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Salem Witch Trials: A women protests as one of her accusers, a young girl, appears to have convulsions.

The weird history of the Salem witch trials


Undoubtedly the most infamous witch trials in the world, the Salem witch trials have captivated minds and fuelled discussions for centuries. Sparked by a mysterious illness that afflicted young girls living in Salem, the trials quickly grew out of control, and before long, over 200 individuals had been named and tried for witchcraft.

How did the Salem witch trials start?

On a cool crisp January morning in 1692, the unthinkable happened for one family in the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts. Town minister Samuel Parris watched on in horror as his daughter, Betty (9), and her cousin, Abigail (11), came down with violent fits of rage that contorted their bodies and caused uncontrollable screaming. Following an assessment from the town doctor, Parris received the heartbreaking diagnosis: the girls had been bewitched and were being possessed by the devil himself.

It didn’t take long for the fever to take grip, and it seemingly burned its way through the community. Six more girls came down with the sickness throughout the following months, and each of the girls had a similar story; the culprits for their possession were three local women who had made a pact with the devil.

By the end of February, arrest warrants had been issued, and the three women were brought forth to stand trial, but no one could have predicted what came next.

Who were the witches of Salem?

Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba were the first three women accused. All of them were already considered social outcasts in some way which made any accusations laid against them easier to believe.

Sarah Osborn hadn’t attended church for over three years at the time of her accusation and was in a legal battle with the family of one of her accusers. Meanwhile, Sarah Good was a pregnant beggar who often went door to door asking for help while her husband worked as a labourer. Tituba, who was the first to be accused, was the Parris family slave and was likely accused based on nothing more than her Caribbean background.

On 1st March 1692, the trials of all three women began. They were brought before the magistrates and forced to defend themselves without representation. Worse still, their accusers were in the courtroom with them and would continue to act possessed by flinching and screaming as if the accused were using magic to hurt them.

After days of interrogation, the women were sent to jail, and while Osborn and Good both protested their innocence, Tituba quickly confessed to having made a pact with the devil. However, while Tituba’s confession was likely an attempt to escape any further persecution or torture, she was encouraged to name her conspirators. She became an informer for the magistrates, naming others from Salem and its surrounding towns as her co-conspirators.

Why were there so many witches in Salem?

Throughout March, more women were accused, including Martha Corey, who had vocally expressed scepticism of the validity of the girls' claims and questioned their credibility. As more were accused of witchcraft, they were encouraged to implicate others through their confession with the hopes that by repenting their sins, they would receive forgiveness. By the end of the 14-month trials, over 50 people had implicated others to escape further persecution.

In total, more than 200 people had been accused of witchcraft, with the youngest being just four years old. 30 people were found guilty, and 19 were sentenced to hang, with many more dying while awaiting trial or during the torturous trials themselves.

What methods did they use during the Salem witch trials?

Unlike a criminal trial today, where the accused are considered innocent until proven guilty, in the late 1600s, it was the other way around. Human rights laws didn’t exist to protect those accused, and it was up to the magistrates to decide what could be considered evidence. Worse still was the use of spectral evidence, where the accused could be judged based on their actions in the dreams of an accuser.

Salem was a puritan town, which meant that a lot of its laws and legal procedures were influenced heavily by the Bible. As it was a sin to give a false confession, any accusations or confessions (even though most were extracted through torture) were considered damning evidence in a court of law. For many of the accused, however, giving a false confession would save them from a far worse fate.

Giles Corey, an 81-year-old farmer, had entered an innocent plea and refused to confess and implicate others. He opted instead to remain mute throughout his trial. To obtain a confession from him, the magistrates ordered that he be pressed (have large rocks piled on top of him) until he confessed. Despite an increasingly heavy load, Corey refused to enter a guilty plea and, over two days was crushed slowly to death under an increasing weight. It’s no surprise, then, that so many confessed and pointed the finger of blame at their friends and neighbours.

How did the Salem witch trials end?

Growingly increasingly unhappy with how the trials were progressing, possibly because his own wife was being questioned, Governor William Phips (one of the key players responsible for establishing them) disbanded the courts that oversaw the Salem witch trials. By late October 1692, public interest in the Salem trials had dropped massively, and with infamous witch hunter Cotton Mather warning of the validity of spectral evidence, the witchcraft fever that had gripped Salem was finally broken.

Accusations quickly diminished, and the court cleared the remaining trials. By January 1693, any of those who remained in jail under suspicion of witchcraft were pardoned and released.

What was the aftermath of the Salem witch trials?

While accusers like Ann Putnam publicly apologised, showing guilt and accepting error for their part in the trials, there was very little remorse shown by the courts for their methods used. Often blaming the devil and using their religious belief to justify their actions, there was little to no recourse for the Salem witch trials and no justice for the victims.

It didn’t take long for opinions on the witch trial to turn, however, and in 1702, just ten years after the trials began, they were declared unlawful by the Massachusetts general court. In 1711, a bill was passed to restore the names and rights of those accused, and £600 was given as restitution to their heirs.