During the late 17th century, the hysteria in Salem’s witch hunt rapidly accumulated with countless trials and the executions of twenty citizens. Had the accused refused to confess, the townspeople could have abandoned their belief and their thirst for draconian punishment. Under the looming threat of death made by Puritan elders, the accused provided false evidence that became the prevailing “truth,” and thus paranoia. In his historical dramatization of these trials, The Crucible, playwright Arthur Miller critiques the collective guilt of Salem’s characters—regardless of their social class, gender, or occupation—and their contributions to the build-up of hysteria through their flawed reasoning, fear of punishment, and ulterior motives.
The upper echelons of Salem society rely on flawed reasoning, in the form of hyperbolic scapegoating, that reinforces mass hysteria’s hierarchical social order. Initially, when the Barbadian slave Tituba identifies a white woman, Goody Osburn, as a witch, Tituba’s words carry no weight. However, Mrs. Putnam, the wife of the affluent Mr. Putnam, corroborates Tituba’s false testimony by blaming Goody Osburn for her children’s deaths: “I knew it! Goody Osburn was midwife to me three times. I begged you, Thomas, did I not? I begged him not to call Osburn because I feared her. My babies always shriveled in her hands!” (Miller 44). Mrs. Putnam’s hindsight conviction is based on personal frustration and bitterness, not physical evidence that incriminates Goody Osburn. She desperately wants to blame an individual for her stillborns, and Goody Osburn is the perfect scapegoat due to her low social standing. Mrs. Putnam’s sinister and hyperbolic characterization of Goody Osburn ignites fear among the public who has already ostracized Goody Osburn. Employing character assassination, Mrs. Putnam paints Goody Osburn as death’s apprentice—how her babies “shriveled” in Goody Osburn’s hands. Similarly, Reverend Hale evokes the personification of death: “It is the best the Devil wants, and who is better than the minister?” (Miller 39). Without an inkling of skepticism, Hale scapegoats the “Devil” for Betty’s pretense. He dramatizes his newfound conviction that the Devil targets “the best” of the political order, as in the clergy, such as Reverend Parris. Furthermore, Hale shows his naive, hyperbolic faith in the sanctity of Puritanism when he claims that “theology is a fortress,”, creating a false binary between the “Devil” and the “minister,” when in fact, this entire conflict was caused by fellow humans (Miller 64). Instead of rationally evaluating the merit of Hale’s aforementioned argument, the public blindly trusts the credibility of any spiritual authority. Therefore, as the affluent Mrs. Putnam and Reverend Hale legitimize Tituba’s words, a spark in the series of lies to come, without any awareness of the weight of their reputation on their words.
Well aware of the Salem establishment’s patriarchal notions, Abigail and Tituba, two lower-class females, lie and give pleas of innocence to avoid death and responsibility. As the ringleader, Abigail understands that Salem would rather execute the girls than comprehend their wicked acts. Interrogated by Reverend Hale, Abigail exclaims: “I never sold myself! I’m a good girl! I’m a proper girl!” and deflects attention from her and onto Tituba: “She made me do it! She made Betty do it!” (Miller 40). As Parris grows increasingly suspicious, Abigail could no longer feign neutrality and has to play the victim or admit as the perpetrator. Calling herself “good” and “proper,” qualities expected of any Puritan female, she self-victimizes to sustain the public’s paranoia, while erasing doubts male authorities might have had. Furthermore, Tituba’s false utterances serve as initial “proof” and set off a snowball effect. At first, Tituba denies the accusation, “I don’t compact with no Devil!,” but when Mr. Putnam threatens to hang her unless she confesses, she gets terrified and screams, “No, no, don’t hang Tituba! I tell him I don’t desire to work for him, sir” (Miller 42). Tituba’s fear of punishment, a public execution, leads her to retract her truth, and accept the accusation; as a slave, she knows that her initial morsel of truth would be discredited over Abigail’s fabrication. So, Tituba chooses life over death, fiction over fact, as most individuals would cave under such pressure and dilemma. Tituba definitely states her plea for life but ambiguously refers to the devil as “him.” Tituba’s listeners, to their fault, are quick to interpret “him” as the devil. To avoid punishment, Tituba and Abigail play into the familiar motif of female victimhood, while their self-serving choices strengthen the authorities’ evidence to prosecute others.
In contrast to the lower-class females’ survival tactics, Salem’s ministers and judges have ulterior motives in supporting false confessions, but regardless of their morality, the deceptive nature of ulterior motives allows the trials to proceed. For John Proctor’s trial, Reverend Hale tries to convince Elizabeth Proctor to have her husband confess: “Life, ...is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it... Let him give his lie” (Miller 122). Hale expresses a seemingly selfless desire to save the accused’s lives from the court. To uphold “God” over mere “principle,” he condones “lie[s],” even if confessions further validate the townspeople’s delusion. As a foil to Hale, Deputy Governor Danforth scrambles to save his personal reputation: “I will not receive a single plea for pardon or postponement... Twelve are already executed... Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now” (Miller 119). Despite doubting Abigail and the girls’ word, Danforth stubbornly ignores Hale and Parris’ “plea” and refuses to postpone the execution of John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and a few others. According to Judge Danforth, admitting his retroactive error of executing the twelve innocents would ensue chaos in the courts; his bureaucratic obsession to preserve faith in Salem’s legal system trumps over additional victims soon to be executed. While Hale and Danforth never explicitly state their support for the witch hunt, their condoning of false confessions demonstrates the witch trials’ vicious cyclical reinforcement: the crowd validates the courts and vice versa.
Out of the many driving forces for the witch hunt hysteria, the main factor is its collective appeal. The people’s fallacious logic, fear of punishment, and ignorance of long-term consequences ultimately create this preventable tragedy that killed 20 innocent lives. And so, Miller reminds his peers and their McCarthyist persecutors and future generations of readers to hold ourselves accountable and never forget the unjust madness of Salem.