From June to September 1692, 19 people were hanged at Gallows Hall, a barren slope on the outskirts of Salem, Massachusetts, after having been found guilty of practicing witchcraft. The Salem witch hunts may have become the preserve of occult historians and researchers, but its genesis was not solely based on a paranoid form of puritanism, as has been widely believed.
The Salem of the 17th century was divided into two parts: a significant farming community and a fledgling township growing with the harbor trade. The farming community was close-knit and believed that they were distinct from the bustling township, which seemingly differed from their spartan lifestyle and staunch puritan ways. These beliefs helped sow the seeds for the prejudice that was evident as the witch hunts unfolded.
At the time of witch hunts, the Putnams were one of the largest families in the village and leaders of the ‘separatist’ movement, which sought to keep the farming community distinct. The family formed a separate congregation under Reverend Samuel Parris. The Reverend’s family included a young daughter, Betty, a niece, Abigail Williams, and an orphaned Native American slave girl, Tituba. The Reverend and his wife visited their parish often, leaving the girls alone. The girls took to reading and discussing Tituba’s tribal practices including magic spells and fortune telling, and experimenting with them. This secretive group soon grew to include a number of women.
After a while, the Reverend’s daughter, Betty, began to fall ill, screaming, contorting her body and throwing things around. While modern medicine would attribute these symptoms to epilepsy, psychosis, stress and even acute boredom, the local doctor, William Griggs, declared that a witch had afflicted Betty. News spread in the community that Betty and the other girls, who had also fallen sick, were guilt-ridden and Grigg’s ‘diagnosis’ gained traction. And so began the infamous Salem witch trials.
In June 1692, a special court was established to look into cases of witchcraft even as the issue left the village divided into those who believed in witches and those who did not. The court was known to accept spectral evidence, based on the dreams and visions of the girls. Proceedings commenced on the premise that the accused were witches. As the trials progressed, the profiles of the accused changed from women of a lower status to the affluent, while the accusers were mostly from the farming community.
Finally, the educated and the elite decided to step in and end the mass hysteria. They approached Governor William Phips, who constituted a new court that excluded spectral evidence and sought to rely on facts and tangible evidence. All those in jail or awaiting trial were pardoned and the relatives of the accused were offered compensation as the witch hunts ended.
The Salem witch trials, which were not the last in the US, were a result of a number of factors—religious hysteria, political intrigue, family rivalry and economic issues—that were manipulated, resulting in tragic consequences.