Did Puritans really believe in witchcraft? Yes, they did. Most people during the early modern period believed in witchcraft, so they were in good company. Puritans were also very much into law and order, so they were not about to let witchcraft slide. Some accused witches may have even believed they had performed witchcraft. Or they may have been forced to say they did – that it is quite hard to tell, but be careful of simply assuming there was force.
Who got accused of witchcraft?
Primarily women, who were most often single. Single in this context usually meant widows, but sometimes household servants. They were often “troublesome,” which could mean anything from refusing to go to church, to talking back to their “betters,” to being healers.
Why were women healers particularly vulnerable?
They lived in an era when no one really understood the causes of illness. That makes it easier to understand how they might see someone who seemed to understand illnesses as being a little too powerful. Especially if it was a woman, since they lived in a deeply patriarchal society. And surely someone who could heal could as easily harm, right? Imagine how frightening it would be to be a midwife trying to help someone with an illness that no one could heal, and then getting blamed for the person dying.
What could get someone accused?
Historian Carol F. Karlsen, in her book “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman,” studied patterns of accusation and came to some conclusions that would fit nicely with modern psychology. Women tended to accuse people of witchcraft when something in what they considered their realm went wrong. For example, if a child was sick, or the family was in some way threatened. Men tended accuse based on things like sick livestock or broken farming implements. It is easy to say they were looking for scapegoats, but that is not necessarily accurate, at least not on a conscious level. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of them feeling more vulnerable when things went wrong in an area where they held responsibility, and so they were desperate to find an explanation for it.
It is easy to forget that so much of what we understand, especially in the realm of disease, was unknown to them and often terribly frightening. Searching for a reason that would make sense of it, that fit their belief system, has a certain logic.
When were accusations most common?
Most accusations happened after events that were traumatic to the entire community. For example, after a smallpox outbreak. People’s nerves were frayed. They didn’t understand the true cause of the disease, and they latched on to the one thing that made sense. The same thing often happened after wars. Especially wars involving Native Americans, whom the American Puritans did not understand, and therefore feared were in league with the devil. Did they see their own part in starting those wars? Rarely, alas.
Does that mean witchcraft accusations were not about keeping women down?
Nope, it does not mean that. Independent women went against their highly patriarchal understanding of social order. They didn’t think “aha, we must crush that woman because she showing signs of using her brain!” Instead, they thought they were far more enlightened about women and their role than other denominations were (and terrifyingly, that is somewhat accurate). But they also believed women were weaker spiritually and, therefore, more likely to be tempted by Satan. And, as law and order folks, they needed to protect the community from the evil that could creep in using them as conduits.
How did the legal elements of witchcraft accusation work?
Usually, witchcraft accusations had a fairly high bar to clear. There needed to be multiple adult, usually male, witnesses, to begin with. Also, spectral evidence was not allowed. That means someone saying “I saw your specter enter my house and do something bad” was not good enough evidence. Another witch could have been using your image to make it appear that you were the one causing the harm. Nor did they regularly upend their own social order by allowing children to run amok, accusing their elders. We tend to think about spectral evidence and children causing havoc with their accusations because it did happen in the Salem witch trails, but those trials were an aberration.
It wasn’t an easy life for anyone, especially women
A big inspiration for my upcoming novel, Devil in our Hearts, was exploring the no-win situation that intelligent, independent women faced when accused of witchcraft. I also wanted to explore how a man might slowly come to see his own role in that injustice. I have had to give my heroine a more modern sensibility about the issue to make her relatable, but I think she does a good job of showing what she was up against. Before the end of the year, the book will be published and you can judge for yourself.
Want to learn more about American Puritans and witchcraft?
Check out this article that goes into greater depth on the topic without being too long.