Gender and Witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials have been cited as one of the darkest periods in American history. Researchers and scholars alike have been fascinated by the event and various aspects of the trials have been extensively analyzed. Several explanations have been provided in order to explain the reasons behind the witch trials ranging from political, economic, sociological and psychological. The witch trials that spanned several months claimed many victims; a large percentage being women.

It has also been found out that most accusers were also women. The focus of this paper is to find out the relationship between gender and witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. What was it about women during this time that led people to link them to witchcraft?

Witchcraft has always existed in various societies. The New England settlers also had a long history of magic and witchcraft in their history (Demos, 1982). Some of the witchcraft was referred to as white magic and was mainly used to heal the sick, improve farm productivity and solve other societal problems. Witchcraft was however illegalized and a punishment of death was placed to all those who meddle with supernatural activities.

The settlers brought these beliefs in a foreign land where the natives believed in witchcraft and magic. The publication of Malleus Malificarum by Heinrich Kramer also led to the wide belief of witchcraft, magic and evil. Kramer identified several characteristics of demonic possession and witchcraft manifestations (Reis, 1998). The symptoms identified in the early puritan girls conformed to those characteristics listed by Kramer and thus fueling the start of the witch hunt. Although not intended to be a form of victimization to women, the witch hunt took this form. The relationship between gender and witchcraft can be witnessed in the social, religious, economic, and legal aspect of the early New England society.


In 1692, a series of witchcraft trials took place in colonial Massachusetts. For almost a year, several cases of curses, black magic related incidents and sorcery were reported in Salem (Karlsen, 1987). During this period, over one hundred and fifty people were arrested. Most of the accusers (those claiming to be afflicted) were teenage girls.

Researchers generally agree that the trials began with the claims of the Parris household. According to Karlsen (1987), two children in the house of reverend Samuel Parris experienced fits that were termed abnormal. A physician inspected the girls and found no evidence of any disease. Three people were arrested for putting a curse on the girls and inflicting the abnormal ailments. Those arrested were; an Indian slave called Tituba, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good. After the initial accusations, many more cases were reported and a witch hunt ensued.

Several factors played a role in the spread of witchcraft claims, accusations and trials. First, during this time a major family feud existed in the area. The Porter and Putnam family were involved in a vicious rivalry that had divided the whole community of Salem (Wilson, 1997). The porter who were largely entrepreneur were gaining more money that the agricultural dependent Putnam family. The rivalry began after the Putnam’s’ farm was flooded by a dam belonging to the Porters. This rivalry intensified after Reverend Samuel Parris arrived in Salem. The issue of how the reverend was to be paid became a conflict with the two families taking opposing sides and rallying supporters.

Another issue that may have led to the explosion of the witch trials was the Puritan religious beliefs of the time. After escaping the persecution in England to start a new way of life in colonial America, the puritans developed a new system of religion. This puritan system was very strict and as a result fueled the spread of witchcraft beliefs (Rosenthal, 1993).

The final issue is the socio-economic condition of the area at the time. The new lands offered many opportunities to the new settlers. However, agricultural practices were the main source of income and land was a valuable commodity. Competition for inheritance was a very big issue and may have fueled the witchcraft accusations. The social beliefs during this time may also have played a big role in shaping the spread of witchcraft accusations (Hill, 1995).

Women accounted almost eighty percent of all those accused of witchcraft (Karlsen, 1987). Karlsen also notes that about 50% of all men accused of witchcraft had a direct relationship with an accused woman. According to Gage (1893), the witch trials can only be understood if we substitute the word witch for woman. The relationship between gender and witchcraft can only be analyzed by looking at the various situations existing at the time.

The Puritan Society

In the New England’s puritan society, the supernatural was a major aspect of life. Deviation from God’s laws led to misfortune while good fortune was as a result of blessings from God. According to Reis (1999), the puritan system of religion was more primitive than that of England. Many believers were curious about God and his plans for their future. However, they believed that it was impossible to know this and claims about knowing God’s plan was a damnable crime.

