Fear is a powerful emotion. Whether rational or irrational, fear can drive a person to make rash decisions that have life-altering consequences. This week, we will look at two moments in American history where fear and even hysteria drove the decision-making of people in power, significantly impacting the lives of those around them. So let’s dive in!
On March 1, 1692, 329 years ago, the Salem Witch Trials began.
Salem Village of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been established as an English Puritan settlement in the early 17th century, with residents adhering to the strict moral code of Puritan Protestantism. In February of 1692, nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams, members of the reverend’s household, became unexplainably ill with mysterious fits, leading the doctor to deem them as “afflicted by witchcraft.”
Wanting to “purify” the community, as the religion’s name suggests, Salem adults encouraged the girls to identify the witches within Salem society, making scapegoats out of community outsiders. Among the first three accused were Sarah Goode, Sarah Osbourne and Tituba, the Parris family’s slave from Barbados. On the same day, Tituba, through coercion, admitted to working for the Devil, but identified Goode and Osbourne as fellow followers of Satan. This began a pattern where those who admitted to witchcraft but informed on other “witches” were spared while those who pleaded to be innocent were convicted.
A special court was established by the colonial Massachusetts government to try the nearly 150 people accused of witchcraft. Young children’s accusations and convulsions were taken as legal proof against the defendants, typically consisting of middle-aged women, with some men and one four-year-old girl. As fast as the hysteria began, it finally died down in May of the following year, having sent 18 innocent women and men to the gallows to be hung, and one man to be pressed to death by stones.
On March 1, 1917, 104 years ago, the infamous “Zimmermann Telegram” was published and revealed to the American people.
While practically every American can tell you the United States entered World War II following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, very few can recall the reason why the U.S. entered World War I. While you cannot necessarily pinpoint one decisive moment, the Zimmermann telegram is largely considered to be the final straw that sent American troops packing for the European continent.
Though the Great War began in July of 1914, the United States took a strong isolationist position throughout the first three years of the conflict, with then-President Woodrow Wilson winning reelection on the campaign slogan: “He kept us out of war.” Not very catchy I’ll admit, but certainly very effective to win the presidency in a nation wanting to keep out of European affairs.
That being said, while the U.S. maintained a neutral position, they certainly made their support for the Allied powers known. Germany was aware of this, engaging in unrestricted submarine warfare on American vessels aiding the British and French. Tensions heightened in 1915 when a German U-boat torpedoed the RMS Lusitania, killing 128 American passengers out of 1,198 total civilian casualties.
By January of 1917, it seemed certain that the U.S. would enter the war. The German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded message to the Mexican government proposing a German-Mexican alliance. Along with the promise of funds and supplies, Germany would allow Mexico to reconquer the states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico from the U.S.
For a little extra historical context, the U.S. was at war with Mexico during the 1840s, so they did not exactly have the best relationship around the time of World War I. Practically all of the modern American Southwest was lost by Mexico during this conflict. This is why several southwestern American cities have Spanish names like San Antonio, Santa Fe, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Fun fact: several Mexican-Americans can trace their roots back to this war where their ancestors did not cross the border but rather the border crossed them.
The Mexican government had no interest in joining the war, and since Zimmermann had sent the message via the Western Union, the telegram passed through Great Britain and the United States before ever arriving in Mexico. British intelligence intercepted the message and gave the decoded report to American officials. Congress effectively declared war one month later on April 6, 1917.
While the U.S. would have arguably entered the war without the discovery of the telegram, its release to the American people prompted the extreme anti-German hysteria of the early 20th century. German-Americans were a tremendously large ethnic group, yet were targeted for harboring sympathies for their ancestral homeland. German immigrants changed their last names from Schmidt to Smith, and Americans began calling hamburgers and sauerkraut, “liberty steaks” and “liberty cabbage.” The German language in the U.S. was a particular casualty, dropping from being the most studied language in American schools to being virtually outlawed. While German-Americans are still the largest ethnic group in the country at approximately 17%of the total population, only 5%of this group can speak German.