The Salem Witch Trials
In 1692 and 1693, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the precursor to today's state of Massachusetts, witnessed mass hysteria in the village of Salem. During this period, over 150 people were accused of being witches and many died.
20,000 settlers, mostly Puritans made up the population of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when it was founded in 1628. As the colony prospered, it grew in population and size, with its population centered in Salem and Boston, but administering a large portion of what is today New England. Although its governors were elected, only "freemen" were allowed to vote and only members of the Puritan church could be "freemen," so Puritans were able to concentrate power in their own hands.
Like many Europeans of the time, Puritans believed in a supernatural world that was in close connection with ours. They believed that the devil was on earth and walking among us. He could give "witches" powers to harm others in return for their loyalty. Because of this, there were periodic witch trials across the region. However, the trials in Salem in 1692 to 1693 were on a far larger scale than at any other time or place.
Beginning with Elizabeth Parris, the 9-year-old daughter of the minister of the village of Salem, and Abigail Williams, his 11-year-old niece, the girls of Salem began to have hysterical fits, which were diagnosed as bewitchment. The girls would fall to the floor and have violent contortions and uncontrollable fits of screaming. Once Elizabeth and Abigail had been officially diagnosed, more girls began to have these fits including Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott and Mary Warren.
Parents and neighbors who were desperate for an answer to their daughters and friends' behavior were inclined to support their accusations. The first people accused were easy targets: a slave - Tituba, a beggar – Sarah Good, and a poor, elderly woman – Sarah Osborn. Tituba confessed and informed on others, probably in an attempt to save her own life, and accusations began to spread. Soon church members in good standing were not above suspicion and even Sarah Good's 4-year-old daughter was accused.
The governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, created a special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide), in May 1692, to try the cases. The afflicted girls would come into the courtroom, have fits and point at the accused, saying that they had been bewitched. The first conviction was made on June 2nd for the accused Bridget Bishop, who was hanged on June 10th. Over the next several months, 18 more people were convicted and hanged for witchery and one man was pressed to death with stones. Seven more of the accused died in prison.
Soon, the hysteria died down while dissenting voices began to be heard more and more. Minister Cotton Mather and his father Increase Mather, the president of Harvard College, advised caution from the beginning and continuously warned about the dangers of convicting the accused on only "spectral evidence." Increasing numbers of people began to be skeptical of the legality of trials based on little hard evidence and they were over by early 1693. In May of that year, Governor Phips pardoned the remaining accused and had them released from prison.
Many of the officials involved in the trials later expressed their regret and distress at being caught up in the hysteria. In 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting in remembrance of the trials and those who had died. To this day, if mass hysteria leads to widespread accusations with little evidence, it is referred to as a witch hunt.
Today, you can visit Salem (about 25 miles up the coast from Boston) and see some of the sites associated with the trials. There is a Salem Witch Trials Memorial and a Salem Witch Museum as well as reenactments of the trials and other events. Because it is one of the oldest cities in the United States, it also has numerous other museums and attractions to visit, like a model Puritan village and the New England Pirate Museum.
If you can't make it to Salem yourself, you can check out some of the many books and films about Salem and the witch trials. A Mirror for Witches by Esther Forbes and the children's book Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry are interesting stories about the trials. The most famous book, which many Americans read in school, is actually a play by Arthur Miller called The Crucible. A movie was made of the play in 1996 starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Other movies often refer to the trials, and Salem is a classic site for horror stories. In Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Kim Novak plays a witch from old Salem that is still alive and living in Greenwich Village. The Covenant (2006) is a horror film about the descendents of the Salem witches.
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