Miracles common in the Catholic Church were considered as human manipulation and not divine works. The use of “white” magic by healers was a belief common in the puritan society. They believed that this magic was intended to reveal God’s plan and not alter it. “White” magic could easily turn evil or “black” when the user tries to alter God’s plan or when the user uses acquired knowledge for personal gain (Brekus, 2007). Puritans believed that individuals made a covenant with God through the church.

The family governed the religious and cultural aspects of life. Men acted as rulers over their wives, children and servants. Women were required to tend to the home, rear the children and respect their husbands. In church, Women could not in governance but they could partake in other activities such as signing the covenant, conversion, baptizing and teaching the young children (Karlsen, 1987).

For a woman in the puritan society, joy and success can achieved after a suitable marriage, successful childbirth and acceptance to the church, a wonderful baptism and an awe-inspiring conversion. Unlike men, women were more likely to internalize the messages received in sermons. Women were more likely to view themselves as more sinful and thus deserving to be punished in hell. Men on the other hand could easily repent rather that dwell on their sinful nature.

The puritans believed that souls had no sex and thus men and women were equal before God. However, it was believed that women were more susceptible to the devil’s influence than men (Hill, 1995). The teaching of the bible played a big role in this with ministers citing the fall of Adam as being caused by the weak nature of Eve. Men were associated with strength and as such they could stand strong in times of temptations.

The weak body of a woman meant that their souls were also likely to be weak and thus prone to outside influences by evil entities. These beliefs were so common at the time such that the women themselves accepted that they were much closer to the devil than the men. This resulted in the development of several elements that an upright woman should possess. Deviation from these elements meant that the woman was unholy and thus likely in service to the devil.

According to Reis (1998), the accused witch Rebecca Eames was a prime example of transgressions that resulted from deviation from the perfect woman elements. Eames admitted to be in service of the devil by signing the devil’s covenant. This was done through adultery and attempts to hide the details of the act. She was very sure that her transgressions amounted to being the devil’s partner and death was a justified punishment. Many women could not distinguish between the sinful nature of man and involvement in witchcraft mainly due to the vital role played by the covenant in puritan beliefs.

Another aspect in religion that led to the spread of witch hunt was the aspect of beauty. Since the puritan society was dominated by men, it became a common belief that women used their beauty to weaken the wills of men, enter their thoughts and spread evil (Rosenthal, 1993). Temptation was regarded as one of the biggest obstacles to God and as such, women were the devil’s tools on earth.

Economic aspects of the Salem Trials

The New England puritan society was mainly patriarchal in nature. Men acted as bread winners in the family with women taking other minor roles. Inheritance was mainly governed by customary law in the puritan society (Hoffer, 1997).

A widow was usually left not less than a third of the man’s total property. She however only granted a life interest in the property and as such she could maintain herself with the earnings from the property but had to ensure that she did not waste the said properties. She was also forbidden from selling any immovable estate unless granted the permission of the court. Interstate cases also governed inheritance laws. If a will was never prepared, the court granted the women a third of the property with the rest being divided amongst the children with the eldest son being granted double portions while the rest received equal portions (Hoffer, 1997). The issue of inheritance was a factor determining which women were accused of being witches.

According to Karlsen (1987), during the early periods of settlement most women accused of being witches were poor. However, the large number of those executed during the witch trials was those women who had inherited wealth or were about to. Early New England women were dependent on their husbands or male relatives for economic support. The law deemed that any earnings made by women belonged to their husbands.

As such women were completely dependent on their male relatives for economic sustenance. During the witchcraft trials, the courts instituted a law that stipulated that those accused and found guilty of witchcraft shall loose property, inheritance and civil rights. According to Karlsen (1987), women like Margaret Thatcher who had inherited a large amount of property from both her husband and father were target soon after the inheritance.

The main reason behind the bias is that women were not supposed to own property. The case of Rachel Clinton is a very good example of how the economic condition of women led them to being dubbed as witches. Rachel was left a large amount of inheritance by her mother. However, since Rachel was not married, her entire estate was put in the hands of her brother in law. Rachel soon married an indentured servant whose freedom she had paid for.

