History It Happened Once

I Googled the Salem Witch Trials so you don’t have to – and they are hella confusing

As a part of our Halloween series this year, since we’ll be mentioning witches a lot, let’s talk about the Salem Witch Trials and how the events that took place do not make any sense.

Honestly, after reading a bunch about the “trials,” I still do not really understand what happened or why it happened. Suggestions about fungus causing illnesses and other analyses on political issues within Salem at the time are speculations that are often used to try to explain the trials. But, you have to admit that there are a bunch of missing pieces in the story. The whole thing sounds like complete chaos to me!

I have so many questions. Like, why did they randomly believe the claims of young girls without any true evidence? Who really thought that allowing spectral evidence was a good idea? How were the accused supposed to prove to a court that they were not actually witches? And lastly, what were the true reasons and motivations behind this tragedy?

So let me explain what all went down in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693.  It all began when the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village, began having violent fits, intense contortions, and uncontrollable outbursts such as screaming. After a local doctor in Salem could not find anything physically wrong with 9-year-old Elizabeth Parris an 11-year-old Abigail Williams, he diagnosed them and other young girls within the community that showed similar behaviors and symptoms with bewitchment. This first diagnosis of witchcraft led to the imprisonment of over 200 people and 20 hangings throughout Massachusetts.

Puritan pioneers first settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. During this time, the Puritan communities established their own theocratic government systems. Theocracy is a form of government largely led and structured by those who believed to be divinely guided. The government and legal system are structured based on religious law.

You still with me?

The Puritans believed that the Devil could give individuals on Earth powers in return for their loyalty. (and that isn’t even the most ridiculous claim) Those who received powers from the Devil were called witches. The principle of witchcraft became prevalent in 14th century Europe, where between the 1300s and 1600s, thousands of people, the majority being women, were executed for accusations of witchcraft. Under the legal structure in Salem, an individual who consorted with the Devil was considered a criminal. The punishment for committing such a crime was hanging, yikes!

During the time of the Salem Witch Trials, the community was stressed and struggling. The King William’s War put a strain on the community’s resources. Additionally, there was a rivalry between wealthy families and the working class that depended on forms of agriculture. There was also an on-going smallpox epidemic and fear of attack from neighboring Native Americans. The stressful and anxiety-fueled climate of the community led to ongoing tensions and suspicions among the Puritan villagers.

After the diagnosis of bewitchment, a few of the “bewitched” young girls blamed three women for bewitching them. The first is Tituba, an enslaved woman from the Caribbean bought by the Reverend Parris. The second woman was Sarah Good, a homeless beggar.  And lastly, an impoverished elderly woman named Sarah Osborne. Of course, all three of the accused women were considered “outsiders” based on race and/or class. (Is anyone shocked?)

It remains unclear if the girls were persuaded or forced to accuse these three women. However, I think that the social statuses and positions of the women in society should be considered when trying to interpret the potential reasons that these three women in particular were actually accused of the crime of witchcraft.

This is where the whole thing launched full speed into a downward spiral to me. The imprisonment of the three women led to further paranoia in a society that already suffered from numerous stresses. Good and Osborne claimed that they were not guilty; while Tituba confessed and named other witches who were working along with her against the Puritans to receive repentance. In response to Tituba claiming other individuals were also practicing witchcraft, the governor of Massachusetts ordered the establishment of the Court of Oyer and Terminer to pass judgment on witchcraft cases.

The accusations of witchcraft continued to spread across the Massachusetts colonies against mostly women and a few men (which I did not know). Similarly to Tituba, those accused confessed and named others who practiced witchcraft. The court allowed testimony based on spectral evidence. This refers to evidence that is based on visions, dreams, and a person’s spirit. The testimony was based on witnesses claiming that they interacted with or saw a person’s spirit, in place of basing testimony on a person’s physical actions. The trails lacked focus on truth and investigation. Under religious practices, the courts preferred that the accused confessed, asked for forgiveness, and vowed to not engage with the Devil again.

After years and the (unlawful) deaths and imprisonment of so many people, the Court of Oyer and Terminer was finally replaced with the Superior Court of Judicature, the testimony of spectral evidence was no longer allowed, and the trials were deemed unlawful. In 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching due to the events that had occurred during the trials. Additionally, in 1711, the families affected received reinstitution and the restoration of the names. However, it was not until the 1950s that Massachusetts formally apologized for the event.

