THE CRUCIBLE: A HISTORY OF THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS (JPW)

The gravestone of Sarah Good, one of the first women accused of witchcraft.

The Crucible (1953) was a haunting reminder to audiences of what could happen if paranoia ran too rampant in a society. In the time when the play was written, America was going through its own state of paranoia. The fear that someone might be a communist was gripping the hearts of Americans and politicians across the nation.  While Arthur Miller’s The Crucible acts as a metaphor for the Communist scare in America at the time it was written, it is important to know the history behind the Salem witch trials in order to understand why Miller drew the parallel in the first place.

The Salem witch trials were a series of trials and prosecutions accusing people of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. Although they are known as the Salem trials, they were actually conducted in multiple towns across the province of colonial Massachusetts. In colonial America, superstition was commonplace. It was a widely recognized belief that Satan was active on Earth. Witchcraft was an idea originally devised in Europe, and traveled to the Americas when colonization began to happen.  The concept of witchcraft was originally used by peasants, who would invoke spells and charms for farming purposes. The ‘white magic’ of the peasants would eventually be considered dark magic by the masses, and became associated with demons and the devil. Thanks to the written works of men like Joseph Glanvill and Cotton Mather, who tried to prove empirically that demons were real, the fear of the occult began to grow among the populace.

The events of the trials began with the afflictions of the daughters in the Parris household of Salem Village. Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece of Reverend Parris, fell ill and begin to have fits described as “beyond the power of natural disease.” The girls were reported as screaming, throwing things, uttering strange sounds, and contorting their bodies. They complained of being pinched and pricked by sharp objects, and doctors could find no physical evidence of sickness.  Because of a lack of physical evidence, people quickly began to think it was witchcraft that was afflicting the girls. Thus began the accusations and prosecutions. Three women were accused and hanged for the afflicting of the girls.

After this original execution, the witch trials became more of a witch-hunt than anything. Magistrates and reverends alike began hunting down the outcast women of the area and blindly accusing them of witchcraft. The fear that at any time a curse could be cast on any important figure in the community gripped the courts, and executions followed that fear. The mass hysteria of the town ended up killing twenty eight women by execution, five more in prison, and over fifty more women were imprisoned within the year of the trials.

Miller was very astute in using the witch trials as a comparison to the Red Scare in The Crucible. He knew that if he could get audiences to see how out of hand things could get in accusing communists, then there may have been a chance to stop it before America’s paranoia could get out of hand for a second time.

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