The husband was also fourteen years younger than Rachel. This was against the puritan way thus resulting in the permanent loss of Rachel’s inheritances to her brother in law and the subsequent accusation of witchcraft. A woman who owns property challenges the natural order of things; men being bread winners and women being delegated to menial tasks. Women who had no male offspring also were very likely to be accused as witches. This is because such women obstructed the normal transfer of property from one male generation to the next. In the case of

Economically, women were also accused of being witches because they could not keep themselves tidy and appear in the manner acceptable by the community (Reis, 1998). Sarah Good, one of the first three people to be accused of witchcraft, was a homeless beggar. The accusations were mainly because of her unkempt appearance and terrible reputation. She was accused of going against the puritan way of life by lacking self-control and by scorning children.

New England was a new community trying to develop in a harsh new world. The division of resource was a very delicate issue during this time and as a result a point of conflict (Boyer & Nissenbaum, 1974). It was generally accepted that only men can own resources. However, the production of male heirs could not be guaranteed leading to changes in inheritance lines. Women who stood to inherit wealth or had inherited wealth were scorned upon. Rumors began spreading on how they had used witchcraft to get rid of their husbands in order to access his wealth. Some also argued that these women had made a pact with the devil in order to prevent any male heir from being born. This was however a plan by jealous neighbours or angry relatives to get access to the wealth accorded to these women.

Demographic Aspects of the Salem Trials

According to Karlsen (1987), witchcraft accusations generally began due to disagreements among people who were familiar with each other. However, certain people were more prone to accusations than others. It was also noted that not everyone accused faced trial and conviction. There was a basis for judging who was most likely to be a witch and who was not. According to researchers, the witchcraft accusations were not random and followed a specific pattern (Hill & Armstrong, 2002). This was as a result of the preconceived ideas on how a witch was supposed to look like developed by the people of Salem.

It has been noted that women accounted for about 80% of those accused of witchcraft (Karlsen, 1987). In the Salem trials, twenty people were executed as a result of witchcraft. Of these 20, 15 of them were women. The dominance of women can be explained by the religious and cultural believes of the Puritans explained in latter sections. The women so chosen were usually childless, had no male children or had no male relatives. According to Karlsen, over 61% of all those executed had no brothers or sons. Most of those accused of witchcraft were also elderly, generally above 40 years of age.

The death of Ann Hibbens of Boston has been cited as one of factors that shaped future trials. Most elderly women were widows, living along and most likely have come to some kind of inheritance. Since most initial accusers were young teenage girls, anger could have played an important role in the accusations. Young girls were scared that they will remain unmarried since most of them did not have anyone to establish their dowries or find them appropriate suitors (Reis, 1998). Although most of the accused were white, there was a general mistrust of foreigners. The slave girl Tituba brought with her superstitions and beliefs of her native tribe.

This led to the spread in the belief of witchcraft and the generalization of those likely to be witches. One of the beliefs during this time was that those who were unsightly and of poor health were more likely to be witches. This is because old and sickly women were bitter and would like to get back at others for their misfortune. It can thus be noted that the Salem trials targeted on social outcasts in terms of age, marital status, wealth and health (Rosenthal, 1993).

The legal framework of New England offered little protection to those accused of witchcraft. The accusers usually filed a complaint citing injury due to witchcraft citing a person. An arrest warrant was then issued to detain the accused and if sufficient cause is deemed, the accused was then held in custody awaiting trial by the jury. The accused were presumed guilty until otherwise proven both during investigations and the trial (Hill & Armstrong, 2002).

Questions asked generally tried to find out how the witchcraft was carried out and to whom. The accused were not offered legal counsel and it was only through confessing that the accused could escape the gallows. According to Karlsen (1987), the accused were damned if they did and damned if they did not. Those who did not confess to witchcraft were regarded as having been possessed by the devil thus unable to confess her discretions. Those who confessed were in danger of facing the gallows. However by confessing, the accused may receive a pardon but she was very likely to lose all her possession. The court of Oyer and Terminer was created to listen to witchcraft cases.

