History of religion

From witch trials to fake news

I’m no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.
—Sarah Good to The Rev. Nicholas Noyes

That was then (March 6, 1692)

Sarah Solart was born on July 21, 1653 into a prosperous family in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When she was nineteen years old, Sarah’s father died. Sarah and her sisters never received their inheritance. Sarah married a laborer, who died in debt. She then got remarried to a man named William Good, who inherited the debt of Sarah’s first husband. Unable to pay the debt, the Goods were reduced to begging and eventually became homeless. People of the village of Salem looked upon them with disdain. Having become a social outcast, Sarah was known to go from house to house begging for charity, and if she did not receive it, she would walk away from the house muttering what people believed were curses. Farmers believed that her curses were responsible for the death of their livestock and other natural disasters.

In 1692, two young girls named Abigail Williams, aged 12, and her cousin Betty Parris, aged 10, began having convulsive fits in which their eyes would roll back showing only the whites and their mouths would hang open. When Betty’s father, Reverend Samuel Parris, asked the girls who was tormenting them, they named three women in the village of Salem: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and a Carib slave woman named Tituba. When interrogated while being beaten, Tituba confessed to being familiar with occult practices. During her younger days in Barbados she had been taught protective measures to ward off evil spirits. Tituba claimed her knowledge of the occult extended only so far as learning how to protect herself and that she had never used her knowledge to harm anyone. While declaring her own innocence, Tituba accused several other women in the village, including the two Sarahs, of practicing Satanic rituals.

On March 1, 1692 a warrant was issued for the arrest of Sarah Osborne, and on March 6 Sarah Good was formally accused of witchcraft. Osborne was arrested and put in jail to be interrogated and tried. She was regarded with suspicion because she had not attended church for nearly three years because of a lingering illness. Still not well when she was incarcerated, she died in jail on May 29. Sarah Good, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest, gave birth to her child while in jail. Her trial began on March 25. As she entered the courtroom, the two girls who had accused her fell onto the floor in convulsive fits and attributed their affliction to Good’s presence. Tituba claimed that she saw various ominous signs on Sarah Good’s body and uncanny birds hovering around her, which the young girls also claimed to be able to see. Sarah Good proclaimed her innocence and said that Tituba and Sarah Osborne were the real witches. When confronted with the testimony of citizens of Salem that she had cursed them when she did not receive alms, Good denied that she had cursed anyone, claiming that she walked away softly reciting the Ten Commandments under her breath. When asked to recited the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, Sarah Good was unable to remember even one of them.

The twelve jurors found Good guilty of witchcraft and sentenced her to death. Tituba was imprisoned but eventually set free. While Sarah was awaiting the time of her execution, her child died in prison. On July 29, Sarah Good was hanged along with four other women who had been found guilty of witchcraft. Their names were Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, and Sarah Wildes. Before their execution, there had been one other woman, Bridget Bishop, hanged for witchcraft. Despite efforts to extract a confession from her at the gallows, Sarah Good insisted to the very end that she had never cursed anyone or practiced witchcraft. She was a few days more than 39 years old when she was hanged by the neck until dead. By September 22, 1692, a total of twenty people were found guilty of witchcraft and executed. Nineteen of them were hanged. Of those nineteen people executed, fourteen were women.

One 81-year-old man named Giles Corey (September 11, 1611–September 19, 1692) was accused of witchcraft along with with wife Martha. Giles refused to enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty. The law at that time stipulated that a person could not be put on trial before entering a plea. The court ordered that Giles be subjected to a procedure called peine forte et dure, designed to force a person to enter a plea. In accordance with the court order, Giles Corey was stripped naked and made to lie down in a pit. A board was placed across his chest and stomach, and six strong men piled heavy stones onto the plank. Corey endured the pressure without making a sound. After two days of lying under the weight, he was given another chance to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, and all Giles Corey said was “More weight,” his last words before he died. Because he died without having been found guilty of the crime of which he was accused, the state lacked the authority to seize his properties, as it could do if people died after being found guilty. In accordance with his will, his estate was divided between his two sons.

Three days after Giles Corey was pressed to death, his wife Martha, aged 72, was hanged along with six other women and one man. Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd, Margaret Scott and Samuel Wardwell were the last to be convicted and executed during the Salem witch trials.

This is now

It has been said that the Salem witch trials were a turning point in the history of the colonies that would eventually declare their independence from Britain to form the United States of America. Before the witch trials in Salem and several other towns in New England, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been a theocratic state under Puritan rule. The experience of religious fervor that led to the executions of a score of people accused of being irreligious and even Satanic seems to have soured a substantial number of colonists on theocratic government and may have been a factor in the insistence on separation of church and state when the United States drew up their Constitution.

While accusing people of witchcraft went out of fashion, making false or at least unsubstantiated accusations of others has never lost its appeal, especially in troubled times. During the political campaigns of 2016 and even in its aftermath, a phenomenon known as fake news—stories constructed without regard to the facts or evidence—became a prominent feature of the election season and was especially prominent in the campaign of the man who received the most electoral votes and was eventually inaugurated President of the United States in 2017.

In February 2017 there was a conference co-hosted by Harvard University and Northeastern University in which social scientists and psychologists discussed the phenomenon of fake news stories and discussed measures that can be taken to avoid being taken in by it. Professor David Lazer said about the aims of the conference:

 A well-functioning democracy requires a healthy ecosystem of truth-tellers. Citizens need to be informed, and we need institutions to communicate what’s happening in the world. In a democracy, we have to respect these enduring differences in a body politick, but the fact that there’s legitimate diversity doesn’t mean that all presentations of reality are legitimate.

What the rash of accusations during the Salem witch trials have in common with the consumption of fake news today is that both phenomena seem to involve a suspension of critical thinking. People have a tendency to believe stories that confirm what they already believe or suspect, and to remember the contents of a story that they hear rather than whether the source of the story is reliable. Professor Steven Sloman reported that the views that people hold tend to be those that conform most with the prevailing views in their social community:

I’ve been studying how people think for a long time, and the main conclusion I’ve found is that people don’t think very much. Mostly what they do is channel the knowledge of those around them.

The damaging effects of the failure or critical thinking are better understood than the measures needed to protect against that failure. It is obvious what is needed—a better familiarity with formal and informal logical fallacies and influential rhetorical flourishes—but what is less obvious is how best to provide that familiarity. Until it is figured out how to make critical assessment of what one hears almost as natural as breathing, humanity will be prone to catastrophic episodes of mass hysteria and interludes of tyranny and despotism.

Author: Dayamati Richard Hayes

Jemez Springs, NM, USA

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