Salem Witch Hysteria and PTSD Roots Pt. II

burroughs2(Note: The following is an expanded excerpt of a paper I wrote for a Magic and Witchcraft class. For Part I to the article, click here.)

In April of 1692, with witch trial testimonies in full swing, Thomas Putnam claimed his daughter Ann was visited by the spectral figure of Reverend George Burroughs who proceeded to torture the young girl. A month later, Ann Putnam testified that two apparitions appeared to her. According to Ann they were the wives of Burroughs, allegedly killed by the minister’s own hand. The constant whisper of his mistreated spouses followed Burroughs from his earliest days in Salem Village through his forcible return as witch cabal leader. His second wife, widow Sarah Ruck Hathorne whom he married in 1682, was the sister-in-law of Essex County Magistrate John Hathorne, a man who became deeply involved in the later witchcraft accusations against Burroughs. Sarah Hathorne Burroughs died in Falmouth, Maine in 1689.

Mercy Lewis, a young woman with personal history with Burroughs, then charged the minister with also appearing as a specter to her in May. Burroughs allegedly went to Lewis to get her to sign a pact with the Devil as well as try to recruit other area girls into his diabolic scheme.

It seems clear that even if the barest of historical accounts of Minister Burroughs are accurate, he cut an unusual, potentially fiery and eccentric frontier character. Known for unusual strength, like lifting a long musket with a single hand or hoisting a filled barrel with just his fingers, Burroughs may have also been in conflict with the Puritan fathers over faith.

Accusations of witchcraft further enflamed the war scars of southern New England. Ann Putnam Jr. reportedly told investigators that Burroughs had bewitched the soldiers of Governor Edmund Andros in 1688-1689. Several figures key to the Salem witch hysteria, like Magistrates John Hathorne and Johnathan Corwin whose fact finding efforts in Maine may have led to the decision to leave Falmouth virtually defenseless during 1690s mass Abanaki assault, made a variety of mistakes during King William’s War. It seems that war-time shortcomings may have been projected onto Burroughs during the trial. Hathorne and Corwin were the lead inquisitors in Salem and pressed a confession from young Abigail Hobbs who claimed she had been approached by the Devil in the woods outside Falmouth, Maine four years earlier. Hobbs was yet another Casco Bay refugee driven to the Village. The solicitation in the woods was not happenstance as the woods were widely regarded as an evil place.


Was the psychological hysteria of Salem’s young women a manifestation of the stress of war, communal squabbles and frontier life? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a widely accepted psychological diagnosis that could be applied to the accusers. However, the individual nature of PTSD does not properly grapple with the group dynamic that gave credence to the wild accusations. Epidemic hysteria, a physical or psychological manic state manifested by a group, seems to fit the Salem case perfectly. Provoked by stress and nurtured by community values or worries, epidemic hysteria has several recorded instances in Europe, from a Black Death induced mass dance hysteria in German to the French “Barkers” who crawled around like dogs, social stress can spread like a thought virus through a community. Could the young women of Salem, reeling from war and reflecting the spiritual worries of their communities; and personal prejudices of their parents have turned to Burroughs as scapegoat? Was Mercy Lewis, who was familiar with Burroughs unconventional ministerial style as well as intimate to his household, the well from which the prejudice sprung from? Could Mercy Lewis, scarred by war and fallen from a position of affluence, also been witness to or possibly victim of Burroughs reputed ill temper during her brief time as maidservant?

Inarguably an unconventional clergyman Burroughs easily becomes the apostate minster of Satan in New England when portrayed by the vivid imaginations of young women, isolated and near a zone of conflict. Death loomed with each raid, Satan rallied his forces in the treeline and frontiersmen needed a strong spiritual figure to guide them in a time of war. Burroughs was effortlessly painted as a failed, questionable religious leader, with a rebellious desire to live apart from the civility and strict leadership of Massachusetts Bay. When viewed through the critical lens of Salem Village religious leaders, Burroughs became not only an enemy of the village, but the colony and the Puritan faith. The men of Massachusetts had gone to war in Maine and returned with losses, physical and financial. Stung by these defeats, it seems their judgment may have been clouded when presented with a figure as odd and spiritually unconventional as Burroughs. The wayward Burroughs was a casualty at the confluence of personal circumstances, religious prejudices and group psychological trauma that led to his execution as leader of the mythic witches of Salem Village.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

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