Three of the five judges in the court were close associates of Cotton Mather a big supporter of the witch hunts. The Salem trials were filled with inappropriate drama from the accusers (feigning possession during trial proceedings), rumors, false testimony and intimidation (Gage, 1893). The judges were very prejudicial and during most trials the witnesses were coached to respond with provided testimony. The economic condition of most witches made it easier for them to be tried than men. Men who had power and wealth were rarely accused and even less likely to be tried or convicted. Their families also profited from this protection accorded due to the presence of wealth.

A large percentage of evidence used during these trials was spectral evidence. Spectral evidence describes testimony given by the accuser claiming to have been attacked by specter having the form/appearance of the accused (Reis, 1999). It was believed that the devil could not use the form of an innocent person and permission must be granted by the witch in order for this manifestation. Spectral evidence was thus accepted as evidence that the defendant was in cohorts with the devil. Spectral evidence was mainly used against women due to the belief that women had weaker souls and were more prone to be enticed by the devil.

It was also proposed that due to the weakness of women’s souls, the devil could easily take control of their bodies and souls without the woman’s knowledge (Hill & Armstrong, 2002). The accused were judged mainly by accusations that they were seen in form of apparitions inflicting pain and harm to the accuser. The judicial system was negligent and did not follow due process during investigation, preliminary examination and the court trials (Hill, 1995). The accused were not offered legal representation and had to do the cross-examination themselves. At the time, women were required by society to be submissive and quiet hence they could not represent themselves well in the courts of law.


The Salem witch trial began in 1692 after a group of girls involved in secret enchanting activities with an Indian slave began exhibiting weird symptoms that people deemed extraordinary. The wide believe in the supernatural sparked rumors about witchcraft and soon fears about possession field the land. In order to curb the situation, the existing colonial authorities engaged in a massive witchcraft hunt that spread over the whole region. The witch hunt however focused more on women and as a result exploded to a major crisis.

The social aspect of the New England society led to the victimization of women during this time. The male dominant society had relegated women into a lesser position of a house keeper and care giver. Women were required to follow a specific set of rules in order to conform to the societal expectation of the perfect woman. Women had to maintain a given standard and deviation from these societal norms was viewed as depravity. Women who were brash, autonomous and assertive were viewed as anomalies or rebels to the social order. When the Salem trials began, these women were mainly victimized.

The religious aspect of the Puritan society had also degraded women. While men exemplified good, women were viewed as gateways to evil. The souls of women were viewed as weak and thus easily manipulated by the devil. Church teachings also emphasized that women had the same inherent weaknesses as Eve and thus prone to the same temptations.

Gender and witchcraft was also seen in the economic situation of the time. It was generally hard for women to own property during this time. Women without male relatives were usually likely to be accused of witchcraft. This is because wealth was supposed to be managed by men and had to be inherited by male heirs. Women heirs were a threat to social perceptions of the time. Economic prosperity of women was also seen as a sign of witchcraft or a sign of servitude with evil.

The legal system at the time was flawed and also discriminatory to women especially those without men relatives. Most men who were accused were rarely arrested and convicted however women were subjected to unfair judicial proceedings that usually ended in incarceration. Women had to confess their guilt and face jail or retain their innocence and face the gallows. There was no legal representation and the judges were usually highly prejudicial with vested interests.

It can be seen that there was a direct relationship between gender and witchcraft in New England. Women were largely considered inferior as compared with men. It was thus easy for women to be victimized by this discriminative system. While there are many reasons why the witch hunt began, it can be seen that it was largely targeted towards women. Certain feminist writers argue that the witch hunt was mainly anti-feminism and in order to completely understand the event it was necessary to replace the word “witch” with “woman”. The witch hunt can be seen as one of the ways the male dominated society has tried to oppress women and hinder their development.


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