the apparel of every sober man and woman. Her bright paragon bodice, braided and looped with many colors, and her cloak of fine cut were the scandal of the town. The late hours she kept at her wayside inn entertaining the sailors at shuffleboard and checkers, horrified the pure in mind. Furthermore, for many years she had been under suspicion of witchcraft because of...... accusations brought against her...
But the good people of her neighborhood had long memories which they exercised zealously when they saw her lands multiply and her tavern thrive.[xxv]
This explanation alludes to the idea that if one were prosperous, and not a follower of the Puritan laws, he/she was vulnerable to the accusation of witchcraft. The trial of Bridget Bishop, like the subsequent ones, was not a mirror image of our trials of contemporary times. Innocent until proven guilty was not the philosophy of the Puritan courtroom! Consider the following from Bishop's trial.
What do you say of these murders you are charged with? ...I am innocent. I know nothing of them......What contract have you made with the Devil?....I made no contract. The shrieking drowned out her words and the judge's as the children fell into renewed agonies so excruciating that for some minutes the business could not proceed. The woman (it was believed) was working her witchcraft in defiance of the very court.[xxvi]
The seemingly overwhelming evidence, to the court, against Bishop was presented by Jon Bly Sr. and William Bly. According to the testimony of these men, they found, at her old house, "Deponends in holes. . . belonging to the said Cellar found several puppets made up of Rags and hog's Bristles withheadless pins."[xxvii] Although the dolls, assumed to be instruments of witchcraft, were considered important evidence against Bishop, they never were brought in as physical evidence to the trial. But, physical evidence, in a courtroom that allowed specter evidence, was not needed to find guilt. Bridget Bishop had no chance of proving her innocence. She was either expected to admit she was guilty or be found guilty. The penalty was, of course, death.
Bridget Bishop was condemned. On the tenth of June (1692) George Corwin, thesheriff, would take her to the ledge of Gallow's Hill, there to hang her by the neck till she was dead.[xxviii]
As stated earlier, the scriptures, according to Mosaic law, deemed that witches should be punished by death. Bridget Bishop was not the only person to die because of accusations of witchcraft. The case of Rebecca Nurse is a more severe and shocking example of the extent of the Puritan religious fanaticism of 1692. She was a seventy-one-year-old, respected lady at the time the accusations were brought against her. She was considered a saint by many in Salem. Yet, on July 3, 1692, she was excommunicated from the church in Salem and sentenced to death. On July 19, she fell victim to the noose. Tragic! Obviously, the Puritans who took the life of this grandmother were fanatics and blinded by their religious beliefs.[xxix]
The Puritans of Salem, in 1692, were not evil, murderous people. They were victims of the religious fanaticism of the day. As a result of the dominant role that religion played in their lives, their belief in the existence of the Devil, their belief in the biblical teaching that witches were, in fact, real and one must not suffer a witch to live, and the oddity of the afflicted girls' exotic symptoms, the accused witches' lives were taken. Oddly enough, another question arises that questions the Puritan's logic: Why were only the ones accused of witchcraft, that did not admit to the crime, hanged? Why weren't the confessed witches hanged? One need not be an extraordinarily sagacious scholar of American history to conclude that the loss of life during 1692, in Salem, was the result of Puritan religious fanaticism.
What we must next consider in our examination of the Salem witchcraft trials is the cause of the exotic physical and mental behavior that many displayed during this event. It is reasonable for one to consider the possibility that schizophrenia might very well have been responsible for much of the aforementioned exotic behavior. At the time that the afflicted girls were diagnosed as being possessed no one had completed any in depth studies on this disease. In fact, some might even argue that the disease had never been diagnosed anywhere in the New or Old world. Although unknown and undiagnosed, there can be no question that mental illness, especially schizophrenia, existed in and about the time of 1692.
The following section of this paper will discuss what schizophrenia is, define the various types of schizophrenia, consider how the symptoms of schizophrenia correlate with those of various individuals (like the afflicted girls) in Salem in 1692, and draw a conclusion. Schizophrenia can bedefined as:
A form of psychosis characterized by delusions, hallucinations, apathy or inappropriate emotions, and withdrawal from reality.[xxx]
And as for the effects of schizophrenia, "perhaps no psychological disorder is more crippling than schizophrenia."[xxxi] Schizophrenia is a group of related illnesses that can cause a "loss of self-control resulting in unpredictable and highly bizarre behavior."[xxxii] Now, let us consider the characteristics of the various types of schizophrenia.
