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Salem Witch Trials

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Salem Witch Trials

Why were twenty people killed in a small, colonial Massachusetts village in 1693? A witchcraft craze had subsided in Europe at the end of 1650, but the hysteria seemed to only ignite in the small Massachusetts town of Salem Village. The Massachusetts colony steeped in deep Puritan religious beliefs had laws against practicing any form of witchcraft. Nevertheless, mass hysteria erupted into a witch hunt, resulting in numerous deaths, executions, and trials. What caused this mass hysteria? Was it the pressure from a growing population or unpredictable religious conditions? Read on to find out what ignited the Salem Witch Trials!

Salem Witch Trials History

Witch Burning at the stakeWitch Burning at the stake. Source: Mullica, CC-BY-2.0 Wikimedia Commons

The first events that influenced the Salem Witch trials began in Europe between the 1300s and 1600s. Witchcraft hysteria swept through Europe, and tens of thousands of suspected witches were killed. A vast majority of the convicted witches were women that confessed, under torture, to the "crimes" they had committed. Literature such as Malleus Maleficarum only spurred the witch craze to go on. The book, published in 1486 and written by respected religious men, became a guide on how to hunt for witches. Eventually, the witch craze died down in Europe around 1650, only to ignite in Salem, Massachusetts. Though the timing of the trials in Massachusetts seemed to correlate with the European witch craze, local difficulties and circumstances ultimately caused the onset.

Causes of the Salem Witch Trials

Witchcraft Trial in Salem VillageWitchcraft Trial at Salem Village. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Social Stratification in Salem

At the time of the Salem Witch Trials, Salem was divided into two different parts: Salem Village and Salem Town. Salem Town was a trade center that often traded with London. As a result, Salem Town was home to the wealthy merchant class. On the other side, Salem Village was responsible for the agricultural sector of Salem's economy and where poor farmers called home.

Tensions rose between the two as Salem Town was responsible for imposing regulations on Salem Village. Years before the witch trials, Salem Village had made several attempts to break away from Salem Town due to the crop prices and taxes the town imposed. Salem Village did not even have its own church until 1674, even though a three-hour walk separated the two communities. The stark social differences between the two communities helped fan the flames of the witch trials.

Did you know?

Women were not the only victims of the Salem Witch Trials; men were also condemned for being witches. Two dogs were even killed for bewitching a child!

Salem Town vs. Salem Village

Salem Town Salem Village
Merchant economy/home to one of the main harbors in New England used for trade Farming Economy
Wealthy Merchant Class Poor Farming Class
Held political power over Salem Under the town's political control
Diversity of population & religionStrictly Puritan

Economic Downturn:

At the start of the Salem witch trials, the town had undergone extreme economic deterioration. The economic low coupled with shortages in food fueled the anti-witch sentiment that would lead the community on a witch hunt. In addition, the Salem community went through one of the coldest periods during that time. Economic hardships influenced the colonists to pass the blame on anyone. The immense pain felt from hardships manifested itself into a mass panic that would spread throughout the community.

Church Politics in Salem

Captain Alden Denounced as a witchCaptain Alden Denounced as a witch. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Unstable church organization and doctrine ignited the volatile environment in Salem. In 1672, the community built a parsonage and hired their first minister. However, arguments created deep factions by 1679. Salem Village did not retain ministers and went through three different people between 1679-1687. The community had no fixed, ordained minister to provide a clear and stable direction. Coupled with difficulty in church leadership, Salem also dealt with arguments around dwindling church membership.

Salem Town believed in a membership structured around the principle of Half-Way Covenant. The Half-Way Covenant made attaining church membership easy with less restrictive processes. This policy essentially erased the coveted distinction between the members of society by opening church membership to a variety of people. However, Salem Village's minister at the time, Deodat Lawson, believed in more restrictive policies and eventually resigned under pressure from the townspeople.

Samuel Parris, Puritan minister in Salem VillageSamuel Parris, Puritan minister in Salem Village. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Samuel Parris

After Lawson's departure, Salem Village sought a new minister and found one in Samuel Parris. In 1689 Parris was officially hired as Salem Village's minister. Parris was a businessman and merchant in Barbados before entering the ministry. However, Parris brought a strict psychological logic and religious enthusiasm that would instigate the hysteria and support the witch trials. Historian Richard Latner comments on Parris' evangelical piety as the cause for his support of the witch trials.

"His evangelical piety drove him to lead a campaign to revitalize and purify religion in Salem Village." -Richard Latner, Here are No Newters: Witchcraft and Religious Discord in Salem Village and Andover, 2006

1692 Salem Witch Trials

Salem Village was a fractured community with individuals at constant odds with each other and neighboring towns. Townspeople often argued taxes, church organization and doctrine, and property lines. The volatile environment did not need much spark to ignite the witch trials.

Petition for bail from accused witches 1692Petition for bail from accused witches 1692. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

The First Victims of the Salem Witch Trial

Ironically, the scene of the first accusation occurred in Samuel Parris' home and would ignite the hysteria that consumed Salem Village. Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began behaving strangely, but nothing appeared to be physically wrong. Consequently, the doctor diagnosed that they were under an evil force. Eventually, the girls' symptoms began spreading throughout the community. Accounts noted that roughly twelve girls became afflicted with similar physical symptoms such as convulsions, prickly skin, and body contortions. The girls eventually accused others, sparking a wave of false accusations.

