The Salem Witch Trials - An Easy Introduction
The Salem Witch Trials? Can you give me a quick summary?
Sure thing. The Salem Witch Trials famously took place in 1692 and 1693, when many people from Salem Village in Massachusetts, America were accused and found guilty of witchcraft.
Okay, tell me about Salem first – what was it like?
There were two places around Massachusetts at this time bearing the name “Salem”. Firstly, there was Salem Town; was a large, busy port town on Massachusetts Bay which is still called Salem today. 10 miles from Salem Town was the second Salem; Salem Village, known today as Danvers, where the Salem Witch Trials took place.
There were only around 500 people who lived in Salem Village, many of whom were from poor farming families. The Salem Villagers didn’t get along with each other, squabbling over land and taking legal action against each other.
How did the Witch Trials start?
It all began after the arrival of the new leader of the village church, Samuel Parris. In January 1692, Parris’ daughter Betty and niece Abigail started having violent contortions where their bodies twisted and bent into unnatural positions. They had uncontrollable outbursts, throwing things, making strange noises and screaming.
The local doctor claimed that they had been bewitched by somebody. Soon, other girls in the village started having fits and contortions too. The people of Salem Village believed that somebody (a witch) had made a deal with the devil to gain supernatural powers that they used to harm others. This witch was using these powers to torment the girls of the village.
Whoa! That got pretty scary pretty quick. So what happened to them?
The girls accused three women of bewitching them, including their slave servant called Tituba. In February 1692, the three accused women were arrested and questioned in the local meeting house. Many people from the village came along to watch, including some of the bewitched girls who continued to have contortions and fits in the meeting house during the questioning!
Did the witches confess?
Though two of the accused women denied being witches, Tituba confessed and claimed that when she signed her name in the devil’s book, she could see many other people had signed their names there too.
Soon, hysteria spread throughout Salem Village as more people were accused of being witches. Nobody was safe. Even a four-year-old girl was accused!
Whoa! That’s a lot of witches!
That’s right. There were so many witches being accused that in May 1692, the governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, created a special court to deal with them all. He called it the Court of Oyer and Terminer, meaning a court “to hear” and “to decide”.
But this court had many flaws, including allowing “spectral evidence”. Spectral evidence is information given to the court that comes straight from people’s dreams or visions. Some accusers claimed to see visions of the witches pinching or biting them and this could be used to show that the person was guilty. This meant you could be found guilty of being a witch just because somebody had had a bad dream about you!
What?! Were any of these witches actually found guilty?
Shockingly, yes. The first person to be found guilty was Bridget Bishop in June 1692. She was hanged on what would become known as Gallows Hill in nearby Salem Town. Many others followed. Strangely, people who confessed to being a witch were spared, but those who pleaded their innocence met harsh punishments.
How did this awful mess come to an end?
By October 1692, Governor William Phips ended the Court of Oyer and Terminer and replaced it with a new, fairer system that didn’t use spectral evidence. Soon, those who had been found guilty in the new court and those still in custody were pardoned by Phips and allowed to walk free. By May 1693, the trials came to an end.
As a result of the Salem Witch Trials, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft, 19 men and women were found guilty by the court and were hanged, one accused man was pressed to death (I won’t go into details but it’s as gruesome as it sounds!) and several other accused people died in prison. By 2001, all of those found guilty of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials were declared to be innocent of their crimes by the state of Massachusetts.