The Salem Witch Trials occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, 1692. It began in spring, when a group of young girls in the village accused several local women of practicing witchcraft. Then a wave of hysteria started; more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and 20 were executed: 14 women and 6 men. The court was disbanded in October of 1692, when hysteria began to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. The Massachusetts General Court later apologised to the victims’ families in 1957. In 1992, 300 years after the trials, a witch trial memorial was set up in Salem, and it is now an attraction for tourists.
In 14th century Europe, people believed that the devil gave certain humans the power to harm others in return for their royalty. This was widespread to colonial New England, and people were very scared of witches. In 1641, the Puritan Legal Code was created to put crimes in a hierarchy, with witchcraft coming second, before murder.
In January 1692, 9 year old Elizabeth Parris and 11 year old Abigail Williams started exhibiting strange behaviour such as fits that included violent contortions of their bodies, uncontrollable outbursts of screaming, and throwing objects. Other girls in Salem like Ann Putnam began acting similarly shortly after. The local doctor attributed their behaviour to supernatural causes.
On February 9th, 1692, the girls accused three women of witchcraft: Tituba, Sarah Osborne, and Sarah Good. But the girls were pressured by magistrates into naming the people who were hurting them. Good and Osborne professed their innocence, but they died later because of the trials. However, Tituba actually admitted to afflicting the girls: she said “the devil came to me and bid me serve him”. Nonetheless, some believe Tituba’s testimony was a lie because she was forced to confess, although Tituba’s testimony was the longest in the Salem Witch trials. She spent 1 year and 3 months in jail, and was then released.
The court was stopped in October of 1692, when Increase Mather, the Puritan Minister, implored the court not to consider spectral evidence in the trials, and the superior court of judicature was set up, where they were not permitted to consider testimonies of spectral evidence. But by this point, 20 people had been executed.
Why are the Salem Witch Trials so famous?
One of the reasons why this historic event is so famous is because of the crazy happenings in the trials themselves. For example, Tituba claimed to see eerie animals such as red cats, yellow birds, and black dogs during her testimony. She also said she went blind at one moment, and claimed it was the devil punishing her, showing she was at least trying to fight him.
Another example was the trial on May 27, 1692. 8 girls from Salem were afflicted with witchcraft. In the court, someone shouted that the witch was about to manipulate a victim, and then the victim would begin to act strangely. This was when Bridget Bishop was deemed guilty of witchcraft, and she was the first person to be executed in the Salem Witch trials.
Possibly the craziest happening was to one of the accused men named George Burroughs, who was a minister from Harvard, and was accused of other alleged witches of being their mastermind. The claims against him in court were extremely bizarre. The accusers claimed Burroughs was biting them in court during their testimony. Many people apparently saw spirits in the room, and claimed they were the faces of Burroughs’ deceased wives, but their faces were bright red. And last but not least, someone suggested that Burroughs had possibly used an invisibility cloak, given to him by the devil. The person that suggested this was the Chief Justice! Burroughs, however, recited the Lord’s Prayer with no mistakes off by heart just before his execution. Witches weren’t supposed to be able to do that, so it planted a seed of doubt in the crowd’s mind.
Another reason why the Salem Witch trials are so well known is because all of the accusers were women between 9 and 20 years old, which was unusual since most witch accusations came from men in the past. It is odd than an entire community based their decisions to execute 20 people around the decisions of some little girls.
Almost all of the people executed were not given a proper burial, and nobody knows where their bodies are. It is possible that they are in Gallows Hill, which is a place known to be extremely haunted. This might be popular with people who are interested in ghosts.
Since it is most likely not possible that witches are or were real, people who are interested in conspiracy theories also like to study the Salem Witch Trials, because many people want to know exactly why it happened. Was it because of economic problems in that time period that led people to blame others for their hardships? Was it a medical condition that was affecting the girls accusing, which caused their ‘afflicted witchcraft’ or ‘supernatural possessions’? Was it for Samuel Parris’ (the father of Elizabeth Parris) socio-political gain, because he may have forced his slave Tituba to confess to create paranoia and seize power? Or were the people of Salem just in mass hysteria, perhaps because of the widespread fear of witches?
Although those mysteries remain unsolved, and some questions remain unanswered, the legacy of the Salem Witch Trials lives on.
By Lara Simpson