American history has few subjects as interesting as witchcraft, because it confronts us with many Ideas about women. It confronts us with fears about women, the place of women in society, and with women themselves. Also, it confronts us with violence against women and how the problems of society were often blamed on women. Even though some men were executed as during periods of witch hunting, witches were generally thought of as women and most who died in the name of witchcraft were women. In the United States, witchcraft took place among too educated of people to dismiss it as mere "superstition." (P.10)
The first person that was executed, as a witch, in America was Margaret Jones, in 1648. Jones was a midwife and lay healer, who was accused of several different practices. Minister John Hale, who witnessed Jones's hanging in Boston when he was a boy, later said that she "was suspected partly because that after some angry words passing between her and her Neighbors, some mischief befell such neighbors in their Creatures, or the like: [and] partly because some things supposed to be bewitched, or have a Charm upon them, being burned, she came to the fire and seemed concerned." (P.20) Hale included neither of these charges in his list of the evidence presented against Jones, but suggested that the crimes had to do with her medical practice. She was accused of having a "malignant touch," Hale noted, and her medicines were said to have "extraordinary violent effects." When people refused to take her medical advice, he added, "their diseases and hurts continued, with relapse against the ordinary course, and beyond the apprehension of all physicians and surgeons."(P.21) Hale also mentioned that Jones was believed to possess psychic powers: "some things which she foretold came to pass accordingly; other things she could tell of ... she had no ordinary means to come to the knowledge of."(P.20) John Hale pointed out that several of Jones's neighbors tried to get her to confess and repent. One of them, he said, "prayed her to consider if God did not bring this punishment upon her for some other crime, and asked, if she had not been guilty of stealing many years ago." (P.22)Jones admitted the theft, but she refused to accept it as a reason for her conviction as a witch. Hale's writings, on the other hand, showed that stealing, and other crimes such as fornication and infanticide, were regularly associated with witchcraft, by both the clergy and the larger population . . . " (p. 22)
This first account, in Karlsens' study, brings to the surface some of the community's views of witchcraft. Most of the society of the time believed in witches, and those who did not were usually suspected of being one. Additionally, colonists had two differing views of witches. Some believed that witches were simply criminals that worked in supernatural ways that were threats to their neighbors. But more interesting, was the view of the clergy, and specifically the Puritan church. They saw witches as not only enemies of their neighbors, but also enemies of God. They believed that witches had entered into an evil contract with the Devil, in which they would recruit others to destroy the Puritan churches. Without significant support for at least one of the views, the accuser in some cases could be brought up on slander charges. When both views had support, the accused person was likely to be declared a witch. Then they were considered an enemy of the New England society and the Puritan Faith. Additionally, when both of these views were very intense, the accusations would multiply and would effect the lives of not just one or two, but many.
Many of the societies problems were often blamed on witchcraft. The witches in New England were said to be able to harm others in supernatural ways, so major illnesses were often blamed on them. Also, people believed witches had powers over animals and crops. They were often accused for bad harvests and livestock dying. They were also commonly blamed for miscarriages, non-conception, and birth-defects. Another problem that was explained with witch craft was the problems of lunacy. Lunatics were believed to be crazy because a witch had possessed them.
Although, women were generally accused of being a witch for causing harm to others, some were actually accused of witchcraft for helping cure illnesses that doctors could not. Even though they did some good, people strongly believed that they received their powers from Satan. In return Satan would give her worldly desires, and the witch would use the powers, given to her, to help his efforts to overcome the Kingdom of Christ. Some witches would tell fortunes by looking into a glass ball or an egg. Another belief, was that witches had imps. Imps were some kind of demonic animal that nourished itself on the witch and would perform evil acts at her command. Likewise, it was a belief that they could turn themselves into animals in order to carry out Satan's evil deeds without being recognized.
