The Salem Witch trials were a series of hearings in the Counties and these hearings were carried out with the aim of prosecuting people who were accused of engaging in witchcraft. Although they were known as the Salem trials, they were carried across different provinces in the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Middlesex. Most people believed in witches and there were probably practicing witches in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. Witches have existed in Salem and Andover since 1692 until today. There were 58 cases of witchcraft in the England colonies from 1645 to 1662 (Buckland, 2002). The trials led to more than 200 people who were accused of practicing witchcraft being imprisoned with twenty of them being executed. It was only later that the colony admitted that the trials were a mistake and compensated families of victims of the trials.
The size in the Salem witchcraft trials differed greatly and that is what made them famous. Several centuries ago, majority of practicing Christians, and those of other religions strongly believed that the Devil could give certain people power to harm others in exchange for their loyalty and they were referred to as witches. Europe witnessed a witchcraft craze form the 13th to the 16th centuries with the Salem trials being the most notable (Boyer & Wissenbaum, 1993). These trials were carried out and led to the imprisonment of more than two hundred suspected witches with 20 of them being hanged (P. 122). Among the hundreds of thousands of people executed for supposedly being witches most of them were mostly women.
After the trials ended, and the families of those convicted compensated, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake. The trials continue to captivate people’s imagination more than 300 hundred years after they happened and they have come to represent a perfect case of injustice and paranoia. The activities that happened and the events witnessed in Salem during the trials depicts mass hysteria at its highest level and they continue to serve as reference in current political and popular literature discourse to point out the dangers that can occur as a result of isolation, accusations that are false, lack of due process, infringement of individual liberties by the local government and religious extremism (Sutter, 2003). According to American history classes, Salem Village outside Boston was settled in l629 by a Puritan religious group who came to America from England and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They did this to escape religious persecution. A few years later in 1641 witchcraft was made a capital crime in England. A crime that was punishable by hanging. The English colonies in America were not spared from this declaration as they were subject to those same laws. Anyone convicted of practicing witchcraft was taken to the gallows and hang (Sypniewska, 2005)
The first incident involving witchcraft was in the Goodwin family of Massachusetts Bay, and the Puritan Minister Cotton Mathew who was a very prominent leader in his day. A 13-year old had an argument with an Irish laundry woman, Goody Glover, who worked in the Goodwin household, after which she started experiencing behavioral activities that bordered on the bizarre. After a few days, her younger brother and two sisters started experiencing the same behavior. The woman was accused of being a witch and was tried out of suspicion of casting a spell on the Goodwin children. Reverend Cotton Mather met Glover twice trying to persuade her to repent her witchcraft. She strongly denied she is a witch or that she had cast a spell on the Glover children Buckland, 2002). Nevertheless, Glover was tried and convicted of witchcraft in the American colony after which she was hanged for engaging in witchcraft activities.
The beginning of the witchcraft craze in Salem Village, Massachusetts was in January 1692 when a group of young girls began showing bizarre behavior (Langley, 2003). The behaviors were unexplainable to the people and the physicians called to examine the girls could not find natural causes for them. Some of the bizarre behaviors exhibited by the girls included screaming blasphemous words, having compulsive seizures and getting into trace-like states (Sypniewska, 2005). If a physical problem was the cause a person’s affliction, the community then concluded that Satan was working in the community and the bizarre happenings were attributed to him. Thus according to the community members, they concluded that their county had been invaded by people who were engaging in witchcraft activities. As a result of these community members started organizing prayer sessions and others fasted with the aim freeing the community from satanic influences.
The young girls who exhibited strange behavior pointed their fingers to three women called Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne who were brought before the county magistrates.
Many of the residents of Salem attended the trials and this forced the examinations to be moved to the meeting house. During their interrogation, the young girls described the attacks they believed were planned by the three women. They claimed that they sometimes fell into their bizarre behavior in the presence of one of the suspects. The trials of the suspects were biased from the start since the magistrates asked the accused questions which pointed to the fact that the magistrates assumed that the suspects were already guilty of the charges. Thus, considering the style and form of the questions, it was obvious that the magistrates had preconceived thoughts that the women were guilty even before the trials had concluded. (Synpniewski, 2005).
