Salem Witch Trials
Perhaps history’s most famous or infamous case of mass hysteria, the Salem Witch craze of 1692 – 1693 took place against a cultural and religious background that was predisposed to believe in the supernatural. While witchcraft is laughable to most today, in seventeenth-century Colonial America, and especially in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was taken quite seriously. The belief that the Devil could grant witches extraordinary powers in return for their loyalty, and that witchcraft could be used to inflict harm on the good and godly, was taken for granted.
It began in January of 1692 when the 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece of Salem’s reverend started having screaming fits, during which they contorted themselves into unnatural positions, threw things, and made weird noises. A local doctor, finding no signs of physical ailment, blamed it on the supernatural. Soon, another young girl, aged 11, started exhibiting similar symptoms.
Examined by magistrates, the girls accused three women of bewitching them: the reverend’s black slave, Tituba, an elderly impoverished woman named Sarah Osborne, and a homeless beggar named Sarah Good. Osborne and Good protested their innocence, but for whatever reason – perhaps torture or perhaps a promise of leniency – Tituba confessed to having been visited by the Devil, whom she described as a black man who asked her to sign a book. Admitting that she signed, Tituba went on to point the finger at other “witches”.
The mass hysteria then erupted, and over the following months, a flood of accusations came pouring in, and the more farfetched they were, the more they solidified the populace’s belief in the potency of witchcraft and enhanced the panic. When the godly and regular churchgoer Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft, rather than give the good people of Salem pause, it merely redoubled their fears: if solid citizen Martha Corey could be a witch, then anybody could be a witch.
On May 27th, the colony’s governor ordered the establishment of a special court to try the accused, and its first victim was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known as gossip and with a reputation for promiscuity. Her protestations of innocence were unavailing, and she was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on June 10th in what became known as Gallows Hill. Five more were convicted and hanged in July, another five in August, and eight more that September.
The trials were marked by a lack of due process, and the use of “spectral evidence” – basically, testimony by witnesses that they dreamt or had a vision that the spirit or “spectre” of the accused witch did them harm. Thus, an accuser’s dream or vision that “Jane Doe bit, hit, and punched me“, was admissible evidence in court that Jane Doe had actually bit, hit, and punched the accuser, even if the unfortunate Doe was nowhere near the accuser that day – her spectre was. Respected theologian and reverend Cotton Mathers wrote the court cautioning against the use of spectral evidence, but was ignored.
The colony’s governor finally put an end to the trials and their ever-expanding circle of accusations when his own wife was accused of being a witch, by which point 200 people had been accused of witchcraft, and 20 had already been hanged. Eventually, the authorities admitted that the trials had been a mistake, and compensated the families of the wrongly convicted victims of the witch hunt. Thereafter, the Salem mass hysteria and resultant trials became synonymous with paranoia and injustice, and stand today as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, and the lack of due process.