By Sparsh Sutariya

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The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts in 1692-3. The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people by hanging. Five others, including 2 children died in prison. The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town.

This is one of colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria. It was not a unique event as these were based on the witch trials in Europe, conducted in 1100-1400s, sanctioned by the Vatican Church. A man called Joseph Glanvill claimed that he could prove the existence of witches and other supernatural creatures. He said that if people denied the supernatural, they would also be denying the existence of God. Salem was supposed to be a Bible-led community, and these sayings stirred much controversy.

A map of Salem in 1692

A map of Salem in 1692

Salem Town had many disputes with Salem Village. These disputes lead to Salem Village hiring a minister separate from the ones voted in from Salem Town. This resulted in several other disputes regarding land, labour, local governance and religious governance.

Prior to February 1692, there were several rumours of witchcraft circulating the Salem area and the surrounding towns. Cotton Mather, a minister, published several pamphlets expressing his belief in witchcraft and the supernatural. He wrote a book, identifying how witchcraft and the devil had tempted a child to steal some linen. Cotton, then says that children had strange fits and seizures and attributed them to witchcraft.

In February 1692, several others had begun to experience fits and seizures without any root cause. The first three people arrested and accused of witchcraft were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba. They were accused as a local family feud led them to accuse the poor and the enslaved of witchcraft to besmirch the other family. This is widely regarded as the causal start of the Witch trials.

Over the course of the next 13 months, several others were arrested and subjected to tests like the “touch test”, where the accused had to touch a person who was seizing. If the person stopped seizing, this was taken as proof the accused was a witch. Books of palmistry and horoscopes and any other anti-Christian ideologies was taken as evidence that the accused was a witch and that they worshipped the devil. 20 people died from execution, of which, 14 were women. 5 others later died in prison.

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The Salem Witch trials have been used by popular culture to portray the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusation and the significance of due process. It serves as a reminder that damaging events occur when ignorance and extremism combine.