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During the Salem witch trials did people believe that witches looked different (as in...

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lshenkman | Student | (Level 1) Honors

Posted November 11, 2011 at 9:43 AM via web

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During the Salem witch trials did people believe that witches looked different (as in appearance and clothes) than other people?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted November 11, 2011 at 9:55 AM (Answer #1)

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No, they did not.  If they had thought this, there would have been little need for trials.  It would have been perfectly obvious who was a witch.

In the Salem Witch Trials, the only way that people came to be on trial for witchcraft was through others accusing them.  The whole thing started with the girls (Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Parris, and Ann Putnam) accusing people and took off from there.  If the witches had been distinguishable by their physical appearance or their dress, this would not have been necessary.

Instead, at the time, it was believed that you could tell a person was a witch because of actions they would take or problems that they would "cause."

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larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted November 12, 2011 at 1:23 AM (Answer #2)

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Actually, there was more to the identification of witches than mere accusation alone, as the above answer implies, although accusation was often sufficient to justify further investigation. In any evidence existed other than accusation, accused witches were put on trial, at which point it was hoped that they would confess. It was believed, as the quote below indicates, that some witches could deceive their judges or even withstand torture. A number of methods were used to determine if one were a witch, all in accordance with the Malleus Malificarum, ("Hammer of Evil," often mistranslated "Hammer of Witches")a medieval text used in both Europe and New England to identify witches, who were believed to engage in carnal intercourse with the devil after feasting on the flesh of newborn children. The following quote from the Malleus gives some indication of the presumed terror witches might impose:

And there are witches who can bewitch their judges by a mere look or glance from their eyes, and publicly boast that they cannot be punished; and when malefactors have been imprisoned for their crimes, and exposed to the severest torture to make them tell the truth, these witches can endow them with such an obstinacy of preserving silence that they are unable to lay bare their crimes. And there are some who, in order to accomplish their evil charms and spells, beat and stab the Crucifix, and utter the filthiest words against the Purity of the Most Glorious Virgin MARY, casting the foulest aspersions on the Nativity of Our Saviour from Her inviolate womb. It is not expedient to repeat those vile words, nor yet to describe their detestable crimes, as the narrative would give too great offence to the ears of the pious; but they are all kept and preserved in writing, detailing the manner in which a certain baptized Jewess had instructed other young girls. And one of them, named Walpurgis, being in the same year at the point of death, and being urged by those who stood round her to confess her sins, exclaimed: I have given myself body and soul to the devil; there is no hope of forgiveness for me; and so died.

Among the methods of determining if one were a witch:

  • Older women who had lived a long life were almost immediately suspect, as many women died young, often in childbirth. If this old woman muttered to herself (perhaps from lonliness or senility) or was somewhat ill-tempered, she was suspect.
  • One suspected might be thrown into a nearby stream or river. If she sank to the bottom, she was innocent; if she floated, then the river had rejected her and she was a witch.
  • Ones nude body was inspected for moles, birth marks, etc. Any mark discovered was pricked. If it bled red blood, it was believed inconclusive; however if it exuded a whitiish or clear fluid it was deemed a "witch's teat" whereby one "suckled the devil."

Mere accusation without accompanying signs was normally not enough. The same girls involved in the Salem trials later began writhing and crying "witch" when they saw an elderly woman in the village of Ipswich in 1692. They were ignored, and soon gave up their pretences.

 

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