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Perhaps the most famous witch trials, the Salem witch trials
have a very long and sad history. According to beliefs, the devil
gave special powers to certain humans (witches) in exchange for
Perhaps the most famous witch trials, the Salem witch trials have a very long and sad history. According to beliefs, the devil gave special powers to certain humans (witches) in exchange for their loyalty. They were feared by the society and anyone suspected of practicing witchcraft was executed.
In 1641, the Puritan Legal Code was introduced which listed the hierarchy of crimes. The order was as follows:
This code laid down the basis for the Salem Witch Trials.
In January 1692, two girls, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, started behaving strangely. They would make strange sounds and scream, contort their bodies, and throw objects. They also claimed that an invisible being was biting and scratching them. Their ages were 9 and 11 years and were the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, an ordained minister of Salem. Other girls also reported having the same symptoms. A doctor attributed these to supernatural causes. It is interesting to note that there was only one doctor in Salem who could most likely read but not write.
On February 9th, 1692, two judges Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne pressured the girls into revealing the names of the people responsible for their condition. The girls accused three women, Tituba, a slave of Reverend Parris, Sarah Osborne, a poor elderly woman, and Sarah Good, a homeless beggar. Whereas Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good denied being witches and later died during the trial, Tituba admitted to afflicting the girls. She said, The Devil came to me and bid me serve him. Some people believe that she was forced to confess. Her testimony is the longest in the trials. Tituba also revealed that there were other witches working in Salem. She spent a year and three months in jail before being released. She was one of the last accused released.
On May 27th, 1692, a special court of Oyer and Terminer was established by William Phipps, the Governor of Massachusetts, to hear and decide the cases relating to witches. In the first trial, Bridget Bishop, a town gossip, was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. She was the first person to be hanged in the Salem witch trials.
Between July 1692 to September 1692, 18 more people were found guilty and executed including 4 men. One of these men was George Burroughs, a minister of Salem. He was a Harvard graduate and accused by the other witches of being their mastermind. They claimed that Burroughs would bite them during their testimonies. Apparently, the bite marks matched the teeth of Burroughs. The Chief Justice suggested that Burroughs was using an invisibility cloak given to him by the devil. Before his execution, Burroughs recited the entire Lords Prayer without any mistake, something that witches couldnt do. This sowed the seeds of doubts in the minds of people.
On October 3rd, 1692, Increase Matter, a Puritan minister, told the court not to consider any spectral evidence. Around the same time, Mary Phipps, Governor Phipps wife, was brought in for interrogation. Phipps released some prisoners and the court of Oyer and Terminer was disbanded. A superior court of judicature was set up and wasnt allowed to consider testimonies of spectral evidence. By that time 20 people were already executed, of which 14 were women and 6 men. 13 more people perished in jail. All the people executed were not given a proper burial and were buried in unmarked graves.
Naturally, a lot of theories have been proposed as to why the trials took place. Some of the popular theories are:
This theory is given by Emily Oster, a Harvard Ph.D. student. She offers an economic explanation for these events. According to her, the little ice age that lasted from 1550 till 1800 and was intensified during 1680 till 1730, caused economic problems and people started blaming one another for their hardships.
This theory is given by Linnda Caporael, a behavioral scientist. According to her, the girls were exposed to a fungus called Ergot which is commonly found in grains like Rai. This fungus causes Convulsive Ergotism whose symptoms include hallucinations, muscle contractions, vertigo, and sensations of crawling and tingling, symptoms similar to the ones shown by the affected girls. Although the girls didnt exhibit any other signs of disintegration of the fingertips.
Most people believe that the trials were a result of Mass Hysteria, a term most commonly used in descriptions of the Salem witch trials. Mass Hysteria is a phenomenon in which collective illusions of threat, whether real or imaginary, are transmitted through the population as a result of rumors and fears.
This theory was given by Robert Calef, a merchant present during the trials. According to him, Reverend Parris used the trials to gain socio-political gains. He forced Tituba to confess to witchcraft and then used the resulting paranoia to seize back power.
According to this theory, the Salem witches were a real thing and all the actions of the people were justified.
In 1957, the state of Massachusetts formally apologized for the trials and cleared the names of all the people accused or executed.
In 1992, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial was built which has benches with names of the people who died on them as the location of their graves is unknown.