The Salem Witch trials are really weird. It’s basically a town that got swept up into hysteria, potentially the product of consumption of fungus that causes hallucinations and then the hallucinations were used as evidence in a court of law.

One thing you have to consider about the witch trials is where they were and the general circumstances. I don’t just mean that they were from hundreds of years ago, but rather that they were extremely isolated and were keenly aware that they could literally die at any moment. Although some settlements worked out systems with the native populations, they were pretty at risk from attack if any enemies rolled through the area. Not to mention the poor nutrition, lack of medical care and being surrounded by religious fundamentalists in fear of persecution from England. Also, you probably only had about a 50% chance of reaching adulthood living in the early colonies. It’s all enough to make some pretty prone to a little mental instability.

For anyone who has lived under a rock and never heard of the Salem Witch Trials, I’ll give you a very brief rundown as to what went down. In the early 1690’s some young girls accused three women in Salem of being witches and panic exploded. Two hundred people were accused and 20 were executed. Now keep in mind that Salem Village probably had less than 600 people at this time, with the surrounding towns and community numbering less than 2000. That’s one third of the village being put under fire for consorting with the devil. Eventually people started to see reason and stopped accepting “spectral evidence” (ie. made up stories/hallucinations) as actual evidence and the trials began to fade away.

Witch trials were nothing new, the panic has been swirling around Europe for several hundred years prior to this, it just took a while to spread across the ocean to the colonies.

It’s possible that if the initial accused had been upstanding, respected citizens in Salem that nothing further would have happened, but the first three accused were a slave, a homeless woman and a widow, none of whom were particularly liked by the village. Sometimes trials and accusations such as these were used to purge undesirables from the population, but just booting them out wouldn’t have been the proper thing to do, they needed a reason that would let them feel moral about it and so they decided those women were working for the Devil. From there I imagine those who weren’t involved in that pattern of thought genuinely became terrified and fanned the flames of hysteria which led to the rest of the trials.

It’s difficult to say what exactly caused everything and historians still can’t agree. There are several ideas besides the general stress of colony living, such as mental illness, child abuse and ergot poisoning (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergotism). The fictionalized story of the Witch trials is told in the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller. The youngest person accused was Dorothy (Dorcas) Good, she was only 4.

While we might not get crazy over witchcraft anymore, things of this nature do still happen in modern society. It comes in the insidious guise of racism, sexism, elitism, etc. There will always be “undesirables” in the eyes of every group, but let’s not start making up our own evidence to condemn those who don’t deserve it. Let’s not repeat what happened in Salem.

I hope you learned some interesting things about this confusing pocket of American history.

Thanks for stopping by!

-Erin