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The Salem Witch Trials

Learn about the Salem witch trials and what took place in the village.

The accused witches stood trial to answer for their crimes. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
The accused witches stood trial to answer for their crimes.

The Salem witch trials took place in 1692. It all began with a young girl exhibiting unexplainable symptoms and ended with the deaths of 17 innocent people. It was a time when religious belief and superstition took precedence over scientific analysis and logic. The events that took place in 17th century Massachusetts remain a haunting reminder of the dangers of false accusations.

Leading up to Disaster: Salem Child's Play

Puritan values and beliefs dominated the colonial period in the New England states. Superstition and fear of the unknown were part and parcel of the spiritual landscape. So when Elizabeth Parris (the daughter of the town minister) began to exhibit strange symptoms including bodily twitches and nonsensical speech, Salem's Dr. Griggs declared Parris was suffering from the effects of witchcraft. The nine-year-old girl did not dispute the doctor's diagnosis. Instead, she accused Tituba, the household slave, of being a witch and teaching her and her friends witchcraft.

Perhaps jealous of the attention her friend Parris received because of her magical illness or because of the effects of a real unexplained illness, Abigail Williams declared she was displaying similar symptoms. She, too, accused Tituba of practicing magic. Next, Anne Putnam and several other girls made similar claims until the illness had spread throughout the young girls in Salem. Then, the girls began to accuse other women in Salem of practicing witchcraft.

When the idea that Salem was full of witches spread, the accusations snowballed. Remembered slights and old feuds became enough reason to have a neighbor thrown in jail.

The Witches and Their Trials

In all, 17 women and eight men were officially accused of practicing witchcraft and being in league with the devil in Salem Village. Arrest warrants were delivered throughout the spring of 1692.

According to the University of Virginia, the list of accused witches from the village of Salem included:

Sarah Good—accused February 29, 1692
Tituba Indian—accused February 29, 1692
Sarah Osborne—accused February 29, 1692
Martha Corey—accused March 19, 1692
Dorcas Good—accused March 23, 1692
Rebecca Nurse—accused March 23, 1692
Sarah Cloyse—accused April 4, 1692
Elizabeth Proctor—accused April 8, 1692
John Proctor—accused April 11, 1692
Bridget Bishop—accused April 18, 1692
Giles Corey—accused April 18, 1692
Mary Warren—accused April 18, 1692
Edward Bishop—accused April 21, 1692
Sarah Bishop—accused April 21, 1692
Mary Black—accused April 21, 1692
Mary Easty—accused April 21, 1692
John Willard—accused May 12, 1692
Daniel Andrew—accused May 14, 1692
Sarah Buckley—accused May 14, 1692
George Jacobs—accused May 14, 1692
Rebecca Jacobs—accused May 14, 1692
Mary Withridge—accused May 14, 1692
Mary DeRich—accused May 23, 1692
Benjamin Proctor—accused May 23, 1692
William Proctor—accused May 28, 1692

As Washington State University explains, 14 women and five men were executed after charges of witchcraft. In Salem, the last execution took place on September 22, 1692. Salem was not the only town in Massachusetts holding witchcraft trials. Several other villages were also caught up in a wave of violent superstition. It was a speech given by Increase Mather (future president of Harvard University and father to the famous Cotton Mather) at the end of October that put an end to the trials. He spoke of the unfairness and true ungodliness of what was taking place.

Theory of the Madness: Science Explains Witchcraft

There is a theory that states the afflicted girls of Salem were actually suffering from ergot poisoning. According to the University of Hawaii, ergot is a fungus that attaches to strands of rye. The rye is then baked into bread and consumed by humans. When enough rye has built up in the body's system, an individual may begin to show signs of poisoning. The symptoms may include odd contortions of the body, hallucinations and thought delusions.

There is no definitive proof that ergot poisoning was the real reason behind Salem's brief flirt with madness, but it does offer an alternative to the adolescent fancies and mass hysteria theories.

Salem Witch Trial Legacy: Salem Town in the Present

The town of Salem today is a popular tourist attraction. Begun in 1626, the town has a long history and mixed appeal. In its historic downtown, there stands a memorial to those who died or suffered because of the witch trials of 1692. Other items of interest are the pilgrim cemetery, the original Corwin witch house, a pioneer village and numerous reenactments of the famous trials. Many of the Salem townsfolk are related to the witch trial generation. Their mixed legacy is displayed in the witch museums and period architecture that predominates this notorious town.

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