1 Witch Hunting or Women Hunting?: A Look at the Historical Subordination of Women

Karly Bruder

Introduction

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Americas and Europe experienced an era of witch-hysteria that resulted in the accusation of millions of individuals, hundreds of thousands of which ended in executions.[1]One of the most notable and fervent “Witch-Hunts” occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, where over two hundred individuals were tried, twenty of which ended in executions, beginning with the execution of Bridget Bishop.[2]

Witches at this time were considered  “people who practiced witchcraft, using magic spells and calling upon spirits for help or to bring about change. Most witches were thought to be pagans doing the Devil’s work”.[3] The presence of the Devil is what separated witchcraft from healers or wise women. The publication of the Malleus Maleficarum is credited with causing the widespread fear of witches as well as providing Protestants and Catholics with the authority to identify and condemn supposed witches.[4] It was believed that witches were handmaidens of the Devil, did his bidding, and engaged in carnal relations with him, the ultimate act of defiance to the church.[5]

The view and history of women as witches must be questioned. Incidentally, there is no evidence in the Malleus or other early literature that excluded the definition of a witch to just females.[6] In fact, females were not the only victims of accusations. In Salem, six males were convicted and sentenced to death.[7] Witch hunts and witchcraft were not specific to women, but developed into a very heavily gendered issue. This imbalance can be shown in numbers, “In England, Europe and New England, at least 200,000 and perhaps as many as eight million people were executed as witches during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and approximately 90% of these people were women, while the men involved were their husbands, brothers and sons,” as well as in the general public understanding based on historical trends that developed the image of witch as strictly female.[8]

This stereotype is rooted in a deeply patriarchal era. History is created by and written by people in power, and this in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was almost strictly if not strictly men. In these societies, based deeply on religion, women were “consigned to rigid roles— mother, wife, caretaker. They had one job: producing obedient, religious children. Women who stepped outside these rigid boundaries were seen as working with Satan”.[9] In addition, claims in court did not have to have evidential proof, and testimonies from witnesses as well as claims of spectral evidence was enough to convict those accused.[10] This among other power imbalances allowed innocent women to be used as scapegoats.[11] Women were the typical target because of the construction of society that placed men in positions of power and gave them advantages to decide the fates of women. Even in the occasion of a male accusee, repercussions for similar evidence and convictions led to less severe punishments and less frequent executions.[12]

This pattern of the abuse of power by males in order to maintain the subordination of women is not a new concept. It can be argued that the witch hysteria was not so much caused by a fear of dark magic, but simply a fear of unruly women.[13] Women who defied the Puritan and Christian ideas that lived so deeply within these communities were perceived as threats to the order. Being “poor, vulnerable, unruly and sexually promiscuous turned these women into targets of the criminal justice system”.[14]

One notable woman who found herself a victim of this misogynistic system was Bridget Bishop of Salem Massachusetts. Bishop fit the mold of the type of innocent woman to be targeted. She has been documented as being “known throughout the Salem area for her un-Puritan like behavior of flamboyant dress, tavern frequenting, and multiple marriages”.[15] Bridget is perhaps one of the most famous cases of speculated scapegoat use.[16] In additional support of her innocence, she has posthumously been exonerated of all crimes.[17]

This inherent disbelief of victims can be seen when looking at the transcript of Bishop’s examination. As an accused woman, she does not receive proper representation nor an adequate chance to defend herself. In Bishop’s trial, her persistent denial of any knowledge of these crimes as well as repeated claims of innocence are apparent. However, her testimony is blatantly ignored, and the eyewitness testimonies of her accusers, as well as spectral evidence, is all that it took to lead the court to sentence her to death. Both Judges were powerful male forces in the community, and used their power and influence to manipulate outcomes to fit their agenda. Viewed as guilty before given a fair trial, Bishop, and countless other women and individuals in her position, were as good as convicted upon accusation. Her only chance at escaping execution would have been to falsely confess, but Bishop maintained her innocence through all of her accusations.[18] Bishop was not the first woman to be accused of witchcraft, but the first to be executed in the Salem trials.

Examination of Bridget Bishop[19]

Recorded by Samuel Parris[20]
April 19th, 1692

Examination by Esq’rs[21] John Hathorne[22] and Jonathan Corwin[23]

As soon as she came near all fell into fits[24]

Hathorne/Corwin: Bridget Bishop, You are now brought before authority to give acc’o of what witchcrafts you are conversant in.

