Part 1

Deviance and Social Control

Hanging of Bridget Bishop in 1692,
accused of being a witch.

Bridget Bishop, ‘a singular character, not easily described,’ was born sometime between 1632 and 1637. Bishop married three times. Her third and final marriage, after the deaths of her first two husbands, was to Edward Bishop, who was employed as a ‘sawyer’ (lumber worker).  She appears to have had no children in any of her marriages.

Although Bishop had been accused by more individuals of witchcraft than any other witchcraft defendant (many of the accusations were markedly vehement and vicious), it was not so much her ‘sundry acts of witchcraft’ that caused her to be the first witch hanged in Salem, as it was her flamboyant life style and exotic manner of dress. Despite being a member of Mr. Hale’s Church in Beverly (she remained a member in good standing until her death), Bishop often kept the gossip mill busy with stories of her publicly fighting with her various husbands, entertaining guests in home until late in the night, drinking and playing the forbidden game of shovel board, and being the mistress of two thriving taverns in town. Some even went so far as to say that Bishop’s ‘dubious moral character’ and shameful conduct caused, ‘discord [to] arise in other families, and young people were in danger of corruption.’ Bishop’s blatant disregard for the respected standards of puritan society made her a prime target for accusations of witchcraft.”

(Source:  “Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692

Deviance is defined as any behavior that violates a social norm. Cultural explanations for deviant behavior are not always the same. In the example above, deviance was believed to be caused by demonic possession. During the time of the Salem Witch Trials, the Puritans of New England relied heavily upon the writings of the Old Testament. The laws created in their society were derived from scripture, and their trials were presided over by ministers of the Puritan church. There was also a great deal of uncertainty at that time. Smallpox was causing many to fall ill, there was conflict and instability in the leadership of the church, and wars with the Native Americans created fear and panic throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans believed strongly that natural disasters and conflict were the manifestations of Satan himself. Some believed that Satan worked through witches and wizards to wreak havoc on their community. By prosecuting the deviants of their community, social norms were reinforced and the authority of the church was strengthened and renewed.

Today, in the United States, deviance is rarely viewed as a manifestation of evil. If we saw someone behaving in the manner that the young accusers of the Salem Witch Trials were, we would probably assume that they were suffering from some type of mental illness. Our form of punishment would never be as severe as public hangings. Using the rational approach, we believe that punishment for a crime should outweigh the rewards associated with it. We have a set of laws that are enforced by state and local police and we sanction individuals whenever they violate these laws. However, a great deal of how we define deviance depends on social context. As you will see in this Unit, societal definitions of deviance vary from one culture to another. Because social norms are created in society, deviant behavior is a social construction as well.

Consider the witchcraft trial of Bridget Bishop. Her trial was an open-and-shut case for many reasons. She had been rumored to have fights with her husband, she was the “mistress” of two taverns in town, her manners and dress were not in accord with the standards of Puritan society, and her behaviors were believed to be a bad influence throughout the community. Even though there was scant evidence of her actually having practiced witchcraft, she was easily convicted and had the largest number of accusers.
Emile Durkheim pointed out that because crime and deviance are found in every society, they must provide a need or function. How could deviant behavior function to benefit the overall stability of society? Below are the functions of deviance mentioned by Durkheim:

  1. Reinforces social norms (enhances conformity).
  2. Strengthens social solidarity.
  3. Provides a safety valve.
  4. Encourages social change.

But deviance is also about social control. Groups that are labeled as deviant are often viewed as the greatest threat to those in power. Bridget Bishop was an independent, strong-willed woman for her time. Her behaviors were also believed to be a threat to the order of the community as well as to the power of the church. Ministers of the church presided over the trials. Both the trials and the hangings were public rituals that functioned to enhance conformity, strengthen solidarity, and renew the authority of the church.

In his book, Wayward Puritans (1966), Kai Erikson wrote about three crime waves that occurred during the 1600s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Using Durkheim’s theory, Erikson pointed out that each time there was a crime wave, there were threats to the power structure of the church. The first two crime waves occurred long before the famous witch trials of Massachusetts. They were spurred on by leaders in the community who felt threatened by the presence of certain religious groups, particularly Quakers, who disagreed with the leadership of the Puritan church community. What Erikson concluded was that the crime waves and public hangings were an attempt to unite the community against a common enemy, thus strengthening the authority of the church and reinforcing social norms of the group.