The simple type is characterized by a slow and insiduous reduction of external attachments and interests and by apathy and indifference leading to impoverishment of interpersonal relations, mental deterioration, and adjustment at a lower level of functioning.[xxxiii]
The second type of schizophrenia is the hebephrenic type. It is characterized by disorganized thinking, shallow and inappropriate effect, unpredictable giggling, silly and regressive behavior and mannerisms, and frequent hypochondriachal complaints. Delusions and hallucinations, if present, are transient and not well organized.[xxxiv]
Dr. Camilla Anderson, a psychiatrist at the University of Utah, defined hallucinations in her book, Beyond Freud, as sensory perceptions (hearing, seeing, tasting, feeling, smelling, etc.) which have no basis in fact. No external stimulus produces them. They arise from within the individual himself but are interpreted by him as having an external origin.[xxxv]
to the Schizophrenic Homepage, "Hallucinations can be heard, seen, or
even felt; most often they take the form of voices heard only by the
Dr. Anderson defines delusions as false
convictions which are not amenable
to reasoning. They, like dreams,
are the person's own products. He
has constructed them by himself, and
without external help.[xxxvii]
The third type of schizophrenia is the catatonic type which is usually divided into two subtypes.
One is marked by excessive and sometimes violent motor activity and excitement. The other subtype, which is more common, is characterized by general inhibition of movement, stupor, mutism, and negativism.....Delusions and hallucinations are usually present.[xxxviii]
The fourth type of schizophrenia is the paranoid type. It is characterized primarily by the presence of delusions of persecution or grandeur. Hallucinations are often present. Excessive religiosity is sometimes seen. The patient's attitude is frequently hostile and aggressive, and his (her) behavior tends to be influenced by his (her) delusions.[xxxix]
The chronic undifferentiated type is characterized by symptoms associated with one or more of the other types mentioned. The symptoms may vary, with some symptoms most prominent at one time and others most prominent at other times.[xl]
It is important
that one realize that a person suffering from one of the aforementioned
types of schizophrenia will not always exhibit the behavior characteristic
of the type of the disease he/she is suffering from. Sometimes the patient
will be rational and seem completely "normal" until a particular
It is our belief that schizophrenia was present in Salem in 1692 and that
the type most prevalent was the chronic undifferentiated type, which
manifests various behaviors from all types.
Let us now consider a case study of a schizophrenic female and draw a correlation
between her behavior and behavior in Salem.
Twenty-six-year-old Janet Douglas (fictional name) was brought to a mental health center in the United States. Upon admission she told the examining doctor she did not think she needed help. After further questions she made the odd claim, with a straight face, that all the people in her city could hear what she was thinking. 'It all started five years ago,' she said, 'when the President of the United States ordered the FBI to plant "truth serum" in my drinking water.' Suddenly, she broke intouncontrollable
giggles, wrinkling up her face, rolling her head, and saying, almost incomprehensibly: 'But I fool them....the way they are. My eyes can speak of the beauty. I say love words and pattern words I've found out until everybody quits the way I make them..' she giggled wildly in her cupped hand. Shortly afterwards, she told the doctor that often when she 'starts to be perfect' she heard the voices of her neighbours in the air....These voices frightened her so much.....While she described her torments, however, her giggling faded and she became inappropriately calm, attaching no emotional depth to her own words...[xlii]
Certainly this particular schizophrenic was suffering from a combination of the paranoid type of schizophrenia and the chronic undifferentiated type. Let us now see if we can correlate the aforementioned case study and the characteristics of the various schizophrenias with some behavior in Salem.
must first consider the behavior of the afflicted girls, as depicted
by Francis Winwar in his writings on Salem.
The girls performed
peculiar antics. They screamed
without visible provocation, thrust
out their tongues, crouched under beds
and tables, suffered from horrible convulsions
and were unaccountably tortured
by unseen beings, who left,nonetheless,
obvious marks upon the bodies
of the afflicted.[xliii]
can see that the afflicted girls were tormented for no apparent reason,
as was the female in the case study. Perhaps the torments were the result
of different, or similar, hallucinations. Both the afflicted girls and
the lady in the case study behaved peculiarly and inappropriately. In
addition, no one can deny that the afflicted girls showed one of the
symptoms of the paranoid type of schizophrenia; obsession with religion.
