The Salem Witchhunts: A History of Witches, Trials, and Witch Hunts!

Although the Salem Witch Trials had many of the same triggers as the European witch hunts, there were some notable differences caused by Salem’s unique history. One of the most notable differences is that the Salem witch trials started long after most of the European witch trials ended. Salem Witch Trials also lasted for a very short time in comparison, but more people in comparison to the population were killed than in many of the areas where witch hunts occurred. The first accusation was on January 1692 and lasted until May 1693. The death count is unknown for sure. The most obvious difference between the witch trials was that the Salem witch trials occurred in America: to be more specific in Salem Village, Massachusetts.

Salem witchhunts began with two young girls Betty and Abigail. Betty was nine and the Reverend Samuel Parris’s daughter. Abigail was his niece and two years older than Betty. They unexpectedly began acting very strangely by twisting their bodies in strange positions and screaming. They would also cover their ears and scream during prayer, acting as if the prayers were literally harming them.

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The Reverend became very concerned and began praying for the two girls, and requested that a doctor come and examine them. The doctor played an integral part in these witch hunts, because he was the first to claim that the reason for the bizarre behavior was because they were inflicted by witchcraft. This spread fear among the community.

To understand why this community would believe such a bizarre accusation, you must first realize several things about their community. First, they were originally European settlers, who found a home in the new world. So they had just come from a society that feared witchcraft. The other part you must realize is how the community was set up.

There were actually two parts of Salem, the village and the town. The village consisted of 500 people. One of those who lived in the village was the minister (Samuel Parris) so that he could live close to the meeting house.

The town, on the other hand, was a poor farm community. The poverty in this town was a big source of stress in this community, as they struggled to provide enough food. This along with a state of fear and stress due to attacks that happened just shortly before the accusations. Salem Town was continually being attacked by the Wampanoag Indians; therefore, they were in constant fear that these attacks would resume at any time. After being in such turmoil and fear, when the witch accusations occurred, they were already in a heightened emotional state.

Along with the constant state of fear, they also had very strict laws due to their Puritan lifestyle. There were laws about what type of clothes they were allowed to wear, regarding their church attendance, as well as many other customs. They were stretched thin due to their extensive work in fields and such, and Sunday was the only day of rest from their endless work.

There was so much that the people didn’t understand, and they searched for answers. Due to their stress, and their lack of knowledge of science and psychology, they believed the causes of many of the actions of others was due to magic. During this time, people believed that witchcraft was the work of Satan. They also believed that anything that was bad, such as disease or drought was the cause of Satan. These beliefs actually originated in Europe and were carried over to America as people traveled here.

Because they believed that magic was done by Satan, they believed the appropriate punishment for witchcraft would be death. This also follows a line in the bible that is very misunderstood that states that the punishment of being a witch is death. This verse was actually translated incorrectly, since the closest English word to the greek was witch, although the word means something slightly different.

Since the minister was a prominent person in the community, people listened to him. If the girls had been related to anyone else, the widespread panic may not have occurred, but Parris believed the only way to heal the girls was to remove the witches.

Many believed the girls knew who the witches were but they refused to tell who it was. Despite their heavy resistance towards music, there was a church member Mary Sibley who asked Tituba, a woman known for doing “magic,” to use magic to identify the witch. Tituba most likely used herbal remedies and medicinal things, but they believed this to be magic during this time. Tituba told Mary to give a cake to Parris’s dog which they believed would identify the witch. Then there were others who believed prayer would cure witchcraft.

The irony in this seem to come to light and Tituba became the first one to be accused of being the witch that caused this. This was easy for people to believe. Although she originally said she was not the witch, she later confessed believing things would go easier if she confessed.

Yet, despite Tituba being in jail, two more girls began acting strangely; Ann Putman and Elizabeth Hubbard along with 6 more girls. All of them claimed to be victims of witchcraft. They became known as the afflicted girls.

On February 25, 1692, Betty and Abigail claimed Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne to be witches. Most likely, they were beginning to feel pressures to claim someone, and since the two Sarah’s were known for being unfriendly, they were easy for people to believe. Thomas Putnam, Ann’s father, believed they were telling the truth. He wanted to bring justice for her daughter and brought charges against the accused witches.

By March first the 3 accused witches were brought to the meeting house to decide if they should stand trial. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne both claimed innocence. During the trial, the girls began their strange behavior. They claimed a witches specter (the spirit of a witch that only the victim could see) was pinching and biting them.

Although Tituba initially claimed innocence, she changed her story. No one knows for sure, but it is possible she thought they would be easier on her. She also claimed the other two were witches as well. She claimed they had flown on broomsticks and even said there were more witches. As a result, both Good and Osborne went to trial, while Tituba was spared since they believed she broke Satan’s hold on her by confessing. But a search for others began.

Ann Putman soon claimed another women’s specter that of Martha Corey was hurting her. Martha was initially a well-respected woman and said she thought the girls were lying, nonetheless she was arrested. With such a well-respected person in custody, people began looking at one another with fear and suspicion suspecting their neighbors of this heinous crime. During Martha’s trials, girls claimed Martha’s specter was biting them and even had bite marks to prove.

Next, they accused Rebecca Nurse. (Her tombstone is seen at the right of this article.) Although the judges first dismissed her because of her well-respected position, they quickly changed their minds due to the girls increasingly bizarre behavior. Later they even claimed Dorcas Good, a four-year-old was a witch. When they asked Dorcas, she claimed that both her mom and she were witches. They carried her and her mother away in chains

Not everyone believed these tales. One man John Proctor felt girls were just causing trouble. The girls then accused his wife, since he defended his wife both of them were arrested. As you can see by the picture of the tomb, he was hung due to his strong stance and resistance to the witch trials!!! If I ever find a clearer image of his tomb, I will post it instead.

Finally one of the girls, Mary Warren admitted to faking the behavior. She also said that the other girls were too. The girls turned on her and then claimed her of witchcraft. Mary was eventually released due to “admitting the truth.” She said that she was, in fact, she was a witch and that the girls were really entranced by witches. She kept silent afterward and all charges were dropped.

Overall, the witch trials lasted over four months, which does not seem like that long. But there were 150 people in the small town who were arrested, 19 hung, and one that was pressed to death. Although no one knows for sure what the death toll was, because many died in the prisons, so an exact total of the people lost due to the witch hunts remains unknown.

It is a sad part of American history. No one will know for sure whether mental illness, acting, or just oppression of these young girls was the cause.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
  • Kors, Alan Charles, and Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History. Second Edition. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
  • Levack, Brian P. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Third Edition. (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006).