In 1692, the people of Salem were in a quest to purge their community of anything that was considered remotely unholy. Lasting from the June to September of that year, numerous accusations of witchcraft and wizardry were leveled at people in a three county area around Salem. The end result of these trials was that 19 people were sentenced to death because of the accusations leveled against them. A 20th person was killed by stones because he refused to submit to a trial. It is often called one of the darkest moments of colonial America.
1. Many Were Accused
After awhile, the people of Massachusetts began to see witchcraft everywhere. Some may have even been using the accusation of witchcraft as a tool of vengeance against an enemy. In total, up to 200 people were eventually arrested because of the charge of witchcraft that was leveled against them. Many of those who stood accused were jailed for several months without a trial. Considering the fact that the death penalty was on the line, however, jail instead of a trial was probably a good option.
2. The Intelligence of a Dog
So great was the hysteria of 1692 that the people in the Salem area were looking to purge anything that was remotely associated to a witch or witchcraft. During the Salem witch trials, even two dogs were given the death penalty because they were believed to be working with local witches. This just proves that the loyalty and intelligence of a dog is sometimes greater than the loyalty and intelligence of their human masters.
3. Don’t Be a Familiar
One of the greatest tragedies of the Salem Witch Trials was the concept of the familiars. This was the name that was given to the evil spirits that were supposedly floating around the witches while they practiced their dark arts. These spirits could inhabit any human or any creature. That’s why the two dogs were killed, along with numerous frogs, mice, geese, and cats. The goal was to purge the evil the spirit. If a spirit is independent of physical form, however, how would kill a physical body harm a spiritual being?
4. Define Evil, Please
The Puritans were brought into the Salem witch trials because of their reputation for practicing purity. This group was especially opposed to anything that was not modest, proper, and traditional to their faith. Forget about premarital sex or showing some ankle. If you even thought about such things, you were not following the simplicity and austerity that was demanded of you as a Puritan. Who better to deal with the “sexual abominations” that come with the practice of witchcraft in 1692?
5. An English Belief
We often look at the hysteria of the people in Massachusetts as a place for blame, but the quest to expose witches goes back more than 100 years before the events of the Salem witch trials. In 1562, England passed what was known as the “Witchcraft Act.” It made any practice remotely associated with witchcraft illegal. Books were published to describe what acts of witchcraft looked like so the general public could recognize them. By 1644, the English government even had an official position called a “Witchfinder General.”
6. It Was More About Religion
When push came to shove, the Salem witch trials were less about witchcraft and more about the state of Christianity. People were being sentenced to death because of heresy, which meant that they were showing a outward denial of the demanded Christian beliefs of the time. It was a crime so heinous that colonial law allowed all other laws to be superseded to deal with the threat. In modern terms, Salem declared martial law to deal with religious heresy.
7. Blame the Smallpox
One of the biggest problems that helped to cause the Salem witch trials was the existence of a smallpox outbreak. Before vaccinations were made available against the disease, up to 3 in 10 people would die from a smallpox infection. Children were especially vulnerable to the disease and it was spreading to epidemic proportion in the 2-3 years before the trials. People at the time didn’t understand the science behind the disease, so they naturally looked to supernatural causes to explain the problems. Having an angry witch killing your children made sense.
8. The Enemy of My Enemy
Some of the attitudes in the Salem witch trials are still seen today. One of the most popular points of view was that if you were against the trials, then you were, in fact, an advocate for the witches. This obviously meant that you must also be a witch. These extremes are also seen today as people take one side on an issue and anyone who disagrees becomes the enemy. This is proof that history does indeed repeat itself.
9. We Can’t Forget About Slavery
Betty Parris was a good preacher’s kid. Her father had just been appointed as the new minister for Salem, but a mysterious illness took hold of her after moving. She would have violent thrashing fits, hide under the furniture, often contort her body in pain. The local doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with her, so blamed supernatural origins for her illness. When the population demanded an explanation for Betty’s illness, her mother didn’t know what to do. She decided to blame her slave. The rest is history.
10. Don’t Have Freckles
One of the ways that people looked to prove that someone was a witch was to find moles or freckles on the body. This was the place that the animal familiars would feed so that the evil spirits could be maintained. People accused of witchcraft would be stripped and their skin searched for any blemishes. If there were any, even if they had always been there, then that person would be considered a witch. Because of this, many people who were being accused of witchcraft were simply admitting to it since a confession would typically help them avoid the death penalty.
11. Stopped By the Governor
The Salem witch trials would have probably gone on indefinitely if it were for the actions of Governor Phips. He declared that the trials must stop because there was too great a possibility that innocent people were being put to death.
Many people associated the punishment of witchcraft as being burned at the stake, but this never happened in Salem. People were either hung from the gallows or stoned to death. Considering one of the accusations made was that witches were “pinching people in their sleep,” the consequence of death for such actions seems a bit extreme.
Every woman who confessed to witchcraft lived. Every woman who denied being a witch was hanged. That is, perhaps, the most interesting fact of all from the Salem witch trials.