We have already discussed in the first section of this paper how religion
was the main concern of the way of life in Salem village.
the idea that hallucinations and delusions were present in Salem is
not difficult. We have already noted that the aforementioned are characteristics
of schizophrenia. Consider the following narrative from the Salem witchcraft
In the beginning
of the Evening, I
went to give Mr. P. a visit. When Iwas
there, his Kins-woman, Abagail Williams
(about twelve years of age), had
a grevious fit: she was at first hurried
with Violence to and fro in the room
(though Mrs. Ingersol endeavored to
hold her); sometimes making as if she
would fly, stretching up her arms as
high as she could, and crying "Whish,Whish,
Whish!" several times; Presently after
she said there was Goodw N(urse). and
said "Do you not see her? Why there she
stands!" And the said Goodw. N. offered
her The Book, but she was resolved
she would not take it, saying Often
"I wont, I wont, I wont, take it, I do not
know what Book it is: I am sure it is none
of God's Book, it is the Divels Book, for
ought I know." After that, she run to the Fire,
and begun to throw Fire Brands, about
the house; and run against the Back, as
if she would run up the Chimney, and, as
they said, she had attempted to go intothe
Fire in other Fits.[xliv]
Obviously Abagail Williams was deluded into believing, perhaps, that she was a bird at one point and perhaps a rodent (near the end of the passage where she tries to run up the chimney) at another point. She also showed signs of being a catatonic schizophrenic because of her violent behavior. Clearly, she had a hallucination of Rebecca Nurse and the Devil's Book. Anyone who has studied the Salem witchcraft episode in any detail is aware that such hallucinations and delusions manifested throughout the episode in 1692. Let us consider another hallucination.
The Deposition of Ann. putnam the wife of Thomas putnam agged about thirty years who testifieth and saith......I being wearied out in helping to tend my poor afflected Child and Maid: about the middle of the affternoon I layd me down to take a little Rest: and Immediately I was allmost prest and Choaked to death: that had it not been for the mircy of a gratious God and the help of those that ware with me: I could not have lived many moments: and presently I saw the Apperishtion of Martha Cory who did torter me so as I cannot Express Redy to tare me all to peaces: and yn departed from me alitle while: but before I could recover strenth or well take breath the Apperishtion of Martha Cory fell upon me again with dreadful tortors and hellish temtations to goe along with hir and she also brought to me a little Red book in hir hand and a black pen urging me vehemently to writ in hir book: and severall times that day she did most greviously tortor me allmost redy to kill me....[xlv]
Putman, Jr., age 12 at the time of the beginning of the trial, became
one of the most active of the accusers. She, along with her sister,
Abigail, presented numerous claims of witchcraft by means of specter
evidence and bodily afflictions. Unlike the rest of the afflicted children,
Ann, in 1706, offered a public apology for her part in the witchcraft
trials. Ann stated, "I desire to be humble before God. It was a great
delusion of Satan that deceived me in that said time. I did not do it
out of anger, malice, or ill-will."[xlvi]
Ann admitted that she was under a delusion, in her own mind, of the
particular characteristic of schizophrenia Ann showed was the fact that
she never married or had children. She devoted the rest of her life
to raising her siblings, and died at the age of 37.[xlvii] Nancy C. Anderson, M.D, Ph.D. at the University
of Iowa, discussed this trend in schizophrenics. Anderson notes that
schizophrenia "persists as an illness despite the fact that the majority
of its victims do not marry or procreate."[xlviii] Perhaps, instead of being an accuser, Ann Putman was as
much as a victim as the slain accused witches. Perhaps Ann suffered
from a disease, schizophrenia, which was unknown of in her time.
one can debate the fact that hallucinations were present in Salem. In
addition, if you will recall from the descriptions of the various types
of schizophrenia, we have seen many of the characteristics of the various
schizophrenias in the behavior of the townsfolk of Salem.
order to further establish the hypothesis that schizophrenia may very
well have been present in Salem in 1692, we have consulted two doctors
to learn of professional opinions on this matter. The already mentioned
Dr. Anderson asserts in her writing that a person's belief that he or
she is being controlled by an outside force, like God or some other
supernatural power (the Devil or demons) is a characteristic of schizophrenia.[xlix]
One need not be an extraordinarily sagacious historian to realize that
the aforementioned belief permeated the townsfolk of Salem.
conclusion, the events of the witchcraft hysteria in Salem, MA, in 1692,
presented two key factors: (1) Religious Fanaticism and its capabilities
and (2) Schizophrenia and the results of ignorance to psychological
diseases. Were the Puritans evil and horrible people who wanted to hang
men and women in the name of witchcraft? No, they just wanted to serve
the Lord in their own way, according to their Puritan doctrine. The
good people of Salem simply fell victim to the powers of religious fanaticism
and a misunderstanding of the afflicted girls' symptoms. Leaders, such
as Cotton Mather and Reverend Parris, hurried to defeat the Devil and
his witches, only to incorporate some of the same tactics that the alleged
witches used in tying to convince citizens of Salem to join their ranks.
