The Economic and Social Causes of the Salem Witch Trials

The Economic and Social Causes of the Salem Witch Trials


In Colonial New England in the 1600’s, accusations of witchcraft to explain the “unexplainable” were not uncommon, although such accusations were often met with skepticism.  What distinguishes the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, from other “witchcraft” episodes is that, in this case, the authorities supported the accusers. What was it about the circumstances leading up to the trials that made this happen? Life was difficult for these early settlers who were following strict Puritan guidelines for behavior. They were without modern science and psychology to assist them in understanding the world around them. When behavior was unconventional or a medical condition was out of the ordinary, the practice of witchcraft was a plausible explanation, even when combined with a dose of skepticism. The massive witchcraft hysteria at Salem which resulted in the hanging executions of many was particularly notable for not only its scope, but also for its origins. 

The Economic and Social Causes of the Salem Witch Trials

There were several factors which contributed to the hysteria that made such an event possible and each played a role in this great tragedy we now call The Salem Witch Trials.  Utilizing the tools of modern medicine, one can speculate that that the hysteria may have been caused by medical reasons such ergot poisoning, which stems from a fungus called Clavicips purpurea, which can cause hallucinations. A psychological theory for its cause is that the young girls who were the accusers had some sort of mental illness or were trying to get attention from others. However, the social and economic factors which existed at the time included conflict between the different sections and people of the town of Salem and the economic disparity that also existed between them. It was these social and economic factors which primarily laid the groundwork for this large, dark spot in the early history of our country.

To begin with, Norton argues that the economic disparities between the communities that inhabited the region contributed significantly to the practice of witch hunting (484). With respect to economic wellbeing, the village was divided in to two distinct groups. Historical evidence indicates that initially, the village was founded by the farmers who had moved from the urban Salem town and inhabited the village area that was also referred to as Salem Farms (Norton 484). Regardless of this, the village remained a part of the town and the communities shared common religious beliefs and practices. As aforementioned, the divisions of the town had distinct economic differences. Salem town was inhabited by merchants who engaged in various economic activities. It was generally a busy town and the inhabitants sought employment in town. As such, they amassed wealth and became very affluent. This enabled them to improve their quality of life accordingly. Conversely, the Salem village that was populated by the farmers was less affluent because of the limited economic production in the region.

The inherent economic disparities had far reaching implications on the relationships of the populations. In essence, the populations assumed different lifestyles that were reflective of their economic status. Wealth also had significant implications on the cultural wellbeing of the populations as well as their general way of life. This culminated in oppositions from the farmers who believed that the merchants were undermining the values that had initially been held in high regard. In essence, the farmers were opposed to the value system and general code of conduct that was assumed by their counterparts (Norton 487).

Further, the undue emphasis on the attainment of wealth and improvement of their general wellbeing by the merchant population contributed to the witch trials (Norton 485). This tendency was opposed by the farmers who believed that it was a threat to their Puritan ideals. Although there were affluent farmers too, the Puritan farmers believed that the wealth in this respect was accorded to them by God. However, the farmers thought that striving for wealth openly was scandalous before the eyes of God because it undermined His role as a master plan of all events and occurrences (Norton 485). The differing views regarding wealth as well as other practices contributed significantly to hostilities between the two factions. The hostilities culminated in witch hunting as farmers considered their merchant counterparts to be attaining wealth in means that could not be explained.

Another cause of Witch Trials pertained to gender prejudice (Reed, 210). In this regard, the social structure of the Salem population was patriarchal and strictly based on biblical principles. In particular, the Puritans believed that women were inferior to their male counterparts. As such, women were expected to play a submissive role and remain conservative. However, there is a faction of women who greatly valued independent behavior as well as mood. In most instances, the respective women were targeted and accused for engaging in witchcraft. Evidence indicated that a significant percentage of the individuals that were hanged constituted of women (Reed 211). Whenever the women were hanged, their properties were either given to the previous owner or to the next of kin. In most instances, the previous owners were colony administrators and therefore, they greatly benefited from the property.

The practice of magic contributed significantly to the emergence of witchcraft in Salem (Mather 34). In this regard, there were factions of the population that engaged in magic or various reasons. They practiced magic to enhance crop yields and better their ways of life. However, respective individuals gradually began to use magic to punish their enemies. This made their enemies to have negative crop yields and suffer from diseases that could not be explained (Mather 34). Such individuals were accused of witchcraft and compelled to undergo trials. This is because the population increasingly grew suspicious of their practices.

