A dark and curious period in American history occurred between January 1692 and January 1693. Triggered by the accusation of three children, a widespread witch-hunt began in Salem Village, Massachusetts, which led to the arrest of nearly 200 people, and the death of 24.
We tend to think of the Salem Witch Trials as spooky, or Halloween-adjacent, but it was scary for very different reasons. The Halloween iconography of the spooky witch cackling with the wart on her nose, a broomstick, and a black cat, conceals a far darker story.
Although the earliest mention of witches in recorded history is thought to be in the Bible, accused witches began to be ruthlessly persecuted in Europe in the 1400s. European colonists brought these worldviews to colonial Massachusetts, and the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 became the most dramatic instance of this collective witch-fear in the American colonies. Let’s look at some significant dates throughout the Salem Witch Trials and consider some explanations for the largest witch-hunt in American history.
A Brief Timeline
Elizabeth “Betty” Parris (age 9) came down with a strange illness, which her cousin, Abigail Williams (11), and another girl in Salem Village named Anne Putnam (11), would also soon experience. They exhibited an unusual combination of symptoms and behaviors–contorting themselves uncontrollably, vocalizing, throwing objects, and screaming. They also described a feeling of being pinched. These symptoms continued until the middle of February when a doctor concluded that the girls had fallen victim to witchcraft.
February 29th, 1692
Betty, Abigail, and Anne told local magistrates they were afflicted by three women. Based on the girls’ accusations, Tituba, Sarah Goode, and Sarah Osborne were taken into custody as accused witches. Tituba was believed to be a West Indian woman enslaved in the Parris household. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were both impoverished, older women in the community.
March 1st, 1692
All three women were interrogated in the Salem Village meeting house. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne denied any involvement with witchcraft, yet Tituba told a more vivid story, which described how the devil and a menagerie of supernatural entities approached her on numerous occasions and encouraged her to serve them.
She said that there were also other practicing witches in Salem Village. As colorful as her testimony was, it’s difficult to explain why she painted this picture for the Salem authorities. Whatever her reasons, her testimony would ignite so much of the “hysteria” that would come to define the Salem Witch Trials. Because of it, nearly 200 people were arrested over the next two months.
May 27th, 1692
Governor Phipps of colonial Massachusetts created a special court in Salem to hear cases of supposed acts of witchcraft.
June 10th, 1692
Beginning with Bridget Bishop on June 10th at Gallow’s Hill and ending with the eight executions on September 22nd, a total of 24 people would die accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692.
October 29th, 1692
Governor Phipps dissolved the special court in Salem that had been created to try cases of witchcraft as public sentiment began to sour. This is when the Salem Witch Trials, as we know them, ended. Ironically, this was close to Halloween, which began to be celebrated nearly 150 years later.
January 31st, 1693
The governor pardoned the remaining eight Salem residents accused of witchcraft.
Elizabeth Johnson, Jr., the last remaining person accused of witchcraft in 1692, has her name officially cleared. This is believed to be the final chapter in a long story that is both confusing and captivating.
But there are still so many valid questions to ask. What are we to make of the Salem Witch Trials? Leaving aside the possibility of actual witchcraft, were they caused by mass hysteria or mob mentality, which we hear so often? Puritanical religious fervor? A patriarchal distrust of femininity? Or could it have been something less commonly discussed?
Many now believe the Salem Witch Trials could have been caused by Ergot, a fungal blight that grows on grains like rye. Hard to detect and causing effects similar to hallucinogenic substances, Linnda Caporael published an article in 1976 in Science about how residents of Salem Village could very likely have been suffering from consuming poisonous, hallucinogenic bread. Ergot causes an array of intense symptoms nearly identical to what the accusers in 1692 experienced.
Ironically, nowadays, people flock to Salem, MA, to be close to the idea of witchcraft, if not necessarily the practice of it. Bewitched by the images created by Hollywood or even Shakespeare, it’s hard not to be both scared and fascinated. Whether you prefer the depiction of witches in Hocus Pocus, The Witch, or Hansel and Gretel, it’s hard to shake the allure. Even as they lead us into the woods and lure us into their ovens, we are still fascinated.