Over the summer of 1692, members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony became caught up in a frenzy of superstition and scapegoating. From June through September, they sent 19 fellow residents to Gallows Hill for hanging. They pressed another man to death with heavy stones. Others died in prison or languished there for months. The victims had all been convicted of practicing witchcraft.
The hysteria began when pre-teen girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, began behaving oddly. Nine-year-old Betty Parris seemed to become ill. She complained of fever, contorted as if in pain, dashed about strangely and dove beneath furniture. Her eleven- year-old cousin Abigail Williams exhibited similar strange behavior. Physicians could not offer a physical explanation. Although many explanations for their symptoms come to mind today, in Puritan Massachusetts just one theory gained backing: the girls were victims of witchcraft.
A man named Mather had recently published a book that described a Boston washerwoman who supposedly practiced witchcraft. The people of Salem Village identified similarities between the supposedly afflicted people in Boston and their own town’s young cousins. Before long, more local girls were exhibiting strange behavior that reminded people of trances and epileptic fits.
In a frantic search for witches, the townspeople first targeted women from the edge of their community. For example, the accused Sarah Good was especially poor and sometimes begged for food and shelter. Sarah Osburne had scandalously married her indentured servant and attended church infrequently. And an enslaved woman named Tituba, whom various accounts describe as African or Native American, was also an easy target. The three women were brought before local magistrates on charges on witchcraft. After a few days of interrogation, they were sent to jail.
The month of March continued with accusations of witchcraft spreading to other towns. Now upstanding members of society were accused too. Martha Corey, for example, had been a respected member of her church. Her being accused didn’t cast doubt on the escalating frenzy; it only confirmed that the Devil had permeated the heart of Salem Village.
Once a person was accused of witchcraft, magistrates would have him or her arrested and interrogated. The accused was generally considered guilty until proven innocent, and the magistrates pressed the accused to confess. Next, witnesses were assembled and a grand jury convened. Defendants then went to trial and could be swiftly executed; the first person hanged was tavern owner Bridget Bishop, who was indicted, tried, and killed in June of 1692.
In modern times, many explanations have been put forth for the adolescent girls’ strange behavior. It’s possible that the pre-teens, who were living in a repressive religious society, wanted more attention or were simply bored. Their behavior might also have had a physical origin such as bird-borne encephalitis, or even tainted rye. A type of rye fungus capable of developing in the Salem area is now known to cause violent fits, vomiting, hallucinations, and other physical problems. In fact, the hallucinogenic drug LSD is derived from this source.
Regardless of the causes underlying the girls’ behavior, adults in their community had various motivations to lash out against neighbors. First, the Puritan’s had just lost their colonial charter. The future of their New World sanctuary was being seriously called into question, so people were on edge. Second, land was becoming scarce. The first generation of colonists would not have enough farmland to support growing children’s new families. In this context, it isn’t surprising that widowed female landholders were targeted more than others. Third, the townspeople were already splintering socially. Merchants and farmers were becoming increasingly distinct classes, and some historians have noted that accusations of witchcraft reflected this class divide: accusers tended to be members of the agricultural sector, and the accused were members of the rising class.
By September of 1692, town leadership had grown wary of the witch hunt. One of the judges, Samuel Sewall, publicly apologized for his participation in the hysteria. Several former jurors also came forward to say that they’d been mistaken in their judgments. Families of the condemned were given financial compensation. With public confidence in the trials falling, the cries of the supposedly afflicted were increasingly ignored. Accusations of witchcraft eventually stopped. In 1693, people awaiting trial in prison were acquitted or gratefully received reprieves.