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WORDBIRTH, a column by Jack Karasch
The word WITCH originally applied to men as well as women. First seen in written English late in the ninth century, it bore the Old English spellings of wicca, wycca and later wiche.
By the 1500s it was commonly believed that witches were in league with Lucifer. They could fly, work hexes and even transform themselves into black cats so they might prowl the streets at night unobserved.
In America these beliefs, at one point, took on a most tragic and insane pallor in the form of colonial jurisprudence.
It was 1692 and New Englanders were experiencing hardships only slightly less devastating then those that had caused them to flee the Old World. They were excessively taxed by Mother England, pirates raided their coasts, the French were hostile and sought revenge against the colonies for their part in a failed attempt to take possession of Canada. Worst of all, they were deadly afraid of the Indians who they believed were servants of the Devil, sent to wage war against them and their God.
They were primed for hysteria. The paranoia that led to the Salem witch trials of 1692. could almost have been predicted.
It all began with a West Indian servant named Tituba who had intrigued a number of young girls in the village of Salem with her knowledge of the occult as practiced in her native islands. Fortune-telling, palmistry and the like were the subjects she taught the children at their request. The children, ten all told, ranging in age from nine to twenty, became so adept at these practices and convincing in the employment of their wild gestures, contortions, unintelligible sounds and such, that all in Salem were soon convinced these poor youths had become positively bewitched.
With the adults focusing in on them, the children pushed their act to the hilt. They interrupted church services and town meetings with their bizarre behaviors. Believed not to be responsible, the children were never punished but instead were the objects of pity and fear.
The Devil was in them all right. But who was responsible? Badgering finally led the children to name names and all who they mentioned were issued warrants for committing witchcraft. Hundreds of innocent people were imprisoned and twenty were hanged.
Tituba, who had unwittingly been the source of the trouble, was mentally retarded, but still clever enough to outwit the judge and jurors. At first she professed innocenceóbut this made the children writhe on the floor, screeching and clawing. So Tituba admitted guilt to quiet them, and then went into her own act, at last "breaking free" of the Devil before her accusers' eyes.
All others who admitted guilt were imprisoned. Those who steadfastly swore innocence suffered the hangman's noose.
Eventually men of prominence began to voice their reservations about these trials. Evidence, after all, consisted solely of tales told by children. The last such trail occurred prior to May, 1693, thereby ending one of the greatest injustices in the annals of the world's legal system.
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