The whole story is definitely a lot to digest, but it did give me a lot to think about.

While many aspects of the Salem Witch Trails are perplexing, within this tragedy remains lessons that should be reflected on and questioned today. It remains crucial to have objectivity, to think about the consequences of unjustly punishing individuals, to be cautious of the use of fear within the justice system, and to foresee the damages of groupthink going unquestioned.

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USA Editor's Picks Politics The World Policy

Trump called immigrants “animals.” Are we headed down a slippery slope?

Two weeks ago President Trump described deported immigrants as “animals.”

Not long after, that verbal dehumanization was codified on an official White House press release entitled “What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13.” While Trump and his supporters say he was specifically speaking about members of the gang MS-13, his track record on immigration issues leaves the possibility that he was talking about all immigrants from Central America.

And even if he was only talking about gang members, this kind of language is an extremely dangerous road to start down. 

As many people rightfully pointed out, dehumanizing language is often the prelude to real, physical violence. Consider the Nazi depictions of Jews as “rats” and the Hutu depiction of Tutsis as “cockroaches” in Rwanda. And for examples closer to home, consider the depiction of Africans as “animals” to justify their enslavement and all its attendant brutality.

The argument over whether or not Trump was specifically referring to MS-13 members is semantic and mostly unimportant. The bigger issue is that people are people, regardless of who they are or where they are from, regardless of who they are, where they are from, or what they have done. And people have rights. In some cases, when people have been convicted of crimes, their rights are abridged, such as when people are imprisoned. The process by which we do that in the U.S. is tainted by systemic racism already. Categorizing any person as nonhuman will only make the abuses of our criminal justice system worse.

In 2016, a man died of dehydration in a Milwaukee County jail. Then-Sheriff David Clarke, who ran the jail, and his deputies had denied the prisoner, Terrill Thomas, water for seven days. Others in the jail reported hearing Thomas crying out and begging for water for days before his death. Clarke has been a vocal Trump supporter, and the president is likewise a fan of Clarke’s: Clarke was in talks for a position in the White House last year before John Kelly shut down that idea. Instead, Clarke has become a spokesman and senior advisor for a pro-Trump super PAC.

Last summer, Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt for his illegal racial profiling in his crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Some other fun facts about Arpaio: he has proudly referred to his jails as “concentration camps,” and has addressed overcrowding by having inmates stay in tents outside in the Arizona heat. His devotion to hunting down undocumented immigrants is so strong that he often failed to actually investigate things like reported sexual assaults in his jurisdiction. During his tenure at Maricopa County, violence against inmates in his care was rife, and its perpetrators rarely punished.

Why would they be, when their boss clearly had such little regard for the lives of immigrants he viewed as criminal?

It’s also important to remember that the state decided what acts are criminal, and to what extent to pursue and punish that criminality.

Remember how the Obama administration decided that although marijuana possession and use was still a federal crime, it would no longer be a high priority for federal law enforcement? Now consider what crimes a Justice Department headed by Jeff Sessions will consider most important to punish, and in particular what criminals a man who was once denied a federal judgeship for a host of racist comments will crack down on the most.

The label of “criminal” has always been more than a specific descriptor of wrongdoing. It is also a broad brush to paint certain groups of people as unworthy of rights of the basic rights they are guaranteed by law. Using the term indiscriminately hurts people, and calling anyone who has committed a crime an animal makes that risk of violence worse.

At a rally on Tuesday night, Trump doubled down on his language, turning it into a new call-and-response chant with his supporters. In the 2016 election, his rallies were sites of violence against people his supporters decided didn’t belong. Cities that hosted him saw increases in violent assaults.

And he seems dead set on whipping up a greater frenzy of animosity towards immigrants.

Politics The World

There’s one kind of face behind rape in America today, and we need to stop ignoring that

The United States Justice Department defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual conduct or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” This seems like a fairly straightforward definition, and because it’s labelled as illegal, it should be easy to confirm occurrences.

But it’s not.

Sex is an interesting topic, in part because it’s so taboo. That feeling of the forbidden has crossed our cultural lines and invaded our justice system as well. The way assault and rape cases are treated in the US are heavily dependent on the individuals dealing with them. Some of the more shocking cases make the news, such as the infamous Brock Turner case, Bill Cosby, or even President Donald Trump.

