On Salem: the girls

Catherine Brekus offers some historical and psychological hypotheses as to what happened at Salem.



Catherine Brekus offers some historical and psychological hypotheses as to what happened at Salem.


At Salem, the crisis started with a number of younger women – some children, some adolescent girls, some women in their 20s. And historians have always wondered what to do with their stories. These girls and young women claimed that they were being tormented, they fell into fits – and so for a long time I think historians said that they had just been faking it. But the more that we’ve learned about them, the more that historians have wondered whether at least some of them may have been acting out traumatic experiences that they had had in the past.

So we know that at least four of the afflicted girls had lived in Maine during Indian raids, that they had seen horrifying attacks on Puritan communities in Maine. One of the girls, Mercy Short, had lost both of her parents in a raid and then was taken on a forced march by the Wabanaki Indians to Canada. On that march, she saw a Puritan man who was tortured to death with fire and then he was dismembered. She saw a five-year-old boy who was killed with a hatchet blow. She saw a teenage girl who was scalped. So these are the kinds of experiences that she had been through.

She was then held in captivity for eight months before she was ransomed, and she was then put in a family in Salem as an indentured servant. She was one of the girls who claimed that she was being afflicted by Satan. And you can imagine that what she was describing was experiences that she had actually either witnessed or had had herself. And when she was asked to describe what the devil looked like, she claimed that he was a tawny man, and she described him as looking like an Indian.

So our hypothesis is that at least some of these girls may have been suffering from something like post-traumatic stress disorder. There may have also been some who were faking. There seem to have been a lot of these girls who had lost at least one parent and were dealing with other kinds of psychological issues. And some people have speculated that the girls, at least some of them, may have been suffering from what psychologists call a conversion disorder, which is where people act out their psychological pain. This happened most famously recently in a community in New York where a number of adolescent girls were all afflicted with similar neurological symptoms in 2012. And doctors really struggled to figure out if there was some common cause, and finally decided that this was a psychiatric issue and that psychological distress can in fact be catching. And there was an epidemic in this school of neurological symptoms. So people reading about that episode in New York have looked back to say, maybe some of that was happening at Salem.