Bishop: I take all these people [turning her head and eyes about] to witness that I am clear.

Hathorne/Corwin: [speaking to the afflicted] Hath this woman hurt you?

Elizabeth Hubbard, Ann Putman, Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewes affirmed she had hurt them.[25]

Hathorne/Corwin: You are accused by 4 or 5 of hurting them, what do you say to it?

Bishop: I never saw these persons before, nor I never was in this place before.

Hathorne/Corwin: They say you bewitcht your first husband to death.[26]

Bishop: If it please your worship, I know nothing of it.

The afflicted charge her with having hurt them in many ways and tempting them to sign the Devil’s Book, at which she seemed to be angry and said it was false.

She shakes her head and the afflicted were tortured upon the motion of her head.

Sam Braybrook affirmed that she had told him that she had been accounted a Witch these 10 years but she was no Witch, the Devil cannot hurt her.

Bishop: I am no Witch.

Hathorne/Corwin: Why if you have not wrote in the book yet tell me how far you have gone?[27] Have you not to do with farmiliar Spirits?

Bishop: I have no familiarity with the Devil.

Hathorne/Corwin: How is it then, that your appearance doth hurt these?

Bishop: I am innocent.

Hathorne/Corwin: Why you seem to arch Witchcraft before us, by the motion of your body, which seems to have influence upon the afflicted?

Bishop: I know nothing of it. I am innocent to a Witch. I know not what a Witch is.

Hathorne/Corwin: How do you know then that you are not a Witch? And yet know not what a Witch is?

Bishop: I do not understand or know what you say.

Hathorne/Corwin: How can you know you are no Witch and yet not know what a Witch is.

Bishop: I am clear; if I were any such person you should know it.

Hathorne/Corwin: You may threaten, but you can do no more than you are permitted.

Bishop: I am innocent of a Witch.

Hathorne/Corwin: What do you say of those murders you are charged with?

Bishop: I hope, I am not guilty of Murder.

Then she turned up her eyes, and the eyes of the afflicted were turned up.

Hathorne/Corwin: It may be you do not know, that any have confessed today, who have been examined before you, that they are Witches.

Bishop: No, I know nothing of it.

John Hutchinson and John Hewes in open court affirmed that they had told her.

Hathorne/Corwin: Why look you, you are taken now in a flat lye.

Bishop: I did not hear them.

 

 


Karly Bruder is in her first year at Wake Forest University. A Massachusetts local; she is interested in Salem and Witches in her free time.