However, the one prevailing facet of all of those cases seems to be the same: the victim faces the harsh reality of their abuser or rapist getting away with it. Many times, even if the abuser is sentenced, the punishment feels unbelievably light.

The United States has a serious problem with white male privilege – and this is especially prevalent when it comes to some of the most famous cases in recent years.

Case Study 1: The Notorious Brock Turner


Everyone’s heard about this case. It was the one where the media thought it was relevant to print Turner’s swimming scores next to the story about how he tried to rape someone.

Turner was, at the time, accused of sexually assaulting and attempting to rape an unconscious victim after a college party. For unknown reasons, the fact that he was a swimmer at Stanford was also a notable facet of the story. This betrays something insidious in our culture – that the perpetrator of a crime still has value to society, and therefore his crime is forgivable. Turner’s parents also made headlines when they wrote a letter to the judge, asking for a light sentence.

Turner, in his statements, blamed alcohol and promiscuity for his own actions. In other words, Turner, nor his family, ever felt the need to accept any kind of responsibility. It couldn’t be his fault because he was a good kid otherwise.

To top it off, Turner served 3 months of jail time, after being convicted of 3 charges of rape. He should have been in jail for years, not weeks. Meanwhile, the victim will deal with the repercussions for the rest of her life.

Case Study 2: Austin Wilkerson, Part-Time Inmate, and Student 


A less heard-of case, Wilkerson was a male student from the University of Colorado who assaulted and raped a fellow college student. She drank too much at a party, Wilkerson told her and friends that he would help her, and then he raped her as she drifted in and out of consciousness.

He should have faced a minimum of 4 years in jail for this crime, but instead, he might only have to stay in jail on some weekends, as long as he isn’t working. Instead of being sentenced for jail the way most people are, Wilkerson will be on a jail time, work-release program.

Keep in mind that this man actually raped someone. He is facing almost no consequences for it. He will have to spend the night in an uncomfortable place and register as a sex offender. Meanwhile, his victim will, again, deal with the repercussions for the rest of her life.

Case Study 3: Donald Trump, President of the Freaking USA 


Of all the people that could be on this list, and there are quite a few, there is no way to ignore the current President of the United States. A man accused of rape and sexual assault, and who was caught on video talking about sexual assault, has ascended to the highest position of power in our country.

Think about that.

Brock Turner was “just a kid”. Bill Cosby was “a troubled star with too much money and not enough discipline”. What did Trump have? What excuse could he possibly come up with to combat a video of himself where he stated that he would “grab ‘em by the p*ssy”? You would think that he’d have to prove that it was a fake video in order to get elected President, but he didn’t.

It simply didn’t matter that he had said that. It didn’t matter that numerous women had accused him of assault or that his former wife had testified in court that he had raped her (a statement she has since retracted). The outrage over his remarks, the alleged sexual assaults, and the rape absolutely should have been enough to prevent him from winning the Presidency.

Yeah, so? Think you’ve heard all this before?

I don’t care if you’ve heard this before – it must be said again. And again. Because honestly, things are only getting worse.

Take the recent Tennessee case in which a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped by her high school teacher, a Mr. Tad Cummins. Tennessee’s kidnapping law is incredibly loose in regards to girls that age. Why is this? Unfortunately, it’s possible that Cummins could be found not guilty if his victim, Elizabeth, says she left with him of her own accord.

Our culture has clearly done so little to make young people, both women and men alike, understand that these actions are not defensible or acceptable. Sexual assault can leave lasting emotional trauma that can even remain dormant until later in life. Yet, sexual assault and abuse cases oftentimes do not make it very far, and there is very little closure or comfort for the victim.

If anything, sexual abuse lawsuits should be heavier in cases like this one. It can’t change what happened, but imposing consequences on a criminal might at least spare others the pain of experiencing the same trauma. Our courts need to be taking these cases much more seriously than they currently do.

However, the best outcome that we can strive for is to stop sexual abuse and assault before it happens. We need to be talking to children so that we can raise a generation that advocates for sexual safety and respect. There’s still so much we need to do as a society, and we can start by shifting the focus of a crime away from the perpetrator’s consequences and towards looking at the consequences for the victim.

Check out The Tempest’s ongoing coverage on sexual assault  nationwide and across the world.