In spite the two women pleading innocent, all three of them were put in jail. Special courts were also established in the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Middlesex to hear and decide cases related to witchcraft activities. After completion of these courts, the first case to come forward was Bridget Bishop, an older woman who was known for being gossipy and promiscuous. She pleaded innocent of witchcraft saying, "I am as innocent as the child unborn." She was however found guilty despite her defense, she was hanged and therefore becoming the first person to be killed as a result of the trials (Langley, 2003). The evidence against them was spectral and unconvincing. The son of the then famed minister and Harvard president, Cotton Mather finally spoke out against spectral evidence. He felt that this evidence was unreliable because according to him, “the Devil could take the form of an innocent person and carry out evil activities” (Sutter, 2003). This was taken into consideration as the Royal Governor William Phips established the special courts.
The three women previously accused as colluding with the devil accused Martha Corey, who was a highly reputed member of the local puritan church. Therefore, her revelation as a witch demonstrated that Satan's influence had penetrated to the very core of the community.
Major events occurred including a number of people being accused of witchcraft, tried and many of them jailed while the others were condemned to death. The hangings of the witches began in June through September with the death of Bridget Bishop. As winter approached, criticism grew of the whole procedure of trying suspected people engaging in witchcraft and towards the end of the year, the local court formed to inquire into the accusations were dissolved by the colonial governor. This led to the convictions and condemnations for witchery finally coming to a halt. During the witch-hunt nineteen of the victims had so far been killed through hanging with one being stoned to death and 4 died while under incarceration as they waited to be tried.
The Trial’s Aftermath
The aftermath of the Salem witch trials was very severe. Many of the victims in jail were unable to pay for their release even with the trials over. According to the law, costs incurred in while jailed were to be borne by the prisoners and these included food and accommodation.
They stayed in jail and were not freed unless they or someone else could pay for these expenses. Additionally, the government confiscated the properties of those who were incarcerated. Their families were left without money and, in some cases, a home (Buckland, 2002).
The land and structures did not escape the effects of the trials either. During the trials, many of the residents attended leaving their houses and fields untended, and the planting season was interrupted. None of the planted fields was cultivated or harvested. In addition, the Salem Meetinghouse was left decrepit due to the distraction of the trials. The Puritans felt that the crop failure and epidemics that bothered them for years was God’s punishment for the injustices done to innocent people killed for falsely being accused of witchcraft. They then organized a day of fasting and prayer for forgiveness that was ordered for January 13, 1697 (Sutter, 2003).
It did not matter if the witchcraft was “black” or “white” magic, they were both considered a capital crime, even if no harm came from it. It was a secular heresy (Boyer & Nissenbaum, 1993). Colonial law was based on the Biblical injunction not to let a witch live. If the law had been followed every person convicted of being a witch would have been executed.
The whole event was a senseless irrational justice system based on three little girls who did not know what they were doing. After a ruthless punishment of hangings, the government realized their mistake and apologized to the families of the accused. The families of the victims were compensated and a day was instituted for people to fast and also remember the events. Clearly, the men and women convicted as witches in Salem were innocent ‐ of witchcraft, at least. With the harsh punishment that the accused underwent, no one used the word witch openly. Today witchcraft accusations are considered slander and could easily end up in court. Current society can draw lessons from the Salem witch trials, especially of the issue of condemning the innocent without sufficient facts or evidence. It is apparent that the trials were based on rumors, ignorance and hysteria.
Buckland, R (2002). The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and
Neo-paganism. Chicago: McGraw Hill. .
Boyer, P and Nissenbaum, S (1993). Salem Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local
Conflict in Colonial New England. New York: Bantam Books
Langley, M (2003). The Salem Witchcraft Trials. Junior Scholastic. Vol. 106 Issue 2, pp 14-17.
Sypniewska, M (2005). The Salem Witch Trials. Retrieved from
Sutter, T (2003). Salem Witchcraft: The Events and Causes of the Salem Witch Trials. Retrieved