The witch-hunt metaphor

In 1994, the UK media abounded with tales of families that had been destroyed by brainwashed daughters. There were frequent references to Salem and witch-hunting.

In 2015, the UK media abounds with articles about celebrities and politicians being falsely accused. There are frequent references to Salem and witch-hunting.

It has been whispered that we are living in The Crucible. A dank, wild-eyed, black-hatted Salem. A moment of mass witch hunt seeping out of that formless knot of fear that so many people carry in their guts, spread by catharsis in these frightening times. Vanity fair.Feb 2013

What happened in Salem?

Why do sexual abuse deniers keep waffling on about it?

If they are going to use the witch-hunting metaphor  why at least don’t they refer to witch-hunting in Europe? What was so special about the 17th century colony in Massachusetts that it has immediate parallels with the trafficking of teenage boys from Welsh children’s homes in the 1980’s?

The answer seems to be partly because:

  • Abuse deniers in the UK just copied the analogy from the the false memory movement in the USA.

  • The remembrance of the Salem “witches” can be made to fit  any group of people who feel that they are hard done by.

So who were the people in Salem who were accused of witchcraft?, How have they been remembered at different times since then?


The first person to be accused of “witchcraft” in Salem was a woman called Tituba.. Her heritage is unclear because historical documents didn’t bother to document it. She may have had Native American or African heritage. Documents show that she a was slave housekeeper to a white family and that she had moved with them from Barbados to Salem. In Barbados racism was connected to commerce. In Salem it had more to do with ideology.

Below is an illustration from a nineteenth century children’s book which depicts Tituba frightening white children.

The slave housekeeper Tituba frightening children. 19th children’s illustration by Fredericks

During the Enlightenment the memory of the witch trials became one of the battle of Reason over superstition. Reason won. But even in the non-slave states of the USA it was a bit problematic to depict Reason as a black woman. So she became a white sort of Statue of Liberty type muse.

The Examination of a witch. T.H Matteson. 1853_edited
The Examination of a witch. T.H Matteson. 1853

In the 1990’s a doctor called Paul McHugh became one of the founders of the false memory movement in the USA. McHugh has also been active in campaigns against abortion, gay and transgender rights. He has written that people who identify themselves as transgender are actually suffering from a personality disorder.

This is rather ironic – because he seems to have been one of the people responsible for transforming the image of  the accused Salem witch from female to male.

Update Nov 2015

The NSPCC is also making use of the witch-hunt metaphor by hosting a public debate about the supposed existence of a witch-hunt in 2015.

The speakers for this debate are the journalist David Aaronovitch and the .policeman Peter Spindler

It is a pity they don’t also include an expert on language who can examine the witch-hunt metaphor. As it is they are likely to debate back and forth about the existence of witch-hunts without an examination of the word they are using.

In my opinion a panel discussion would have been more useful than a two-sided debate.

Further reading

Please see Ross Cheit’s book The Witch-hunt Narrative

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