What Were the Salem Witch Trials?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Salem Witch Trials happened in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. 20 men and women were condemned to death during the trials, and a number of others underwent jail terms and separation from their families. These trials are often cited as an event of mass hysteria. Some historians suggest that there may have been political motives behind the trials, which also involved the transfer of a substantial amount of land and power.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The Salem Witch Trials began in February of 1692, when several adult members of Salem Village accused three women of witchcraft. The women were Tituba, who served in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris, along with Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. The women were accused of causing illness in several children of the village, and they were sent to prison in Boston after being examined. The whole story might have ended here, as many accusations of witchcraft in the colonies did, but Salem Village was caught up in a witch hunting fever which continued unabated for over a year.

The initially accused women were relatively low in standing in Salem Village, and some historians have suggested that their accusations may have been designed to rid the village of a nuisance. However, the next two women accused, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey, were well respected in Salem Village, with gainfully employed husbands and high social status. At the same time, the circle of accusers was widening to include two young women, Abigail Williams and Mercy Lewis.

Accusations began flying thick and fast in April and May, with the first hanging in the Salem Witch Trials occurring on 10 June 1692, when Bridget Bishop was sentenced to death for appearing in spectral form to several members of the community. The trials began to attract wider attention, with prominent figures of the day including Cotton and Increase Mather weighing in on the trials. Shortly after the hanging of Bridget Bishop, 12 Massachusetts ministers, including Cotton Mather, urged Salem Village to refrain from the use of spectral evidence in convictions.

In July, several people awaiting trial appealed for a change of venue, fearing that they could not get a fair trial in Salem Village. The Salem Witch Trials continued, with several individuals being sentenced to death. In September, one of the more gruesome scenes of the event took place, with Giles Corey was crushed to death because he refused to confess. During a jail visit, Increase Mather determined that many of those who had previously confessed wished to recant, raising questions about the legitimacy of prior convictions and confessions.

It was not until May 1693 that Governor Phips put a stop to the Salem Witch Trials, after they had torn the community apart and taken the lives of 20 people who were likely innocent. Historians have been debating the cause of the trials ever since, with the assistance of well archived trial material. Several theories have been posited for the trials, including the contamination of rye bread with ergot, a plea for attention on the part of the young women involved, or a calculated political move by Samuel Parris and the Putnams, who played a prominent role in the trials.

Under colonial law, the property of a convicted witch was ripe for the taking, and many historians have remarked on the interesting parallel between social status and conviction, with several holders of substantial plots of land being convicted and sentenced to death. The Salem Witch Trials are often pointed to as a particularly dark period in American history, when otherwise compassionate individuals turned on their friends and neighbors. The phrase witch hunt has also come to be associated in the American vernacular with a particularly vicious attack using faulty evidence.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What really annoys me is that no one thought that the girls were lying. Well, I mean spoke up about it. I can understand that they were scared but if you have enough people...


I think it's extremely strange that it ended like the way it did!


It stopped because the Gov. Phips's wife was accused. He then changed the court, which then did not accept spectral evidence.


Here's the thing, they started realizing that just because someone could do something that others couldn't didn't mean they were possessed, and after truly possessed people showed up they used the "witches" and priests to do exorcisms.


I was wondering why the salem witch trials ceased almost as suddenly as they began? Why was this?

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