browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Essay 4 – Are the women of Salem guilty?

Unit of discourse

rhetorical part: assertion, support, explanation

analogy: pull out your gun, load, aim and shoot

An assertion is like a gun. Anyone can pull one out and start waving it around. By itself, an assertion is an opinion, all talk, lots of fervent belief, but nothing else. To make it more persuasive, all you can do it raise your voice, wag the gun more wildly.

The support is the bullets. It’s what you load your gun with. A loaded gun is a lot more threatening. It can, potentially, do a lot more damage than the gun by itself.

However, to effectively communicate, you need to pull the trigger. No matter how good your gun and your bullets, you’re never going to hit your target unless you pull the trigger. Your target is your reader. That’s a singular “reader” on purpose. You cannot shoot everyone with a gun. It’s pretty much one at a time.

Same with an essay. Don’t try to write to “everyone”. Write to one specific person, one reader. You need to explain what you want your reader to get out of the evidence. Then it’s not just your opinion against someone else’s. It’s your substantiated, explained opinion, which is more persuasive and carries more weight than the opinions of those wagging their guns at each other.


Write an essay that uses this unit of discourse to explain your ideas about the guilt or innocence of the women accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.

Rhetorical Situation: You are living in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1692. It’s a good-sized city, with a harbor and people from all over the world. One of the hot topics that summer is the witch trials going on in Salem, a village about 15 miles to the north.

Tavern scene

Tavern scene

One evening, you find yourself in a tavern sitting around a table with some friends. They are all a few years younger than you are and they all have different opinions on the witch trials. At first, you keep quiet and listen.

The big news: the transcripts of the magistrates’ questioning of the accused witches has been published. It’s on broadsheets all over Boston and everyone is reading through them, looking for statements to support their viewpoint. (A broadsheet was what today we might call a “flyer”, on newsprint and sold on the streets. They contained everything from ballads to political satire to trial transcripts.)

Your friends read passages from the transcripts and talk about all the factors involved, the ongoing frontier war, the poverty in the village, the conflict between two religious factions, teenage boredom, and personal jealousies. Some of your friends accept spectral evidence, some of them don’t. Some of them accept the fact that witches exist, some of them think witchcraft is a bogus superstition.

Personally, you think they’re all wrong. You bought one of the broadsheets and you read the transcripts, too. Some of your friends, you disagree with. Others, you agree with, but for different reasons. Basically, none of them sees it the way you do.

After a while, one of them turns to you and asks, “What do you think? Are they guilty?” All the rest turn to look at you. You’re a little older than they are, and they’re interested in hearing what you have to say.



In about 750 words, explain to those young people whether the accused witches are guilty or not guilty. Your conclusion about the guilt or innocence of the accused women in Salem is going to rest on whether you accept the spectral evidence offered by the accusers. One of the arrest warrants states what they are charged with.

Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by them upon the bodys of Abigail Williams, and John Indian both of Mr Sam Parris his family of Salem Village and mary Walcott daughter of the abovesaid Complainants, And Ann Putnam and Marcy Lewis of the famyly of Thomas Putnam of Salem Village whereby great hurt and dammage hath beene donne to the Bodys of s’d persons above named therefore Craved Justice.

The assumptions: 1) witches exist, as described in the Malleus Maleficarum. 2) harm was done to some bodies. Even more harm seems to have been done to people’s minds.

In this case, what is the just outcome? What is, what verdict, guilty or not guilty as charged, best serves the interests of living in a just society, where justice is due everyone?

Structure of your essay

The transcripts that we read in class and the other materials you can use for your essay are on this course web. See the Mock Trials menu section on the left.

Use the standard unit of discourse. Your main claim or assertion is “Yes, they’re guilty” or “No, they aren’t guilty”. Why? The top three or four reasons become the topic sentences of the body sections of the essay. In which order should you put them? Build up to the most persuasive? Or begin with the most persuasive and then add on the others?

For the evidence to support your claims, that is, for the bullets for your gun, use what you saw and heard in class on Tuesday. I sent you a .doc file with the transcripts, so you can copy and paste from them.

Everyone listening to you has read the same broadsides, so what’s most important is how you explain your assertions based on that evidence.

Your essay should have an introduction that begins with an attention-getter. They’re all looking at you. Start off with something to focus their attention. The introduction should set the tone, give a little context, and make your main assertion crystal clear.

The body of your essay should explain the main reasons why you think the accused are guilty or not.

The conclusion should re-focus your friends on how it all adds up to either guilty as charged or not guilty as charged.

Remember that in terms of the course, there is no one right or wrong answer here. It’s all about how you explain your main assertion.