The court used torture and the fear of death to gain confessions. With
the help and advise of certain Puritan leaders, especially Increase
Mather, the Puritans came to realize that "although witchcraft was still
a real danger, the crime of spilling innocent blood came to be more
frightening than the crime of suffering a witch to live."[l]
paper is just the beginning of a new way to look at the Salem Witchcraft
trials, and perhaps history in general. Looking back over the past few
decades in American History, the theme of religious fanaticism and/or
mental illness has produced similar results, as it did in Salem in 1692.
Consider, briefly, such incidents as the Waco, TX, fiasco, the men from
the "Heaven's Gate" mass suicide, or even Charles Manson's tirade. In
all these instances, men and women lost their lives in the name of religious
fanaticism, and, perhaps, each of the leaders suffered from a mental
illness, such as schizophrenia. The power of religious fanaticism and
mental illness cannot be denied, nor overlooked. Perhaps the topic of
Salem witchcraft has been exhausted, however, it will present the same
burning questions to historians and students for many years to come.
research into the psychological health of the afflicted and the Puritan
leaders needs to be conducted before the factors of religious fanaticism
and mental illness (schizophrenia) can be considered a strong reason
for the cause and actions of the witch hunt in 1692. All we are looking
for is the possibility that these two factors were present, and that
they could have had an inverse effect upon the trials, and to begin
the understanding, from a psychological view, of the Puritans and their
Camilla Dr. Beyond Freud: A Creative Approach To Mental Health.
New York. Harper And Brothers, 1957.
Sacvan. Aspects Of Puritan Religious Thought. New York. AMS Press,
Paul & Nissenbaum, Stephen. Salem Possessed. London. Harvard
University Press, 1974.
James & Minkema, Kenneth. The Sermon Notebook Of Samuel Parris:
1689-1694. Boston. University Press Of Virginia, 1993.
The Witchcraft Of Salem Village. New York. Random House, 1956.
Bill, Murray State University, History 300, Fall 1998.
Trials Homepage. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_BMAT.HTM.
The Puritan Mind. Michigan. The University Of Michigan Press,
Ming. Schizophrenia: The Facts. Oxford. Oxford University Press,
Frances. Puritan City: The Story Of Salem. New York. Robert M.
McBride & Company, 1938.
in Salem Village Homepage http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/NurseDoc/NurLaw1.
From The Salem Witchcraft Trials. http//www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_BNUR.HTM
Schneider, The Puritan Mind (Michigan: The University of Michigan
Press, 1958), 23.
Paul & Nissenbaum, Stephen, Salem Possessed, 69.
Winwar. Puritan City: The Story Of Salem, 100.
Bill Mulligan, HIS 300, Murray State University, Fall, 1998.
Puritan City, 106.
David, ed. What Happened in Salem?, 57.
From The Salem Witchcraft Trials, http//www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_BNUR.HTM
[xxx] Coon, Dennis, Essentials
Of Psychology: Exploration and Application, 6th edition
West Publishing Co., 1994), 513
[xxxi] Hollandsworth Jr., James G.,
The Physiology of Psychological Disorders: Schizophrenia,
Anxiety, and Substance Abuse (New York: Plenum Press, 1990), 67.
[xxxii] Stolov, Walter Dr. & Clowers,
Michael Dr., Handbook Of Severe Disability
(Washington: U.S. Department of Education & Rehabilitation Services
Administration, 1981), 254
[xxxv] Anderson, Camilla Dr., Beyond
Freud: A Creative Approach To Mental Health, (New York: Harper And
Brothers, 1957), p. 209.
[xxxvi] "An Introduction to Schizophrenia"
from Schizophrenic Homepage. Http://www.schizophrenic.com/family/scizintro.html
Camilla Dr., Beyond Freud, 210.
Walters Dr. and Clowers, Michael Dr., Handbook Of Severe Disability,
Ming, Schizophrenia: The Facts (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Francis, Puritan City, 96.
Collection: Deodat Lawson's Narrative
Collection: Deposition: Ann Putnam, Sr. Vs. Martha Cory and Rebecca
[xlvi] "Biography of Ann Putman, Jr.,"
the Causes of Schizophrenia" from The New England Journal of Medicine.
Camilla Dr., Beyond Freud, 214.