The Salem witch trials were a series of prosecutions in which over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. They took place in a number of cities in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the years 1692 and 1693, but primarily in the town of Salem.
Salem Witch Trials from William A. Crafts
Did the people really believe in witches?
During the late 17th century, the Puritans of New England believed that witchcraft was the work of the devil and was very real. This fear was not new to the United States. Throughout the late Middle Ages and into the 1600s, thousands of people were executed in Europe for being witches.
What started the trials?
The witch trials in Salem began when two little girls, Betty Parris (age 9) and Abigail Williams (age 11), began to have strange fits. They would twitch and scream and make strange animal noises. They claimed they felt as if they were being pinched and stuck with pins. When they interrupted church, the people in Salem knew the devil was at work.
The girls blamed their condition on witchcraft. They said that three women in the village had cast spells on them: Tituba, the girls' servant who told them stories of witchcraft and probably gave them the idea; Sarah Good, a local beggar and homeless person; and Sarah Osborne, an old lady who rarely came to church.
Soon the entire town of Salem and the villages around them were in a panic. It didn't help that Tituba, the girls' servant, confessed to being a witch and making a deal with the devil. People began to blame everything bad that happened on witchcraft. Hundreds of people were accused of being witches and the local pastors of the Puritan churches began to have trials to determine who was and who wasn't a witch.
How did they determine who was a witch?
There were a number of tests used to determine if a person was a witch:
Touch test - The person afflicted with fits would become calm when touching the witch who cast the spell on them.
Confession by Dunking - They would dunk an accused witch in water until they finally confessed.
Lord's Prayer - If a person could not recite the Lord's Prayer without error, they were considered a witch.
Spectral evidence - The accused would claim to have seen the witch in their dreams working with the devil.
Submersion - In this test the accused was bound and dropped in the water. If they floated, they were considered a witch. Of course, if they didn't float, they would drown.
Pressing - In this test, heavy stones would be placed on the accused. This was supposed to force the confession out of the witch. Unfortunately, the person being pressed couldn't breathe to give a confession even if they wanted to. An 80 year-old man named Giles Corey was crushed to death when this test was used on him.
How many were killed?
At least 20 people were put to death during the trials. Over 150 more were jailed and some people died due to poor conditions in jail.
How did the trials end?
As more and more people were being accused, the public began to realize that innocent people were being condemned to death. After months of trials, the governor finally decided to put an end to the trials with the last trials being held in May of 1693. The governor pardoned the rest of the accused witches and they were released from jail.
Interesting Facts about the Salem Witch Trials
Although most of the accused witches were women, some men were also accused.
A majority of the people who claimed to be "afflicted" by witches were girls under the age of 20.
There were actually more people accused of being witches in the town of Andover than in the town of Salem. Salem, however, executed the most people for being witches.
The trials were declared unlawful in 1702 and Massachusetts formally apologized for the trials in 1957.
The first person executed during the trials was Bridget Bishop of Salem.