Every year when Halloween comes along, images of black-robed witches suddenly appear in ads and on social media. It is curious that witches still remain a prominent part of our culture even though more than 300 years have passed since witches played an important role in American history. [The witches who were part of the culture of indigenous people in America are not the ones who are remembered at Halloween. The black-robed women who are pictured on candy boxes and Halloween cards come from the European tradition.]
Witchcraft accusations have a long history in Europe, but at the time when the American colonies were being settled, the fever was dying down in England and most of Europe. As witch trials dwindled in England, they grew in the American colonies which had been settled by people from England. But there were differences. In the New England colonies more women than men were punished for witchcraft. And the victims were not just a random group of cranky old women who annoyed the neighbors, put spells on livestock and in general caused trouble. What was it that made the accused so vulnerable to being described as witches?
In recent years, historians have studied the records of accusations of witchcraft in early New England, especially the Salem witch trials that occurred during 1692 and 1693. It turns out that many things we thought we knew about witches are not accurate. It is true that most of the people accused were women but they were not necessarily the oldest women around or the poorest. What they had in common was that they were past child-bearing age. That was the crucial thing. Also, most of the women were either unmarried or widows. They did not have a husband to support them.
To understand what made some women particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, we have to look at the laws of inheritance that governed the economy of the Massachusetts colony at the time of the trials. Most workers in the colony depended on farmland to support them and their families. When a man died, it was important that his land was passed on to his children so the family fortune could be maintained. The normal pattern of inheritance was designed to keep farmland in the family.
Most men who owned farms and had families, started distributing land when the children got married. The oldest son generally got one-third of the property when he married. Younger sons received a smaller portion of land or money upon marriage. Daughters were given a settlement upon marriage, usually about half as much as the eldest son would receive.
When a man of property died, his wealth was distributed in this way to unmarried children. His widow, however, was entitled to one-third of his property for her use for the rest of her life. This pattern kept widows from being a charge on the community while they lived. They could not, however, sell the property. It was only theirs for their lifetime. Upon their death, whatever was left was distributed to the remaining children.
It is important to remember that married women owned nothing at all. When a woman married, everything she owned became the property of her husband—even her clothes, her jewelry and her wedding ring. She did continue to have whatever dower her father had given her upon marriage. Her children or stepchildren could not take this money or property from her.
It is easy to see that this situation provided some motivation for children and stepchildren to hope the women who held the land did not continue to live on it and enjoy it for an unreasonable length of time. If that woman happened to be accused and punished for witchcraft, her hold on the property would disappear.
There is no way of knowing how many accusations against witches were made by people with an interest in her property, but it must have been a continuing temptation for some, especially younger sons who might have to wait for a young stepmother to die before they could receive some of their father’s land.
The history of witchcraft in America is a fascinating study that can help us understand why some of our ancestors acted the way they did. One book I highly recommend is The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol F. Karlson (Norton 1998). You will probably be able to find that in your local library or in bookstores.
Knowing the stories behind the way our ancestors lived helps us to understand the forces that have shaped our country and our attitudes even today. The persecution of witches may seem strange, but the more we know about how people of colonial times lived, the better we can understand the way they acted.