Senselessness and Sensationalism in Salem

Let me preface this post by saying, I thought I had posted it 2 weeks ago.  Apparently, my window timed out and instead of posting, it vanished.  Hooray!  Now on to the goods.

On July 3rd, 1695, one Miss Elizabeth Johnson was put on trial for witchcraft.  The most hilarious part of that sentence, is that she wasn’t even accused of witchcraft, but of felony theft.  She convinced a young girl that she had magical powers and could locate treasure for her, but that the girl needed to gather up all her valuables and hide them in order for her Egyptian dark magic to locate the treasure.  She then took the valuables and left while young Miss Richardson looked for the treasure in the basement.

This basically sounds like a case of a woman who made up a silly story to con a little girl.  Shady? Yes.  Witchcraft?  No.  The kicker here is the irony that the thief was acquitted based on the fact that she was A)not an actual Egyptian B)found to know nothing about magic.  Her crime of theft was pardoned because they discovered she wasn’t an actual witch.

Now, let’s compare this to some of the more nonsensical instances of witchcraft.  One of Burr’s accounts detailed a Ms. Bishop that was attributed with making a man’s wagon wheel fall off, appearing to the man in his sleep, causing him to be thrown into a stone wall(which I read: he tripped into because he’s a moron), being thrown into a bank by his house by the same mysterious force(read: still a clumsy moron), and causing his cart to buckle under a weight he could not pick up after(ya think?!).  To top it all off, he accused her of causing his daughter’s death.  Entered into the evidence at trial were ragdolls round in the accused’s house, and women “inspecting” her found an extra nipple, that, when examined later by other women, was gone again!(Either this lady had a wicked zit on her chest, or people are all idiots), (Burr, 228).

I think the best way to explain these kind of events was said by Hobbes, ” ‘The opinion that rude people have of fairies, ghosts and goblins and the power of witches’ was attributed in his Leviathan (1651) to ignorance of how to distinguish ‘dreams’ from ‘sense’. ‘As for witches’, he continued, ‘I think not that their witchcraft is any reall power’, though he approved of the punishment of such imposters for the ‘false beliefe they have, that they can do such mischief,” (Anarkloo and Clarke, 197).  Interestingly enough, right after they quote Hobbes, Anarkloo and Clarke point out that the protestants of the times immediately demonized Hobbes for these views and said his denial of witchcraft clearly proved that he was in league with evil forces.

I guess what it boils down to was that people were looking for a reason to blame things on, be they their own clumsiness, people’s oddities, or even untimely death.  Because they didn’t have a better explanation, and it was at the height of a religious revival, they went with witchcraft and devilry and evil spirits.  Luckily for Elizabeth Johnson that they just saw her as a grifter instead of a witch.

Anarkloo and Clarke, https://engl382fall2013.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/witchcraftmagiceurope1819.pdf

Burr, https://engl382fall2013.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/narratives_witchcraftcases.pdf

Trial of Elizabeth Johnson, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t16950703-8-defend45&div=t16950703-8&terms=magick#highlight

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