Witches in our midst …
I learned humans are capable of anything … believing anything, doing anything … whether it be good or bad, we just need a reason.
In 1518, on a bright July day in the town of Strasbourg in what is now France, a woman named Mrs. Troffea began dancing in the street. Once she began dancing, she didn’t stop for almost a week before she fell unconscious. By the fourth day of Mrs. Troffea’s dancing, she was joined by over thirty other people whose eyes rolled back into their heads while their bodies uncontrollably danced. By the end of the month, over 400 people were in the street dancing as if they were possessed. Dancers died of exhaustion and heart attacks. They would dance until they collapsed in the street, wake hours or days later, and then begin dancing again. By August, it is estimated that as many as a dozen people were dying every day from dancing themselves to death.
This dancing mania in Strasbourg was not an isolated incident. There are many documented cases between the 14th and 17th centuries of populations of people spontaneously and uncontrollably dancing in Europe. But the dancing mania eventually died out…at the very end of the 17th century it was replaced by another sort of maniacal behavior…witch trails. The need for witches spread from Europe to the Puritan colonies in Massachusetts.
Between Salem Town and Salem Village, in a period of just over three months, twenty people were executed for being witches. Three more adults and two infant children died in prison waiting to be executed.
The Puritans of New England sought to establish a theocracy. As in any theocracy, religious leaders hold a great deal of sway. And…as in any theocracy…not everyone agreed on the proper and pure form of their religion. Salem Town and Salem Village fought over many things; property lines, taxes, who understood the proper and pure form of their religion. From the beginning the two towns shared a minister, James Bayley. One day, Salem Village decides they need to have their own minister; someone who understood proper and pure things…a man like George Burroughs. For two years the two ministers put up with the bickering, quarrelsome towns. Then they quit. Bayley left town but Burroughs hung around Salem Village.
Salem Village ordained a new minister, Samuel Parris. Paris thrived in the angry and paranoid atmosphere of Salem Village and Salem Town. He fed the discontent. He nurtured conflict as means to importance. It was Parris who decided who and what was proper and pure, who were the friends and allies, who were the enemies, who should be destroyed.
It was two girls, a nine year old and an eleven year old, the daughter and niece of the Reverend Parris, who first began to utter strange things, writhe and shiver and crawl like an animal. It was Parris’ daughter and niece who first pointed the finger and blamed others for their behavior. Sarah Good was a homeless beggar. At her trial she was accused and convicted of not being disciplined and of refusing to lead children on the path to salvation. There was an Indian slave, Tituba, who was accused of enticing children with tales of sexual encounters with demons. Then there was Sarah Osborne who showed no shame with she married her indentured servant.
Other girls in the towns began to quiver and drool … point fingers. Others were charged with witchcraft…including the hapless, former minister, Burroughs who should have left town while he had a chance. He was hung for witchcraft.
Between November, 1966 and December 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, a few years after JFK and his little brother were assassinated, during the cold war, sightings of a winged man-like/demon-like creature began to be reported in West Virginia,
The Mothman was reported to be black, have fiery red eyes and a ten foot wingspan. Over a hundred sightings had been reported in the span of about one year. The collapse of a bridge and the deaths of 46 people were attributed to him. The Mothman was a credible threat.
There are reasons behind these behaviors, these manias. The fourteenth and seventeenth centuries were fraught with adversity. Plagues and famines, invasions, oppressions and subjugations, things that wear on the human spirit, things that tire the mind, suggesting to the mind to just quit and let the body dance.
During the witch trials, there was a strong mix of extremism, dogmatic partisanship, xenophobia, narcissism and despotism that lent reason to the logic of witch trials. Such things need enemies.
1966 was a trying period for many Americans. We were having, fire drills, tornado drills and nuclear bomb drills in elementary school, a missile crisis in Cuba, our leaders were being assassinated, we were not winning a war, equal rights were being legislated, our world was changing, for some of us, too much too fast …and we saw things that weren’t there … enemies … Mothmen.
Whether it be to dance, to fabricate, to accuse or to kill, historically, our anxieties are reason enough to believe, to see, to do almost anything. Maniacal ideas are infectious when our collective immune system is suppressed by our collective anxieties. I am wondering … will the story written tomorrow tell the story of a nation, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, so anxious, so afraid that they needed to “totally destroy” another nation of 25 million people. Such thoughts are the thoughts of the maniacal. This is all I have learned today.
James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org