From February 1692 to May 1693, the village of Salem saw the people overtaken by fear and superstition. These years saw the people give up reason and follow basic instincts of getting rid of danger—protecting themselves, without investigating properly. They were the victims of paranoia about the supernatural and a justice system that valued repentance over truth.
Witchcraft wasn’t something that was spoken of with wonder or excitement. It caused fear, and it ruined lives. It made good people do bad things.
Who Was A Witch?
A witch was someone who allegedly gained powers by obeying Satan instead of God. This definition was spread to all churches of Europe. Witches were mostly women as they were “easy” targets, but men could be witches too. They practiced many things as worshipping Satan and poisoning or bewitching people that Satan singled out for harm.
The puritans believed that the Devil wreaked havoc in the world through human agents, i.e., witches.
History Of Salem
Salem was settled in 1626 by Puritans, a group of English Protestants. The town had strict rules due to religious beliefs. They had fights with the native Americans and the French settlers. They feared starvation and disease, and the relations between the neighbors were strained.
1692 saw one of the coldest winters in Salem, which led to a greater cause of tension for the town, putting everyone on edge.
History Of The Witch Hunts
The first case of anyone being accused of witchcraft comes from a German town in 1593. Maria was arrested, and she kept refusing even after 62 rounds of torture over nine long years. She was then finally released.
Witch hunts took place in Europe and the American colonies. They were not a unified initiative by a single authority but more a phenomenon that spread across the lands.
In 1485, the Pope gave his permission to a theologist to run inquisitions in search of witches across the lands. They were not well received, and the people rejected it, but over the years, as more and more people wrote about witchcraft, it gained more traction.
A witch hunt often began with a misfortune. It was either a failed harvest, or a sick cow, or a stillborn child. Community members started blaming witchcraft and accusing each other of being witches. Usually, the marginalized section, like the poor, the social outcasts, or the old, were targeted. But anyone could be accused of witchcraft, even children. The youngest person to be accused of witchcraft was a four-year-old who was born and spent a few months in prison.
Those who were suspected of witchcraft were tortured till they confessed to their guilt.
The Witch Trial Of Salem
In 1692, two cousins of 9 and 11 years old started behaving very strangely. The doctor they were taken to could see nothing physically wrong with them but diagnosed the girls with being “under an evil hand.” The girls accused one of the village women of having caught them into her web of witchcraft, and the woman, on the word of two children, was convicted.
Soon many people were accused of witchcraft, to which they confessed and accused others of forcing them into it. Those who confessed were let go, and the ones who plead not guilty were tortured till they confessed or died. People soon started accusing others of witchcraft to save themselves.
The authorities told the accused that they would be hung if they do not confess and would be let free if they do confess. The punishments varied from a small fine to being burned at stake. They were not interested in having an inquiry or investigation, and evidence such as a child seeing something was considered. Keeping in with their Church’s teachings, the Puritans believed in confessing one’s sin and asking for forgiveness, promising not to engage in witchcraft anymore.
The trials were suspended by the Governor of Massachusetts when his own wife was accused.
Who Actually Were Witches?
Today after scientific research, we can say that these people suffered from hallucinations. The “bewitched” could eat the Ergot fungus, which is found in rye, wheat, and other cereal, which toxicologists say can cause delusion, vomiting, and muscle spasm.
The people who showed any physical effect of being a witch were probably sick and needed medical aid, which was not present in the 17th century. As the tales of witchcraft and witch hunts spread and the process of accusing someone became easier, everyone started accusing their neighbors they didn’t like or a beggar they didn’t want in the locality to be a witch.
The End Of Witch Trials
Throughout the trials, there were people who opposed the trials and saw how unfair they were. But these people were small in number, and the people, along with authorities, were riding the wave of catching all the witches. These people were scholars and thinkers and wrote books about the wrong of killing so many people.
With the governor making the rules for conviction stricter and not allowing the use of spectral evidence—meaning that the spirit of the accused was seen causing harm, under the influence of Satan—when his wife was accused, the arguments gained force. With a stronger central government and better legal norms, witch hunting disappeared altogether by 1800.
The State of Massachusetts formally apologized and exonerated all the accused of any crime. Day-long fasting was ordered to reflect on the tragedy—that was the murder of a large number of people all over Europe and a total of 20 people in Salem itself.
Human beings get scared. They make stories to make sense of the unexplainable. Anything they can not describe, they blame it on the supernatural, giving birth to superstitions. And superstitions lead to the cause of such horrors.