  1. Molland, Judy. “Of Senate Hearings, Witch Trials and the Terrible Fear of Women.” Off Our Backs 22, no. 6 (1992): 12–13. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20834100.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ae1b60e1af750fcfe8a7965b27143211d
  2. Smithsonian. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Accessed November 13, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/.
  3. Editors, History com. “History of Witches.” HISTORY. Accessed November 5, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/folklore/history-of-witches.
  4. “History of Witches.”
  5. “Of Senate Hearings, Witch Trials and the Terrible Fear of Women.”
  6. Blécourt, Willem de. “The Making of the Female Witch: Reflections on Witchcraft and Gender in the Early Modern Period.” Gender & History 12, no. 2 (July 2000): 287. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0424.00185.
  7. “History of Witches.”
  8. “Of Senate Hearings, Witch Trials and the Terrible Fear of Women.”
  9. University, Connie Hassett-Walker “Perspective | What the Salem Witches Can Teach Us about How We Treat Women Today.” Washington Post. Accessed October 21, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/06/10/what-the-salem-witches-can-teach-us-about-how-we-treat-women-today/.
  10. “Spectral evidence was when the witness would testify that the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to her/him in a dream at the time that their physical body was at another location. It was because of this ‘evidence’ that 19 people were hanged and one man was pressed to death” Destination Salem. “Bridget Bishop,” June 10, 2016. https://www.salem.org/bridget-bishop-hanged-june-10-1692/.
  11. Scapegoat is defined as “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency” Lexico Dictionaries | English. “Scapegoat | Definition of Scapegoat by Lexico.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/scapegoat.
  12. For breakdowns and analyses of gender, accusations, and outcomes in different regions and times, see: Swales, J. K., and Hugh V. McLachlan. “Witchcraft and the Status of Women: A Comment.” The British Journal of Sociology 30, no. 3 (1979): 349–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/589913.
  13. For more on this argument: “This fear of female sexuality which drives men to deride and objectify women, this male need for control, has been around for a very long time. The ways in which men have maintained power over women is not a natural phenomenon, but a constructed one; in the early modern period, a time of immense social changes, the persecution of witches was used as a means to hold on to the male status quo in the emerging social order.” “Of Senate Hearings, Witch Trials and the Terrible Fear of Women.”
  14. University, Connie Hassett-Walker “Perspective | What the Salem Witches Can Teach Us about How We Treat Women Today.” Washington Post. Accessed October 21, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/06/10/what-the-salem-witches-can-teach-us-about-how-we-treat-women-today/.
  15. Destination Salem. “Bridget Bishop,” June 10, 2016. https://www.salem.org/bridget-bishop-hanged-june-10-1692/
  16. “Some historians speculate that a reason Bridget Bishop was accused in the 1692 Salem witchcraft craze was that her second husband's children wanted the property that she had possession of as an inheritance from Oliver.” Divinity, Jone Johnson Lewis “Bridget Bishop: First Person Executed in the Salem Witch Trials.” ThoughtCo. Accessed November 5, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/bridget-bishop-biography-3530330.
  17. A 2001 bill passed by Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift formally exonerated Bishop and four other wrongly executed females for all crimes. Representative Paul Tirone stated "It brings closure to a lot of the families. These people were victims. They gave up their lives". For more, see: “Executed Salem Witches Exonerated | WWRN - World-Wide Religious News.” Accessed November 19, 2019. https://wwrn.org/articles/9431/.
  18. Bishop was previously accused of witchcraft in 1680 by her second husband Thomas Oliver. Oliver stated that bishop was a terrible wife who sat up at night with the devil. Bishop received no punishments for this claim. “Courtroom Examination of Bridget Bishop by Sarah Nell Walsh.” Accessed November 19, 2019. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/bishop_court.html.
  19. Access to the original primary source: “SWP No. 013: Bridget Bishop Executed, June 10, 1692 - New Salem - Pelican.” Accessed October 21, 2019. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/n13.html.
  20. Reverend Samuel Parris was one of the most powerful and influential figures in Salem, MA. He preached of the work of the Devil in his parish, and was a driving force of the beginning of the persecution of witches in the region. “Important Persons in the Salem Court Records.” Accessed November 5, 2019. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/#parris_samuel.
  21. Esqr. or Esq. is an abbreviation for Esquire used to denote a man of law in American standards. TheFreeDictionary.com. “Esq.” Accessed November 19, 2019. https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Esq.
  22. John Hathorne was perhaps the most prominent magistrate within Salem and acted as a Judge for a majority of the Salem Witch Trials. Hathorne’s created legacy is of a prosecutor of innocent accusees who “always began with a presumption of guilt rather than innocence”. In addition Hathorne boosted the number of accusations by pressuring those accused to confess and submit other names for a chance at escaping an execution sentence. “Important Persons in the Salem Court Records.” Accessed November 19, 2019. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/#hathorne_john.
  23. Johnathan Corwin is another notable Judge in the Salem Witch Trials. In addition to coming from a powerful family of court officials, Corwin was also brother-in-law to Hathorne. Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “Jonathan Corwin: Salem Witch Judge,” January 26, 2016. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/jonathan-corwin-salem-witch-judge/.
  24. Italicized sections are written observations of the courtroom by recorder Samuel Parris and were not spoken by any individual within the court.
  25. Four of the individuals who placed witchcraft accusations on Bishop. “Courtroom Examination of Bridget Bishop by Sarah Nell Walsh.” Accessed November 19, 2019. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/bishop_court.html.
  26. In reference to Bishops previous accusations of witchcraft by one of her husbands and her step children, believed to be driven by the motive of aqquiring her land. Divinity, Jone Johnson Lewis “Bridget Bishop: First Person Executed in the Salem Witch Trials.” ThoughtCo. Accessed November 5, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/bridget-bishop-biography-3530330. For more on Bishops previous accusations, see: “The Witchcraft Trial of Bridget Bishop,” October 10, 2011. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/bridget-bishop-witch-or-easy-target/.
  27. It was of Puritain belief that a Witch gained demonic powers and/or sealed their relationship with the Devil by signing his book with ink or blood. A confession to signing his book resulted in immediate conviction as a witch and was widely sought by the Judges and prosecutors. Divinity, Jone Johnson Lewis “Why Was ‘Signing the Devil’s Book’ an Important Sign of a Witch?” ThoughtCo. Accessed November 19, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/signing-the-devils-book-3528203.