Tituba teaching the first act of witchcraft.Tituba teaching the first act of witchcraft. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

As symptoms of witchcraft continued, four girls would go on to falsely accuse the first three victims of the Salem witch trials. Three local women, Sarah Goode, Sarah Osbourne, and Tituba were accused of practicing witchcraft and were arrested on February 29, 1692. After being questioned, Tituba had denied harming the girls. However, after more intense questioning, she claimed that she was practicing witchcraft under direct orders from the Devil and that Goode and Osborne had forced her hand. Both Osborne and Goode maintained their innocence throughout the entire trial. However, Osborne died in prison, and Goode's husband and daughter testified that she was a witch. In addition, Good gave birth in jail. However, shortly after giving birth, Goode's baby died. Soon after the infant's death, the court executed Sarah Good by hanging.

Proliferation of False Accusations

Geography of Witchcraft in Salem Village 1692Map of where Accusers, Defenders, and Accused Witches in Salem Village in 1692, the line represents the rough boundary of Salem Village and Salem Town. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

False accusations quickly spread throughout the community and were often encouraged by those trying the accused "witches." As seen in the map above, accusers generally lived closer to Salem Village than the accused, who lived closer to Salem Town. Thus, many of the accusers came from the poor farming class, while the accused witches primarily came from the merchant class. Judges told the accused to charge another to avoid death. However, in line with the Puritan church's teachings, they preferred that the convicted confessed their sins and promised never to practice witchcraft again. Therefore, rewarding false accusations became common in the justice system in Salem.

End of the Witch Trials:

Court Trial of WitchesCourt Trial of Witches. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Salem's witchcraft hysteria started dissipating around the fall of 1692 when townspeople questioned how so many respected people were guilty. The release of the remaining accused witches officially ended the witch trials. Unfortunately, many political and religious leaders refused to take responsibility and blamed others. Finally, Samuel Sewell, a judge, offered an apology based on his delusions and mistakes. Reverend Parris admitted to wrong judgment, and Thomas Green replaced him. In response, Green began the slow process of healing the emotionally raw and confused congregation.

Salem Witch Trial Facts

  • The witch trials occurred between 1692-1693 in colonial Massachusetts

  • Over 200 people were accused of witchcraft

  • A general court was created specifically for these trials

  • Judges allowed spectral evidence

  • Nineteen people were hanged on Gallows Hill

  • A 71-year-old man was pressed to death

  • In 1711 the colony passed a bill restoring the names of those accused and granting monetary compensation.

Salem Witch Trials Summary

Salem Village saw a mass witchcraft hysteria from 1692-1693 ignited by economic, political, and religious causes. The townspeople of Salem saw a deep economic downturn that was highlighted by food shortages and one of the harshest winters on record. The instability of Salem Village's church structure and politics coupled with hostility against Salem Town influenced the town's volatile environment. Salem Village struggled with criteria for church membership and agreeing on a minister. This religious strife only polarized the town into different factions. The lack of strong religious leadership and direction made the town a victim of naivety.

In 1692 witchcraft accusations began with Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, leading to the Salem witch trials. The girls initially accused Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba of witchcraft. These accusations initiated the proliferation of false accusations that would lead to the executions of twenty people. The accusers geographically favored Salem Village while the accused witches lived closer to Salem Town. Eventually, after almost 200 accusations, the Salem witch trials ended with the release of accused individuals and apologies from leaders.

Salem Witch Trials - Key takeaways

  • Europe had a witchcraft craze between the 1300s and 1600s with the phase ending roughly in 1650
  • Salem Massachusetts was separated into two distinct communities: Salem Town (held political power/merchant class/wealthy) and Salem Village (under town's political control/farming class/poor)
  • Hostilities between Salem Town and Salem Village grew due to the social stratification of the two communities
  • Salem dealt with a growing population and began altering church membership requirements (Half-Way Covenant) to gain new members
  • Three young girls began the witch accusations, and the witchcraft hysteria began a wave of false accusations
  • Most of the accused witches were from a higher social class (closer to Salem Town) while the accusers primarily lived closer to Salem Village
  • Twenty people were killed during the Salem Witch Trials, nineteen were hanged and one man pressed between two stones

Frequently Asked Questions about Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trials occurred between 1692 and 1693. 

The witch trials happened in Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts. 

The Salem witch trials began in Samuel Parris' home when young Betty Parris and Abigail Williams accused Tituba of witchcraft. 

Nineteen people died in the Salem witch trials. 

The Salem Witch Trials were caused by: social stratification in Salem, critical differences between Salem Town and Salem Village, economic downturn, and church politics. 

Final Salem Witch Trials Quiz

Question

What would an ordained minister have provided Salem Village?

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Answer

An ordained minister would have provided authority, clear direction, and stability for the community.

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Question

Name Salem’s Reverend at the time of the witch trials. 

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Answer

Samuel Parris 

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Question

What was the leading cause of Government instability in Salem? 


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Answer

The leading cause of government instability in Salem was the temporary suspension of the colony charter. This left the colony without a government for a short period. 

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Question

What was the main reason behind the deep factions in Salem Village?


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Answer

Arguments and beliefs about church organization and doctrine 

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Question

Name the two girls who gave the first witchcraft accusation.


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Answer

Betty Parris and Abigail Williams 

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Question

Who was the first person executed as a witch in 1692?


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Answer

Sarah Good

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Question

What initiated the proliferation of false accusations among the accused?


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Answer

Exacting judgment on other townspeople

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Question

What type of new evidence was admissible in court during the trials?


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Answer

Spectral Evidence

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Question

Who was elected Reverend after Samuel Parris? 


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Answer

Thomas Green 

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Question

The accusers originated from what social class within the community? 


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Answer

The accusers originated from prominent and economically stable families within the community.

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