The involvement in strange activities such as using cracked eggs to predict the future also culminated in witchcraft accusations and relative trials (Kalsen 490). According to Walcot, the witch hysteria in this region specifically began in 1692. It had far reaching implications on the holistic wellbeing of the population. In total, a significant twenty individuals died and nineteen others were executed by being hanged. Statistical evidence indicates that four other people lost their lives in prison while they were awaiting trial. The respective witch mania was triggered by two girls aged nine and eleven years. Together with their friends, they dabbled with fortune telling through cracking eggs, putting them in the glass and interpreting relative shapes accordingly. The two girls lived with a slave who reportedly told them various tales about witchcraft (Karlsen 492). After a short period of time, the girls began to have strange fits. The doctor that attended to the girls claimed that they had been bewitched. This triggered a series of events that had had far reaching implications on the holistic wellbeing of the entire population.

In his research, Hutchinson indicates that the need to attain social recognition contributed in various was to the witch trials. In this regard, certain factions of the population reportedly feigned illnesses and used these to accuse others. This enabled them to appear in court and participate in the legal proceedings. In the courts, they gave wrong evidence and since the accused were not given equal chances to prove their innocence, the later gained popularity for having successfully contributed to the execution of the accused. Increased popularity enabled them to assume a higher social status in the society. In some instances, Walcot posits that the accusers took over the wealth and property of the accused. Likewise, wealth enabled them to improve their social and economic status.

The complexity of the witch trial is attributable to the sensitivity of the issue and the implications that this had on the individuals that were accused (Hutchinson 1). In most instances, the accusers were expected to provide convincing evidence that was used to execute the accused. The later used pathos and in most cases simply made up stories to convince the courts. The lack of an objective decision making strategy in this respect can be used to explain why the cases were complex in nature.

According to Aune, religious zeal is another factor that contributed significantly to this state of affairs (767). The major religions in the village included catholic and Anglican. Puritan faith placed great emphasis on the need for purity. Christian principles were at the core of social activities and played an important role in informing behavioral practices that were assumed by the population. In addition, the religious values and principles encouraged sincere moral conduct, simple worship services and direct religious experiences. In this regard, it is argued that individuals that did not exhibit the abovementioned religious attributed fell victims of witchcraft accusations. It is widely agreed that “instances of planted evidence were common” (Hutchinson 1). The evidence that was given was also strictly subjective and was not exposed to object evaluation. The personal testimonies that were given by the accusers did not require any form of proof. Thus there is a segment of the population that was accused of witchcraft simply because it did not assume the religious practices that were defined by the society.

In his review, Kamensky argues that wealth and age also contributed in different ways to the occurrence of the witch hunts (393). In this regard, the community believed that the young population was not supposed to be wealthy. This was attributable to the fact that they had spent a shorter period in economic production than their older counterparts. The young people feared to own wealth because they would be accused of witchcraft. Also worth mentioning is the recognition that most of the accused came from the poor but not the extremely poor. Usually, the practices employed for attaining wealth by this faction of the population were closely monitored by the rest of the population. Identification of any unusual practice culminated in accusation for witch craft.

The reputation and general code of conduct of the members of this population contributed in various ways to the hysteria that was experienced in the community (Boyer and Nissenbaum 516). Apparently, most of the individuals that were accused of witchcraft had common unsavory reputations. To begin with, they were known for exhibiting contentious behavior. Also, most of them had special healing powers that could not be understood by the population. The spiteful and poor older women were also in most instances accused of witchcraft. For example, one woman who was described as having a hairy lip, a furrowed brow, a wrinkled face, a squeaking voice, a squint eye, a scolding voice and always had a dog or a cut by her was accused of engaging in witchcraft (Boyer and Nissenbaum 516). The underlying reasons for the accusation in this respect pertained to the fact that the woman exhibited strange behavior and had uncommon attributes that ha not been experienced in the region.

Historical evidence indicates that mental illness also contributed significantly to the occurrence of the hysteria (Karlsem 493). In particular, delusions, mass hypnosis and mass hysteria have been identified as the main causes of the witchcraft hysteria. Notably, the abovementioned mental illnesses did not affect the entire community. However, it can not be disputed that the affected members greatly influenced the perceptions and views of the community. This is further attributed to the fact that the community members shared close knit relationships. In some instances, the conditions of the affected individuals were simply exaggerated through story telling and hearsay. The inability of the physicians to treat the mental illnesses further compounded the scenario. Since this behavior could not be explained, the locals resorted to referring this to witchcraft (Karlsen 494).

Conspiracy and individual greed are other factors that reportedly contributed to the emergence and escalation of witch trials (Latner 427). There is a certain segment of the population that was greedy and practiced unfair accumulation of wealth. Some of the accusers pursued the trials because of the need to acquire the wealth hat was assumed by the accused. In this regard, the accusers were not only greed but were also jealous of the social and economic status of their counterparts. In most instances, they conflicted with the accused and this contributed to their emotional pain and suffering. As a way of hitting back, revenging, getting even or punishing their counterparts, they resorted to accusing them for engagement in witchcraft activities. After their counterparts had been executed, they too over the wealth as sole beneficiaries.

