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Public Choice Economics and the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria provides an economics perspective on the witchcraft episode, and adds to the growing body of work analyzing prominent historical events using the tools of economics.



1. The Political Economy of Historical Events

The opening chapter of the book recounts some of the earlier studies on the political economy of historical events. It is hoped that doing so will illuminate “the economic way of thinking” in approaching these widely varying topics for readers outside of the field of economics. Historical events included in this chapter range from the colonization of Australia during the 1700s and 1800s by British convicts to the rout of George Custer’s forces at the Little Bighorn. The economics principles covered in this chapter include the divergence between public economic interests and private economic interests, Alchian and Allen’s relative price effect, price controls (ceilings), the modern theory of bureaucracy and the public choice economics principle of vote maximization.

Franklin G. Mixon

2. Puritanism and the Founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony

This chapter provides a brief history of the Puritan society established in Massachusetts Bay Colony during the seventeenth century. Its founder, John Winthrop, wanted to develop the Colony as a model Christian society—a theocracy that was deeply rooted in the Calvinist religious doctrine of predestination and whose franchise was limited to Puritan church members. The communities comprising the Colony were like many other colonial American communities in that they each were populated by people who sought to act as a single “body” where each person worked and lived for the sole purpose of the community’s survival. The Puritan church, however, was not without strife during the late 1600s, instead having to deal with problems arising in areas such as Salem Village, where citizens vehemently disagreed over the choice of Samuel Parris as its local minister. These disagreements set the stage for the witchcraft hysteria that began in 1691.

Franklin G. Mixon

3. A Brief History of the Salem Witchcraft Phenomenon

This chapter provides a brief history of the Salem witchcraft hysteria, which began shortly after Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams and other Salem Village girls began, during the winter of 1691–1692, spending time with Tituba, Reverend Samuel Parris’ Caribbean slave who taught them the basics of sorcery, voodoo and magic. When these girls began exhibiting symptoms of a serious illness, Salem-area clergy and others interpreted their symptoms and reactions as witchcraft, thrusting the Village into a series of trials and executions carrying into September of 1692, ultimately resulting in the death of 20 people. At that point, the Colony’s governor interceded and halted the legal proceedings surrounding the witchcraft hysteria.

Franklin G. Mixon

4. Modern Theories of the Witchcraft in Salem

Modern-day scholars have offered a number of separate epidemiology-based theories of the witchcraft episode in Salem Village during 1692, each based primarily on the symptoms—delirium, hallucinations, mania, melancholia, muscle contractions, psychosis, tingling extremities, vertigo and vomiting—that the Village physician reported were exhibited by the young women who were the main accusers before and during the trials. This chapter covers these theories of events leading up to the witch trials—a list of theories including bread poisoning, encephalitis and Lyme disease—also offering, in most cases, a critique of these theories.

Franklin G. Mixon

5. Public Choice and the Economics of Religion

This chapter provides some straightforward examples of how public choice economics, which may be thought of as the intersection of economics and political science, and some of the concepts from industrial organization provide an avenue for explaining decisions made by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In doing so, it provides a foundation for using these and other economics concepts to explain events surrounding the Salem witchcraft hysteria in 1692. The examples covered in this chapter include the Pope’s decree of 1966 relaxing the rules on fasting and abstinence from meat consumption, the Roman Catholic Church’s use, or lack thereof, of the Biblical doctrine of usury as a borrower and lender of funds, and the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrinal innovation represented by the creation of purgatory as a second chance for Catholics to prepare themselves for entry into Heaven.

Franklin G. Mixon

6. A Public Choice Perspective on the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria

This chapter begins with the life of Salem Village’s minister, Samuel Parris, before arriving in Salem Village in 1689, and continues forward through the early years of his ministry and the witchcraft hysteria that follows. The witchcraft hysteria is examined through a public choice economics lens, which combines the principles of economics with those of political science. Within this model, the witchcraft hysteria is described as a demand-pull phenomenon in the market for eternal salvation, thus following earlier research on the public choice economics of the Roman Catholic Church. The chapter concludes with an empirical examination of the relationship between Puritan church membership and participation in the Salem witch trials of 1692.

Franklin G. Mixon

7. Some Economics of the Aftermath of Salem

This chapter examines some of the political economic consequences of the witchcraft hysteria in Salem Village, including the deterioration of the Puritan ministry’s influence over society. The post-witch trials history of New England also involves advances in the legal system and innovations in the economy, such as the replacement of barter with paper money. This chapter also includes an additional demand-pull anecdote concerning a potential witchcraft episode occurring in 1735 in Northampton, Massachusetts, where the minister, Jonathan Edwards, opted for a revival interpretation of the physical illness of some of his congregation, instructing his community on how the spirit of God, not the evil hand of the Devil, had touched its citizens.

Franklin G. Mixon


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