What Were the Salem Witch Trials? | History Hit

What Were the Salem Witch Trials?

'Salem Witch' lithograph by Joseph E. Baker, c. 1837-1914.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Joseph E. Baker, c. 1837-1914.

Between 1692 and 1693 in colonial Massachusetts, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. The infamous ensuing trials resulted in the executions of 14 women, as well as the deaths of 5 others (including 2 infants) in prison. One man was crushed to death for refusing to enter a plea in court.

The Salem witch trials were one of the earliest examples of mass hysteria in colonial America. And even though the colony in Massachusetts eventually admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families, the reverberations of the paranoia and injustice of the period continue to bewitch the popular imagination some 300 years later.

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Here’s the harrowing story of the Salem witch trials.

Witch hunts were common

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1813–1884)

Several centuries ago, many practicing Christians and those from other religions strongly believed that the Devil could bestow evil powers upon loyal followers. These powers could then be used to harm others.

In medieval Europe, ‘witches’ were supposedly able to shapeshift into animals or other people. It was thought that they rode through the air at night to secret meetings and orgies. Owing to their perceived weaker constitutions, women were more commonly suspected of being witches and were blamed for everything from failed crops to the deaths of livestock and children.

These beliefs catalysed a ‘witchcraft craze’ throughout Europe, the epicentre of which took place between 1300 and 1330, and which only ended in Switzerland in 1782 when the country’s final execution for witchcraft took place.

Though the Salem witch hunt is probably the most famous of its kind in history, it took place at a time when they were less common – towards the end of the European surge.

The colony in Salem Village

In the late 17th century, there were two Salems: a bustling commerce-oriented port on Massachusetts Bay known as Salem Town, and roughly 10 miles inland, a smaller, poorer farming community of some 500 people known as Salem Village.

The village was characterised by its notable social divide and rivalry between the prosperous Porter family, who had business connections with the Town, and the Putnams, who sought greater village autonomy and were seen to represent the less prosperous families. There were constant disagreements over property and how the area should be governed.

In 1689, the English started a war with France in the American colonies, which resulted in refugees arriving at Salem Village. This created a strain on village resources, which further pinned the divided families against each other.

Controversy was also brewing over Reverend Samuel Parris, who became the village’s first ordained minister in 1689, and was disliked for his strict and greedy nature. All of those combined tensions led Puritan villagers to believe that the divisions were the work of the Devil.

Local children started having screaming fits

This 19th-century representation of “Tituba and the Children” by Alfred Fredericks.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Alfred Fredericks, Designer; Winham, Engraver

In January 1692, Reverend Parris’ 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth and 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams started having ‘fits’. They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions. A local doctor blamed the supernatural. Another 11-year-old girl, Ann Putnam, started behaving similarly.

On 29 February 1692, the three girls were pressured by magistrates to identify who had afflicted them. They accused 3 women: Tituba, Reverend Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.

In early March 1692, the 3 women were brought before local magistrates and interrogated for days. Osborne and Good proclaimed their innocence.

Only one, Tituba, confessed, stating that “the Devil came to me and bid me serve him.” She went on to describe images of black dogs, red cats and yellow birds, and said that she had signed the book of a ‘black man’ who told her to do so. She told the magistrates that others wanted to harm the Puritans. All of the women were put in jail.

Paranoia intensifies

The seed of suspicion had been planted. A slew of accusations followed for the next few months. Charges were levelled against prominent churchgoer Martha Corey, which greatly concerned the village: if she was a witch, many believed, then anyone could be.

Magistrates even questioned Sarah Good’s 4-year-old daughter Dorothy, whose timid answers were taken as a confession.

The questionings intensified in April when Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and his assistants attended the hearings. Along with those being questioned in Salem, dozens were brought in from neighbouring Massachusetts villages to stand trial.

The hangings begin

In May 1692, a Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) was set up for Massachusetts’ Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties.

The first case brought to the court was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her gossiping and promiscuity. Her defense, that she was “as innocent as the child unborn”, fell short, and in June of the same year she became the first person to be hanged on what later became known as Gallows Hill.

After the hanging, respected minister Cotton Mather wrote a letter imploring officials to not allow spectral evidence – testimony which mentioned dreams and visions – into court. The court largely ignored this request, and 5 people were sentenced and hanged in July, then 5 more in August and 8 more in September.

Cotton Mather’s father Increase, who was then the president of Harvard, further denounced the use of spectral evidence, stating, “it were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”

The governor relents

Governor Phipps’ wife was under questioning for witchcraft. Combined with Mathers’ plea, Phipps prohibited further arrests, released many witches and dissolved the court in late October. He replaced it with a Court of Judicature, which disallowed spectral evidence and therefore only condemned 3 of the 56 defendants.

He eventually pardoned all who were in prison on witchcraft charges by May 1693. Following the trials and executions, many involved with the prosecution publicly confessed error and guilt. In January 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem.

In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful, and in 1711 the colony passed a bill which restored the rights and good names of those accused, granting £600 in compensation to their heirs.

Possible causes

1876 Engraving. The central figure in this illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott, who was one of the afflicted girls who was called to provide evidence.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Controversy and fascination with the Salem witch trials still abounds. There are a number of theories as to what could have caused the strange behaviour which occurred in 1692.

One of the most concrete studies has suggested that the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses – staple parts of Salem Village’s diet in the spring and summer months – can lead to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. This kind of fungus also thrives in warm and damp climates like the swampy meadows around the village.

Furthermore, it has been hypothesised that many of the accusers who prosecuted the suspected witches had been traumatised by the American Frontier Wars and the changing political and cultural landscape of New England. It may have been that relying on their belief in witchcraft helped to make sense of a changing and unpredictable world.

The impact today

It was not until 1957 that Massachusetts formally apologised for the events of the Salem witch trials. However, that was far from the end of the public’s fascination with the case.

In 1953, playwright Arthur Miller penned his sensational play The Crucible which was based upon the events of the trials. It is one of many pop culture works which uses the Salem witch trials as a cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process.

Recorded LIVE in association with the British Academy, Dan talked to Dr Suzannah Lipscomb about the history of witchcraft...
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Lucy Davidson