Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Witch Trials: February 1692 and May 1693

Causes:

The Salem Witch Trials came from mostly the suspicion of people, which turned into paranoia and mass hysteria. Belief in the supernatural, specifically in the devil’s ability to give certain humans (witches) the power to harm others in return for their loyalty, was around in Europe as early as the 14th century. These beliefs were widespread in colonial New England. Also, the harsh life in the rural Puritan community of Salem Village at the time was a factor. This caused the people to be more against each other than with each other. These conditions of life included: the after-effects of a British war with France in the American colonies in 1689, a recent smallpox epidemic, fears of attacks from neighboring Native American tribes and a rivalry with Salem Town. With all of this in mind, the Salem witch trials would be fueled by the people's suspicions of their neighbors, as well as their fear of outsiders.

The Trials:

The Salem Witch trials began when a group of young girls in Salem, Massachusetts claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several women of witchcraft. Hysteria soon spread throughout colonial Massachusetts. The first convicted witch was Bridget Bishop, and she was hanged that June. 150 more women, men and children were accused in the coming months. Some of those who were accused simply confessed to save themselves from torture, knowing that they would die anyways. They said that they were witches working with the devil against the Puritan people. The people became very paranoid and the trials left a scar on the people of Salem that can still be felt today.

Effects:

In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared for a day of fasting for the harm the Salem witch trials had caused. The court later declared the trials unlawful, and the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the trials. The damage to the community lingered however. Even after Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restored the reputations of the condemned and provided for their families in 1711, the scar of the trials could still be felt. The legacy of the Salem witch trials endured well into the 20th century, when Arthur Miller wrote the events of 1692 in his play “The Crucible” (1953). He used them as an allegory for the anti-Communist “witch hunts” we saw in Salem. The Salem Witch Trials were an event that left a lasting mark on Salem as well as the colonies.