In 1692, an overwhelming fear of the devil spread through the town of Salem, a seaside village located in modern-day Danvers, Massachusetts. For the next year, ordinary people-primarily women- were accused, tried, and killed in the name of “committing witchcraft” and “consorting with the devil.” The events that took place in Salem would later cement themselves in American history as an ominous example of how fear of the unknown, and lack of a fair trial, can lead to immense injustice and disaster.
From Whence The Witches Came
To better understand why the trials at Salem occurred, we must first acknowledge the spiritual upheaval occurring at the time. The devil coaxing humans to commit his evil deeds was a common fear in medieval and early modern-era Europe. This fear was perpetuated by the religious and cultural beliefs at the time. In a desperate attempt to eradicate what they considered evil, Europeans conducted a witch hunt that lasted for over 300 years. Tens of thousands of people were killed – most of them women. This fear of witches was carried across the sea by European colonists, ultimately leading to the tragedy of Salem, Massachusetts.
The War that Sparked the Witch Hunt
In 1689, a war between England and France erupted in the American colonies, which the colonists referred to as King William’s War. The conflict caused widespread devastation, particularly in upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, and led to the displacement of many refugees. Many fled to the county of Essex, more specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Tension is Brewing
Due to the influx of people seeking refuge from the war, Salem’s resources were stretched thin. This depreciation of resources exacerbated the already existing tension between villagers. Furthermore, the town reverend, Samuel Parris, was laden with controversy. He was appointed as the first ordained minister of Salem Village in 1689, but his inflexible and avaricious behavior led to his notoriety among the Puritan residents. Many villagers believed the greed of the reverend and the growing quarrels among villagers were caused by none other than the devil.
The Devil is in Salem
In January 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth “Betty” Parris, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits” during church sermons. They screamed, threw items across the room, contorted themselves into strange positions, and uttered peculiar sounds. A local doctor insisted the supernatural was to blame for the girls’ behavior. Less than a month later, another girl, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, began experiencing similar symptoms. This created a frenzy amongst villagers, who began looking for something, or rather, someone to blame. On February 29th, under pressure from the local magistrate, the girls accused three older women, Sarah Good, Tituba, and Sarah Osborne, of bewitching them. The accused were brought to the courthouse and interrogated for several days. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne claimed innocence. Tituba, however, confessed that the devil came to her and asked her to pledge loyalty to him. When Tituba agreed, the devil forced her to “sign his book.” Tituba claimed that the names of other women in Salem were listed on the pages. Tituba’s accusation against the community was the spark that set the fire of paranoia ablaze.
A Time of Terror
Over the course of one year, more than 200 women, men, children, and even animals were accused of witchcraft. Twenty of the accused were tried and sentenced to death. The trials were grievously conducted, as there was no physical evidence to convict any of the villagers. Instead, other tactics were employed. First, accused villagers were interrogated and coerced into a confession. If they maintained their innocence, they were sent to trial. During a court hearing, the jury relied on “spectral evidence” to decide the fate of the accused. Essentially, a villager could say they saw you in their dream wearing a pointy hat, and you’d be sent to the gallows.
An End To The Hunt
By May 1693, with more than 200 accused people waiting in jail, 25 dead, and his own wife accused of witchcraft, Governor William Phips decided this mania had to come to an end. He forbade the use of spectral evidence during trials, and soon pardoned all those imprisoned on witchcraft charges. The damage, however, was already done. Nineteen men and women had been hanged. Giles Corey, a 71-year-old man, was crushed to death by heavy stones after refusing to confess. At least five of the accused died in jail. Even two dogs were shot and killed after a local man believed they were linked to the devil.
Years after the trials and executions, a few members who played an active role in the hunt, such as Judge Samuel Sewall and accuser Ann Putnam, publicly confessed their errors and guilt. However, it took the state of Massachusetts more than 250 years to formally apologize for the events of 1692 and pardon a majority of the accused. One woman, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., was left out of the pardoning for unknown reasons. It wasn’t until July 2022 that Johnson was formally exonerated, 330 years after the witch hunt concluded.
If we learn anything from the Salem Witch Trials, it’s that fear is an immensely powerful weapon. Terror of the unknown can turn neighbors against one another and lead to devastating injustices. But in the face of fear, a fair judicial process is the only thing that prevents the madness from spiraling. Unfortunately for the townspeople of Salem, their story is one of a justice system gone wrong. All we can do, dear viewers, is learn from their tragedy, and do what we can to prevent it from happening again.