witch trials

Salem Witch Hysteria and PTSD Roots Pt. I

(Note: What follows is an expanded excerpt of a paper I wrote for a Magic and Witchcraft class.)

There have been scholarly or psychological explanations of the witch trials and hysteria in Salem and around New England. From petty neighbor disputes to hallucinogenic bread mold poisoning, there were seemingly as many explanations for the craze as there were witch-related indictments in New England during the 17th century. Some 234 indictments were handed down by New England authorities, including 36 executions, during the craze period.

One overlooked idea that has grown in acceptance is the idea of war-time psychological trauma, specifically to certain players in the Salem Witch hysteria. Not confined to the battlefield, but any dramatic tragic event, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder’s attributes include,”flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event,” according the Mayo Clinic. If we look closely at a pair in the Salem story we find a connection to the horrors of war and its possible influence on the Salem witch hysteria.

George Burroughs, Harvard graduate and unconventional preacher, arrived in Falmouth, Maine to lead a small congregation that included the prominent land-owning family of Phillip Lewis in 1674. Two years of instructions and Bible readings to the populations of friends and neighbors came to an end when war arrived in Falmouth. A splinter of King Phillip’s War racking southern New England pierced Casco Bay as Wabanaki raiding parties killed and put to the torch everything in their path including the homes of Burroughs congregation. The pastor and other Falmouth survivors sought refuge on a Casco Bay island. Burroughs, seeking security and stability in the wake of the decimation, traveled to Salem Village to become its pastor.

Burroughs time in Salem would be short lived as lack of pay and a disputed loan from the prominent Putnam family of Salem led the minister to return to a rebuilt Falmouth, Maine after three years. He would return to Maine, set a new phase in life and await new war.


Maine landowner Phillip Lewis welcomed daughter, Mercy, to the world in 1673. Raised in Falmouth, Maine up to the raids of King Phillip’s War, Mercy Lewis fled to Salem Town until 1683. Like Burroughs, Lewis returned to the reformed Falmouth, leading a typical frontier life just a short distance from the returned unordained minister until war broke out a second time in her young life.

Abanaki raiders and their New French allies swept into Maine in a series of raids in September of 1689 during King William’s War. Reaching back into Falmouth, now fortified and prepared for attacks, the Abanaki battled militia for six hours but were ultimately rebuffed. Once affluent, the family of Phillip Lewis was decimated by the wars of 1689 and 1690. Orphaned during the Falmouth incursions of the period, Mercy Lewis would find shelter in the home of George Burroughs for several months. Mercy remained with the pastor until she moved first to Beverly and then to Salem Village in employment of Thomas Putnam. Thomas Putnam, member of the family whom Burroughs financially battled, was father of nine children including his oldest, Anne Putnam Jr.

It was late January, 1692 when the girls of Salem Village began their convulsions of bewitchment and it was soon that Mercy Lewis, then 19, and 12-year old Ann Putnam Jr. joined the accusatory chorus.


In the conclusion of this post we’ll look at the accusations and how the confluence of war and witchery led to death.


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