Twenty-four people died during the Salem witch trials.
Photograph by Timothy C. Greenleaf
A witch craze swept the small Puritan community of Salem Village, Massachusetts in 1692. It began when a group of girls gathered in the evenings in the home of Reverend Parris to listen to stories told by one of his slaves, Tituba. They also played fortune-telling games, which were strictly forbidden by the Puritans. One night, while trying to see the faces of their future husbands in an egg white dropped in a glass of water, one girl believed she saw the shape of a coffin.
Soon after, the girls began acting strangely, leading the Puritan community to suspect that the girls were victims of witchcraft. The girls named three townswomen, including Tituba, as the witches who were torturing them.
The three women were put on trial for practicing witchcraft. Tituba confessed to having seen the devil and also stated that there was a coven, or group, of witches in the Salem Village area. The other two women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne, insisted they were innocent. The court didn’t believe them, and found them guilty of practicing witchcraft.
As the weeks passed, the affected girls accused other townspeople of torturing them, and some on trial also named others as witches. Women were not the only ones believed to be witches—men and even some children were accused. By the end of the trials in 1693, 24 people had died, some in jail but most by hanging. Some of the accused had confessed as being witches, but none of them were hanged.
The Puritan way of life was very strict, and even small differences in behavior could make people suspicious. Religious leaders instilled a fear of the devil and preached that those who did not conform to the Puritan way of life would be used by the devil to carry out his wishes. No one is really sure why the witch craze spread the way it did, but it did bring lasting changes to the legal system and the way testimony and witnesses were treated, and the Salem Village hangings were the last executions of accused witches in America.
Text by Sara Zeglin
Timothy C. Greenleaf