Physical illness has also been implicated for contributing in different ways to the particular state of affairs (Reed 220). In particular, Aune argues that ergot poisoning was one of the factors that contributed to witch craft trials (770). This constituted a certain mold that in most instances grew on rye. It was one of the most common sources of food for the Puritan community. However, its consumption led to hallucinations that made individuals to fall sick and behave in an unusual manner. Since this was consumed by the entire community, it made them to loose the ability to think and act in an objective manner. For this reason, they believed that they had been bewitched and began accusing individuals that had not pursued the practice in any way. The practice spread amongst the entire community and can be used to explain the occurrence of the witch craft trials.

The strict lifestyle that the Puritan community assumed also contributed in different ways to the state of affairs (Norton 485). In this regard, historical evidence indicates that the Puritans were extremely strict. This can be used to explain why the affected girls were not allowed to play with other girls but rather confined in the house. They also greatly emphasized on the importance of hard work. As a result, most of them were intrinsically unhappy and this contributed to the emotional problems and psychological distress that thy experienced. The physical hard work that was emphasized left them emotionally drained in most instances. Furthermore, the confined in their houses did not give them a chance to share their emotional problems and devise viable ways through which they could resolve these (Norton 485). Extended exposure to this distressing environment contributed in different ways to the occurrence of hallucinations and other forms of mental illnesses.

Finally, the cultural practice of fortune telling also contributed in different ways to the occurrence and exacerbation of the practice (Norton 486). In this regard, there were fortune tellers that were presumed to have the ability to foretell future occurrences. In most instances, fortune telling was uncertain and occurrence of the respective events was solely based on luck. In some instances, the fortune tellers were not able to predict the future with utmost accuracy. At this point, it is worth appreciating that their clients strongly believed in their powers. Whenever the fortune tellers predicted bad luck, their clients requested them to provide a remedy for this. In some cases, they did not have the powers to change the future of their clients. In such cases, they were considered to harbor evil powers that prevented them from accurately predicting the future or making changes to suit client needs. For this reason, they were accused of witchcraft and forced by the community to undergo trials (Norton 487).


In sum, the economic and social factors greatly contributed to the emergence and escalation of witch craft hysteria. As it has come out from the preceding study, the economic disparities that were experienced between the farmers and merchants contributed to hostilities and culminated in accusations. Seemingly, the assumption of varied lifestyles by the merchants increased the hostilities between the two factions. Further, the undue emphasis on the attainment of wealth by the merchants made the farmers to consider this a contravention of important Puritan as well as religious ideals. As such, the farmers accused the merchants of witchcraft which later resulted in witchcraft trials. Then, gender prejudice disadvantaged the female faction of the community that was wrongly accused of engaging in witchcraft.

Religious practices have also been highlighted and considered to have contributed significantly to this status. Besides this, conspiracy and the need for revenge made some individuals to accuse others wrongly. Mental land physical illnesses that were incurable and those that could not be explained influenced the community to explain them using witchcraft concepts. Finally, the strict Puritan way of life that emphasized hard work at the expense of play and rest had adverse psychological implications on the population. At this point, the causes of witchcraft hunting were certainly wide and varied.

Works Cited

Aune James. Witchcraft as Symbolic Action in Early Modern Europe and America. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 6.4 (2003): 765-777. Print.

Boyer Paul and Nissenbaum Stephen. Salem Possessed in Retrospect. The William and Mary Quarterly, 3 (2008): 514-533. Print.

Hutchinson Elisha. Letter 2, 1692. Available:

Karlsen Carol. Salem Revisited. The William and Mary Quarterly, 65.3 (2008): 489-494. Print.

Kamensky Jane. Slam Obsessed: Or “Plus Ca Change”: An Introduction. The William and Mary Quarterly, 65.3 (2008): 391-400. Print.

Latner Richard. Salem Witchcraft, Factionalism, and Social Change reconsidered: Were Salem’s Witch-Hunters Modernizations Failures? The William and Mary Quarterly, 65.3 (2008): 423-448. Print.

Mather Increase. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, 1963. Available at :

Norton Mary. Essex County Witchcraft. The William and Mary Quarterly, 65.3 (2008): 483-488. Print.

Reed Isaac. Why Salem made sense: Culture, Gender, and the Puritan Persecution of Witchcraft. Cultural Sociology, 1.2 (2007): 209-234. Print.

Walcot Mary, V Boroughs 3 August 1692. Available:

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