History

What were the Salem witch trials?

Halloween is nigh. How are you celebrating? If you’re like many of us, you’ll turn to fantastical stories of monsters, ghosts, demons, and all manner of dark imaginings to carry you through the night. But you don’t need to turn to fiction to hear a horrifying Halloween tale! We need only look inward at our own history to get a glimpse of terror in a little event you may have heard of called the Salem witch trials.

And true to classic horror, the real terror in this story isn’t a witch or some monster. It’s our own human nature.

What were the witch trials?

Old illustration of people making a scene in a courtroom
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The Salem witch trials are a notorious part of American history. Beginning in the spring of 1692 in colonial Massachusetts, the witch trials can best be described as a mass hysteria driven by fear, political turmoil, and superstition.

As the story goes, a group of young girls from Salem Village, Massachusetts, believed themselves to be possessed by a demon, later accusing several other women of practicing witchcraft. Panic spread through the Puritan colony, resulting in the convention of a special court in Salem designed to get to the bottom of the issue.

Shortly after the court was convened, it claimed its first victim: Bridget Bishop, who died by hanging in June 1692. She was followed by 18 others convicted of being “witches,” bringing the total death tally of the witch trials to 24 (19 convicted “witches” plus five others who died in custody). Reports from the time suggest that the witchcraft hysteria had begun to die down by September of that year, bringing an end to the panic.

The burden of proof

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It’s worth noting that, in addition to the 19 victims who were murdered outright, over 150 men, women, and children were accused throughout the witch trials. This begs the question: What kind of proof did these judges have for declaring someone a witch?

Sadly, the accused rarely received the benefit of the doubt.

The initial hysteria began when several children in Salem began exhibiting strange behaviors: screaming, body contortions, throwing things, and so on. While some believed these fits were just juvenile delinquency (the kids were only 9, 11, and 12, after all) or perhaps symptoms of physical illness, a local doctor examined them and found no signs of anything wrong.

Thus, like many of the time, he blamed the symptoms on the supernatural. (Though modern researchers believe that the symptoms detailed in historical accounts likely had to do with some combination of asthma, Lyme disease, epilepsy, encephalitis, or trauma related to child abuse.)

But without modern science to validate their questions, judges often turned to less substantive means of proof, such as:

  • Testimonies from accusers
  • Dream imagery
  • Visual proof of physical illness, convulsions, fits
  • Presence of impure thoughts
  • Church attendance
  • Political standing in the community

Add in the mass panic and superstition felt by a deeply religious Puritan colony in the face of potential witchcraft, and it’s surprising that the witch trials claimed as few lives as they did.

The legacy of the witch trials

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From a modern perspective, the Salem witch trials were a strange and brutal event. Well-meaning people were driven to near madness by fear, and many innocent people were ostracized, vilified, and murdered with prejudice.

And this isn’t just the modern take on the situation, either. Many residents of Salem, even in 1692, knew that the witch trial hysteria had gone too far. After the initial panic died down between late 1692 and early 1693, more residents began to speak out against the practice, with some demanding that any accused witches be held to the same burden of proof as any other crime. By mid 1963, the panic had abated, and all suspects accused of witchcraft were released from custody.

Over the coming years, many of the institutions and individuals responsible strove to make penance for their crimes. Judges publicly acknowledged their mistakes, accusers withdrew their former claims, and general courts declared that the trials had been unlawful. And in January 1697, the General Court of Massachusetts set forth an official day of fasting and contemplation in remembrance of the tragedy.