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Monday 19 July 2010

Remembering the Salem Executions on 19th July

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial Park, in SalemImage via Wikipedia
318 years today five women were hung as witches as the infamous Salem Witch Trials. The official memorial page for the victims of this glaring example of religious extremism and mass hysteria in the western world, lists those who were hung as Sarah Wildes, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Good and Rebecca Nurse. Their gravestones are preserved and the page even reproduces their please of innocence against this capital crime.

This is a gigantic and fascinating historical subject, and I am not going to tackle it today. My interest is just in alerting our attention to this very scary example from our history and to briefly note what thoughts it stirs in me. It serves as cautionary tale from history, not just about religious extremism but also intrusive government controls and the darker side of humanity. The term “witch trial” or “witch hunt” is regularly applied to cases that are driven by forces outside of rationality. The McCarthy era of 1950s American politics that capitalized on the “red scare” have the most popular association with the Salem Witch Trials. These early days of the Cold War saw many artists blacklisted from mainstream work due possible associations with leftwing politics and, worse still, many trials and executions of American citizens for alleged communist connections.

However, I think there are even more strikingly appropriate examples closer to today. In the 1980s the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria seemed very akin to the days of the Salem Witch Trials. This time it wasn’t superstitious accusations, but arguably the modern day secular equivalent: pseudoscience. Psychoanalysists, specialising in regressive therapy, claimed to be unearthing suppressed incidents of sexual abuse in children and older. As interest autobiography “Today I am Alice” [read my review] demonstrates, the thus unproven disorder of MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) continues to have a strong connection to the days of these therapy sessions, with patients to this day still claiming that they were abused as part of satanic paedophile ring. At the time hundreds of people were falsely accused of being a part of satanic sects who preyed upon their own children.

To date there has not been a single proven case of a satanic or devil worshipping cult actively involved any form of ritual abuse. The closest we have come has been in the form of single individuals, often using the occult as a time of insanity plea for their crimes, or very small groups of disenfranchised teenagers. The most famous killer cults that are not warped variations of mainstream religions are The Solar Temple, Charles Manson’s “Family” and The Heaven’s Gate group. Each of these had origins more connected with New Age beliefs of “The Left Hand Path” than in the globally recognized Abrahamic or Vedic/Brahman religions. However, none professed to be devil-worshippers or Satanists. The closest any of them came to being Satanists was Susan “Sadie” Atkins former career as a topless vampire in one of Anton LaVey’s reviews. LaVey’s own branch of “Satanism”, which is the only formally recognized version of the religion, is more of an allegorical philosophy centred on materialism and individualism, not to mention active criticism of Christian doctrines. As LaVey said himself, it is little more than Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy dressed up with rituals. The cult has punkish undertones of overt provocation designed to upset the status quo and this has led to it, and in particular LaVey’s “Satanic Bible”, to be used as a motive for isolated killings. Ricky Casso, for example, was a Long Island teenage drug-dealer who murdered a boy who stole from him and later claimed his inspiration came from LaVey’s “Satanic Bible”. For a surprisingly sober look at the society that lays blame on silly ceremonies and the occult for violent acts, I urge you to read Frank Moorhouse’s “Satanic Killings”. I will review it at a later date.

For today, however, I think it is worth reflecting on the Salem Witch Trials for many reasons. Mass hysteria is a symptom that can be all-too-easily induced and manipulated. Human herd instinct has led otherwise good people to not only commit evil acts, but also believe very strange things. I often find myself at loggerheads with concerned people who are outraged the next time they see a tabloid headline featuring the face of a killer. Many support sensationalist newspapers that trade in this type of pornography. They believe that the papers are doing a good thing by showing these people up for being the monsters that they are and in many cases are doing this to motivate people to urge the government to change their policies on crime, to give out stiffer sentences or bring in tighter controls on paroled felons. I appreciate and empathize with their concerns. However, I am always unnerved by mass pack mentality. Rationalism must prevail. By parading “monsters” in our press by sensationalizing their crimes we actually encourage future predators. As the likes of Frank Moorhouse, Dave Grossman and Gavin De Becker have pointed out, these people may repulse the general public but they excite a certain counterculture. To be more specific they titillate and inspire certain individuals. Words like “Evil”, “Monstrous”, “Vile” and “Demonic” are adjectives of honour to them. The number of women who have ended up marrying people serving on Death Row, the fan mail received on a regular basis by notorious killers and the recent response to the crimes of Raol Moat, who has a Facebook tribute page, are examples of how support can grow for the most infamous figures.

As for literal witch hunts, they also still go on to this day. Investigations in Tanzania and Congo have revealed many modern day cases of women and children being accused and killed for “being witches”. So, the next time we watch a production of “The Crucible” or listen to a spooky historical tour guide as he tells about the terrible times of Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General or as we look back at 17th century Salem, it is worth considering whether we really have come that far forward.

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Memorial page

List of the dead

This post was inspired by Tim Farley of "What's the Harm". He gives a day-by-day update on events relating to rationial scepticism in history on Twitter.

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