The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693.
More than 200 people were accused, 30 were found guilty, 19 were executed by hanging, one died under torture, and at least five died in jail. It was the deadliest witch hunt in the history of colonial North America.
What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?
The Salem witch trials were the result of a combination of factors that created a climate of fear and suspicion in the Puritan community of Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts). Some of these factors were:
- Belief in the supernatural
The Puritans believed that the devil could give certain people (witches) the power to harm others in exchange for their loyalty. They also believed that witches could afflict others with fits, pains, and illnesses by using their “spectral” or invisible forms.
- Religious conflict
The Puritans had a strict code of conduct and morality that they enforced on themselves and others. They also faced opposition from other religious groups, such as the Quakers, who challenged their authority and doctrine.
- Social tensions
The Puritans lived in a hierarchical society where wealth, status, and gender determined one’s place and power. There were also divisions and rivalries between Salem Village and Salem Town (now Salem, Massachusetts), which had more trade, commerce, and influence. Many of the accused witches were women, poor, elderly, or outsiders who did not fit the Puritan norms or threatened the established order.
- Political instability
The Puritans had recently lost their charter from England and were under a new governor, Sir William Phips, who had little experience in colonial affairs. They also faced threats from Native American tribes who resented their encroachment on their lands and resources.
- Environmental stress
The Puritans had to cope with harsh weather, crop failures, epidemics, and wars. They also may have been exposed to ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and other symptoms similar to those of the afflicted girls.
How Did the Salem Witch Trials Begin?
The Salem witch trials began when a group of young girls in Salem Village started to exhibit strange behaviours, such as screaming, contorting, and falling into trances. They claimed that they were being tormented by the spectres of certain women who were practicing witchcraft on them. The first three women accused were Tituba, a Caribbean slave owned by the village minister Samuel Parris; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborn, a poor elderly woman. They were arrested in late February 1692 and interrogated by local magistrates.
Tituba confessed to being a witch and implicated others, possibly to save herself from further punishment. Her confession sparked a wave of hysteria that spread throughout the colony. More girls joined the accusers, and more people were named as witches. Some of the accused confessed and accused others, hoping to obtain mercy or avoid torture. Some of the accused maintained their innocence and refused to confess, even at the cost of their lives.
How Did the Salem Witch Trials End?
The Salem witch trials reached their peak in the summer of 1692, when 19 people were hanged on Gallows Hill in Salem Town. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death with heavy stones for refusing to enter a plea. Several more people died in prison awaiting trial or execution.
The trials began to lose credibility when some of the accusations became too absurd or too personal. For example, some of the accusers targeted respected members of the community, such as ministers, magistrates, and former governors. Some of the accusers also admitted to lying or being coerced by others.
He was influenced by his wife’s implication in witchcraft and by an influential letter from Increase Mather, a prominent minister who denounced the use of spectral evidence (testimony based on visions or dreams) and urged caution and fairness in the trials.
What Was the Legacy of the Salem Witch Trials?
The Salem witch trials left a lasting impact on the American society and culture. They exposed the dangers of mass hysteria, false accusations, and lapses in due process. They also revealed the underlying conflicts and tensions that plagued the Puritan community.
The trials also prompted some reforms and apologies from those involved. In 1697, Samuel Sewall, one of the judges who presided over the trials, publicly confessed his guilt and asked for forgiveness. In 1702, the Massachusetts General Court declared that the trials were unlawful and reversed some of the convictions. In 1711, the court also granted compensation to some of the families of the victims. In 1957, the state of Massachusetts formally apologized for the trials and cleared the names of all the accused. In 1992, on the 300th anniversary of the trials, a memorial was dedicated in Salem to honour the victims.
The Salem witch trials have also inspired many works of literature, art, and media, such as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which drew parallels between the trials and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. The trials have also become a symbol of injustice, intolerance, and persecution that can still resonate with modern audiences.
If you love the kind of story filled with witches and wonderful story-telling, please consider checking out my good friend and all-round good person, Cynthia Raleigh and The Lanthorne Ordinary Witches. It’s a superb read…
Witches have been hunted, tried, and executed for centuries. The Colonies are not immune to the fear of sorcery. In the Spring of 1660, the small Connecticut village of Milthorpe abruptly finds itself in the throes of a witch scare. Yarrow Pickering, the village herbal woman and proprietor of the Lanthorne Ordinary struggles to prove an accused woman is innocent but becomes ensnared in the witch hunt. Yarrow can’t be sure if her relationship with the Magistrate’s son will harm or help her against her most strident opponents. The trials are beginning…
…but this time, what will happen when one of the accused truly is a witch?
© Colin Lawson Books