In Salem Village in the winter of 1692, the young daughter and niece of the village’s first ordained minister Reverend Samuel Parris began exhibiting strange behavior. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. A local doctor could find no physical evidence of any ailment.
When other young women in the village started exhibiting similar behaviours Sarah Good, a homeless begger, Sarah Osborne, a woman who rarely attended church, Tituba, a slave from a minority ethnic group, and Dorothy Good, a four-year-old child, were accused of bewitching the girls. They were interrogated and sent to jail.
As accusations of witchcraft increased so did those detained and a special court was created to prosecute the accused. The first case brought to trial was that of Bridget Bishop. Bridget’s black clothing and unusual costumes were a focus of the trial and she was questioned closely about her coat which had been awkwardly “cut or torn in two ways.” This breach of puritan social norms, and her immoral lifestyle, was evidence of her of a being a witch. She went to trial the same day and was found guilty. She was executed by hanging on June 10, 1692.
Most people these days recognize that neither the young women of Salem nor the others supposedly afflicted by witchcraft for which an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 were executed were actually bewitched. In fact, while physical illnesses such as Lymes Disease have been suggested as the cause of the symptoms exhibited by the afflicted, psychiatric explanations are the most widely promoted and accepted. According to scholars, the young women suffered PTSD or Somatoform Disorder rather than suffering the effects of being given the evil eye by a woman who had sexual relations with Satan or one of his demons.
Am I the only one to find this hilarious? Scholars reject the evidence for witchcraft but accept the evidence for psychiatry. In my view that’s akin to rejecting the evidence for astrology but accepting it for alchemy.
Let’s look at the similarities between witchcraft and psychiatry. Much of the evidence used against witches was spectral evidence, or the testimony of the bewitched person who claimed to see the apparition of the person who had bewitched them. Subjective, pretty unreliable evidence based on the views and observations (and not uncommonly the spite, petty jealousies and aggression) of friends, family and community members. Much of the evidence of mental disorders is based on subjective views and observations of the same groups. Like psychiatry, witch hunters believed being a witch was genetic with evidence that one’s parents were witches being sufficient proof that a child was a witch.
Spectral evidence was controversial and seen as providing a poor evidence base, so more scientific understandings of witchcraft and witch detection were developed. This scientific evidence base for witchcraft was the doctrine of Effluvia, which posited that witches afflicted others by the use of “venomous and malignant particles, that were ejected from the eye.”
Belief in effluvia led to a range of diagnostic testing including the ‘witch cake’ and the ‘touch test.’ Witch cakes were baked using rye flour and urine from the person affected by witchcraft and given to dogs to eat. According to expert understanding of bewitching methods, the witch herself would be hurt when the dog ate the cake due to the presence of invisible particles she had sent to afflict the person, which remained in the urine. Identification was a simple matter of following the cries of pain as the cake was consumed.
The touch test was the equivalent of a brief screening tool. Witches could be quickly identified by requiring them to touch a victim in a bewitched state. If the screaming/throwing things/contorting behaviour stopped, that meant the accused was the person who had afflicted the victim.
The scientific evidence underpinning this process was explained by experts thus;
The Witch by the cast of her eye sends forth a Malefick Venome into the Bewitched to cast him into a fit, and therefore the touch of the hand doth by sympathy cause that venome to return into the Body of the Witch again.
Biological psychiatry uses evidence with similar scientific weight. Chemical imbalances that cannot be detected, brain disorders with no physical manifestation and research evidence based on swim tests for mice.
Like psychiatry, the identification and treatment of bewitching was set out in a manual, the Malleus Maleficarum. This manual is divided into three sections, the first setting out the evidence for witchcraft, the second describing its indicators and treatment and the third advising the courts on confronting and combating witchcraft.
The key purpose of the Malleus was to refute arguments claiming that witchcraft does not exist, to discredit those who expressed skepticism about its existance, to show that witches were more often women than men, and to provide instruction on procedures for identifying and convicting them. Between 1487 and 1520, twenty editions of the Malleus were published, and another sixteen editions were published between 1574 and 1669.
The DSM-5 similarly attempts to give credibility to a process for identifying and treating mental disorders, and a rationale for their detention and forced treatment. It attempts to silence skeptics by couching subjective assessments of deviance in medical terms and to put psychiatry on a par with branches of medical science which have biological findings as their basis.
In the 300 years since the executions of witches in Salem and around the world, the descendent families have sought compensation for the unjust and unscientific labeling, abuse, and killing of their loved ones.
In 1992, The Danvers Tercentennial Committee persuaded the Massachusetts House of Representatives to issue a resolution honoring those who had died. Finally signed on October 31, 2001, by Governor Jane Swift, more than 300 years after these abuses and injustices were perpetrated, those labelled witches were proclaimed innocent.
The new head of the World Psychiatric Association, Professor Dinesh Bhugra, has recently come out to say his profession should apologise for the way it has treated gay people and women, two key groups targeted by witch hunters in the past and by psychiatry in the present. I’d like to see transgender people, mothers of autistic children (so-called refrigerator mothers) and the families of those who have suicided on psychiatric drugs added to this list.
Research suggests the women accused as witches were characterized by their strong personalities and defiance of social expectations for proper female decorum. I suspect we mothers who have been propelled into activism as a result of our children’s deaths at the hands of the mental health system and its drugs would have caused a run on the ingredients for witch cakes back in Salem as we disseminate ‘venomous and malignant particles’, from fngers that fly over our keyboards.
Undoubtedly it will take a lot longer before we are viewed as anything other than ‘hysterical’ and suffering from ‘prolonged grief disorder’ or some other ailment which has no more basis in fact that witchcraft. Undoubtedly our children’s deaths will continue to be ascribed to the affliction of mental illness rather than to the drugs they were prescribed and undoubtedly we will have to wait a little longer for the apology that we are due from psychiatry. Like the descendents of those labelled witches however, we don’t intend to give up on seeking truth and justice for our loved ones and challenging the unscientific beliefs which led to their deaths. In defiance of social norms around maternal grief, don’t expect to see us weeping decorously into little lace hankies any time soon.
As we head into Christmas without our loved ones, my thoughts are with the mothers of children whose death was based on the doctrine of mental illness rather than effluvia, and who like me are likely to see the deep irony of psychiatric explanations being used to explain the behaviours of those who, previously, might have been seen to be afflicted by witchcraft. Sending you much love and strength.