WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
Between February of 1962 and May of 1963, a series of hearings, prosecutions and executions of people accused of witchcraft took place, most commonly known as the Salem Witch Trials.
More than 200 people were accused of witchcraft. 30 were found guilty and 19 were executed for their supposed crimes. Arrests were made in numerous towns outside of Salem, as well.
This was the deadliest witch hunt in the history of colonial North America, and remains one of the most notorious cases of mass hysteria in the country.
The trials began when people, mostly young, wealthy girls, accused others of witchcraft. Elizabeth Hubbard was one of the accusers, and is known as one of the primary instigators of the Salem Witch Trials, and was one of the accusers that lead to the first warrants being issued on February 29, 1962.
There were political, local and religious reasons that boiled together, creating a perfect storm for catching some witches.
In 1689, a war with France in the American Colonies ravaged the regions of upstate New York and some modern-day Canadian territories, which resulted in refugees landing in Salem. This aggravated the existing tension in Salem. (2)
Salem was split into 2: A prosperous town and a farming village, and the 2 were always bickering about resources, politics and religion, bickering that some believed was the work of the devil. The two parts of the town also argued over if they should become independent from the town. (3)
They eventually won the right to establish their own church, but the selected reverend, Parris, was rigid and quickly disliked. Some wanted to drive him out. The new religious leader, the continual arguing and political environment set the stage for what came next. (3)
The new belief system the town adopted believed that women were inherently sinful and were more susceptible for eternal damnation, so it made sense that 78% of the accused were women. Women who did not conform to the norms of the Puritan society, especially if they were unmarried and had no children, were more likely to be accused. (1)
In February of 1962, Betty Parris (9, daughter of the reverend) and Abigail Williams (11) began to have medically unexplainable "fits" where they would scream, throw things, crawl under furniture, and contort themselves. Because medicine was not great in 1962, doctors believed it must be witchcraft, and so the young, afflicted girls, (the above, and others who experienced the same "fits") began accusing people, often people in rival families, of afflicting them with witchcraft.
On February 29, 1962, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba were arrested and accused for afflicting those 2 girls and others of witchcraft. Good was poor, destitute, and had a reputation of rejecting Puritan ideals. Osborne rarely attended church, and was believed to be a witch because of her remarriage to an indentured servant. And Tituba, an enslaved, South American Indian woman, was accused likely only because she was ethnically different from most of the town.
The 3 women were seen as outcasts, which lead to a guilty verdict after a several-day interrogation, and they were jailed.
These were just the first accused of witchcraft. Over the next year and some change, nearly 200 more people were accused, and 19 lost their lives to the belief that witches were the source of their town's problems.
The "witches" could be indicted on charges of afflicting witchcraft, or making an unlawful covenant with the devil. Once they were charged, they went to trial and if they were found guilty, they could be executed within days.
This happened to Bridget Bishop, who was described as "not living a Puritan lifestyle" because she often wore black clothing and odd costumes, which was against code. She wore a coat that had been awkwardly cut, so she must have been a witch. She was tried and convicted on June 2, 1962 and was put to death on June 10.
There were only 4 official execution dates, 1 execution on June 10, 5 executions on July 19, 5 executions on August 19, and 8 executions on September 22. Some people were sentenced to death, but received delays because of pregnancy, or it was otherwise just never carried out.
Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man accused, refused to enter a plea, so the court used the torture method of "peine forte en dure", where stones were piled onto his chest until he couldn't breathe. He died after 2 days, never entering a plea or undergoing a formal trial.
Convicted witches were excommunicated from their churches, and executed witches were denied proper burials. Their bodies would be cut down from the trees they were hung in and thrown into shallow graves.
Though the trials, and preconceived notions about the accused, often were enough to lead to a conviction, other methods were used to determine if the accused were actually witches.
One was the touch test where the accused would touch the person afflicted with the odd "fits" and if they stopped after being touched, it would be confirmed that they were the one who infected them with their witchcraft. (4) (Obvious problem: If they accused the person due to malice or family rivalry, they could just stop faking whatever "fit" they were having once they were touched.)
Another was the swimming test where they would have their fingers tied to their toes and thrown into a river. If they sank, they were not a witch, if they floated, they were. (Obvious problem: Sinking would also lead to drowning.)
"Witch cakes" were another way to identify a witch. A cake was made out of rye flour and the urine of the accused. When fed to a dog, if the dog had a similar reaction to the people experiencing the witch fits, they were a witch. (Obvious problem: What the f***.)
They would also be tortured for confessions, which lead to many insane, over-the-top confessions in the interest of getting the torture to stop.
The last trial was held in May 1693, but the fear of witches did not just evaporate overnight... And neither did the sadness and loss felt by the family members and survivors of the trials, who fought for their innocence and for financial compensation in the following decades.
In 1695, a Quaker named Thomas Maule wrote in one of his books that, "it were better than one hundred witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a witch, which is not a witch", a criticism that landed him over a year in jail before he was tried and found not guilty.
In the early 1700s, a tide began to shift, where petitions to claim the innocence of the convicted and executed began to be paid attention to. In 1703, a reverend voted to reverse the excommunication ruling for a convicted witch.
In 1711, the General Court passed a bill, reversing the judgement for 22 people who were listed on the petition, and monetary compensation was authorized for those people.
Even in centuries beyond, the descendants of those who were accused, condemned and executed for their crimes have sought to honor their memories. In 1992, events were held in Salem and Danvers to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the trials. In 2001, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act "exonerating all who had been convicted, and naming each of the innocent", demonstrating the immense cultural impact the trials have, even hundreds of years later.
Nowadays, the Salem Witch Trials are a thing of history and most often commemorated through the horror stories associated with them. But 328 years ago, normal people who simply refused to conform to a rigid, strict, religious society were taken from their homes and families, accused of being witches, and jailed or hung for their "crimes". This is a lesson in the dangers of mass hysteria, and of outcasting those who do not behave how the majority behaves, or believe what the majority believes. And though these actions may not lead to another city-wide witch hunt, the separation between "us" and "them" never leads to anything good.