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A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials

One town's strange journey from paranoia to pardon

A girl is accused during the Salem Witch Trials (Bettmann / CORBIS)

The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. More than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft—the Devil's magic—and 20 were executed. Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted. Since then, the story of the trials has become synonymous with paranoia and injustice, and it continues to beguile the popular imagination more than 300 years later.

Salem Struggling
Several centuries ago, many practicing Christians, and those of other religions, had a strong belief that the Devil could give certain people known as witches the power to harm others in return for their loyalty. A "witchcraft craze" rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s. Tens of thousands of supposed witches—mostly women—were executed. Though the Salem trials came on just as the European craze was winding down, local circumstances explain their onset.

In 1689, English rulers William and Mary started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as King William's War to colonists, it ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Salem Village is present-day Danvers, Massachusetts; colonial Salem Town became what's now Salem.)

The displaced people created a strain on Salem's resources. This aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. Controversy also brewed over Reverend Samuel Parris, who became Salem Village's first ordained minister in 1689, and was disliked because of his rigid ways and greedy nature. The Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil.

In January of 1692, Reverend Parris' daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having "fits." They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. Another girl, Ann Putnam, age 11, experienced similar episodes. On February 29, under pressure from magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris' Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.

The witch no. 1 is a lithograph representation, created by Joseph E. Baker, ca. 1837-1914, of the story of the witchcraft accusations, trials and executions that captured the imagination of writers and artists in the ensuing centuries. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Abigail William's testimony against George Jacobs, Jr., during the Salem witches trial, now retained by the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In this 1876 engraving Witchcraft at Salem Village, the central figure of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
This map of Salem Village is a reconstruction of how Salem looked in 1692 at the start of the witch trials as created in 1866 from historical records by Charles W. Upham (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Examination of a witch by Tompkins H. Matteson, whose paintings are known for their historical, patriotic, and religious themes. Dozens of people from Salem and other Massachusetts villages were brought in and put to varying levels of questioning. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
"Petition for bail from accused witches" from the John Davis Batchelder Autograph Collection. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Witch Hill by Thomas Satterwhite. A young woman is led to her execution during the Salem witchcraft trials. (Smithsonian Institute)

Witch Hunt
All three women were brought before the local magistrates and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692. Osborne claimed innocence, as did Good. But Tituba confessed, "The Devil came to me and bid me serve him." She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a "black man" who wanted her to sign his book. She admitted that she signed the book and said there were several other witches looking to destroy the Puritans. All three women were put in jail.

With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed for the next few months. Charges against Martha Corey, a loyal member of the Church in Salem Village, greatly concerned the community; if she could be a witch, then anyone could. Magistrates even questioned Sarah Good's 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy, and her timid answers were construed as a confession. The questioning got more serious in April when Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and his assistants attended the hearings. Dozens of people from Salem and other Massachusetts villages were brought in for questioning.


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