Although there were a few men executed as witches, witchcraft was generally associated with women. There were 344 persons accused of being witches in America. Two-hundred and sixty-seven were female and 75 were male (p. 47). The majority of the women that were accused either were widows or had never been married. Other women that were accused were most likely related to someone who was already determined to be a witch. The men that were accused were usually the husbands of a confirmed witch. Women were generally more likely to be confirmed a witch, because men were the ones who would judge them. Another factor that contributed to accusing women of being witches was, during this time in our history women had practically no voice in society. Men received vastly different treatment. For example, one man confessed to being a witch and the court ordered that he was to be whipped and fined for "telling a lie"(p.59). Although there were many women who were executed, there were only 12 men who were confirmed to be witches and put to death. Most often, accused persons were likely to be tortured until they would confess. Women were more likely to confess under the torture. They did not have as much to loose, because most often they had no land or wealth. Men were more likely to be land owners and generally held more wealth. Some of the men were tortured to death. Most of the never admitted guilt, because, their land would be stripped from their families. One man was tortured by a method called pressing. During this torture, the person is strapped down and weights are placed on the person. As the torture goes on, more and more weight is placed on the person. This happened to this man for two days until it finally killed him. Even though his pain must have been great, he never admitted guilt, for fear of losing his land for his children.
Another factor that lead to the accusation of a witch was economics. It was not uncommon for women in families without male heirs to be accused of witchcraft shortly after the deaths of fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons. This would happen because these women were part of a society with an inheritance system designed to keep property in the hands of men. Decade by decade this pattern continued. Most of the women who were accused committed no real crimes. They were simply the victims of their society, who stood in the way of the orderly exchange of property from on generation of males to the next.
Yet another factor that led to the accusations of some women of being witches, was adultery. Women were often held responsible for adultery. The man adulterer would often receive little or no punishment. Women however, were often whipped and humiliated. The women were also expected to bear the consequences of the fornication. Meaning, that if pregnancy resulted from the adultery, the women would bear the financial responsibility of raising the child as well as the humiliation. Women were held more accountable then men, because it was believed that the women would entice the men into bed with them. Much like Eve enticed Adam to eat the apple. One Puritan minister said, "adultery is one of Satan's whorish acts."(P.209) Because of these beliefs, women who committed adultery were likely to be accused of witchcraft.
The end of the serious outbreaks, of witchcraft accusations, can be attributed to the "Enlightment" thinking and some new views of womanhood. The development of scientific and reasonable thinking was spreading throughout the educated community and some of New Englands more prominent figures started to become more reasonable. Along with the "Enlightment" thinking, a new view of womanhood expressed the fears and goals of an emerging industrial society. This view of woman hood viewed the women as the morally pure. This view depicted that all women (white middle and upper class women) were good. Now evil in women seemed to be formed by race. These women were now viewed as having the characteristics of the witch. To be a real woman was to use their influence to protect domestication. Acceptance of this thinking assured the white women of the middle and upper classes that they were not evil.
Overall, witchcraft effecting mainly women in America was portrayed rather effectively in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman in many ways. First, I was impressed by the many statistical elements that Carol F. Karlsen acquired and added to her book. Many of these statistics complimented her idea that women were the main targets of witchcraft accusations. The stats also did a good job of convincing me of that idea. Next, I found it fascinating that Karlsen took more of a documentary approach her study. She detailed events taken from a numerous collection of stories and then put them into chronological order. She added things such as the religious ideology and economics of the times to strengthen her arguments. I was especially amazed by how much political power the Puritan church had, more specifically, the males in the Puritan church. Another interesting idea she had was that some of the accused witches were accused simply as a conspiracy to steal their wealth. Although, I agreed with the rest of her arguments, I found this one hard to believe. I do not think that the people of that time were so ignorant that they could not see a conspiracy as shallow as that. Finally , the stories in her study were absolutely fascinating. I think what made these stories more fascinating to me was the fact that all these stories are true. This book made me realize just how much women have achieved in our society since the days of witchcraft accusations. Also, it gave me a insight into what it would have been like to live through this tough era in our history.
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