"Being Something Hard of Hearing": Disability during the Salem Witch Trials

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Daniel Howlett, George Mason University
Throughout the Salem Witch Trials, disability language appeared frequently to craft narratives about accusers and suspects. Claims of disability benefited the accusers and tarnished the reputations of the accused. Disability represented a disloyalty to God as the understanding of Puritan ideals emphasized ideal physical condition. The accusers and confessors utilized certain types of disability, such as blindness, deafness, and muteness, to give credibility to their accusations, but insinuations of disability, such as wounds, targeted accused suspects. Language used to describe the specters that allegedly harmed the accusers made references to the physical abilities of suspected witches. In several cases, the physical suspect was in poor health or impaired in some way while the specter received great strength from the devil. The accusers managed to contrast the physical and supernatural abilities of a person to indicate how a suspect turned away from God and joined the devil. This had drastic consequences in the case of Rebecca Nurse, a woman known for her faithfulness and loyalty to the church. However, gossip about Nurse’s health circulated in the community, becoming a key point in her trial. The defense of Rebecca Nurse argued for a different interpretation of her physical condition. The magistrates and ministers in 1692 were aware of differing interpretations of sickness and disability at the time, but selectively interpreted the physical condition of witch suspects as evidence against a person.
See more of: Poster Session #1
See more of: AHA Sessions