The Salem witch trials only lasted for a year.
During that year, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the witch trials started in 1692, but before that, Europe went through a witch craze of its own.
Witch panics in early modern Europe
In the 1300s through the 1600s, several regions in Europe had witch trials. These witch panics were often deadly and fueled by manuals like Heinrich Kramer’s “Malleus Malleficarum” (translated as “Hammer of Witches”), which gave theological justifications for witch trials.
Accusations of witchcraft in early modern Europe could be deadly. Berkeley Law asserted that developments in laws about heresy and defining witchcraft as a heresy (along with shifting ideas about what constituted magic and witchcraft) led many societies to consider witchcraft a heretical crime. If convicted, the punishment was often death.
Brian Levack wrote in “The Witch Hunt in Early-Modern Europe” that the decriminalization of witchcraft occurred simultaneously as philosophical and religious skepticism increased, the economy developed and superstitious belief became associated with people of lower economic class. The witch panics in early modern Europe followed (and somewhat coincided with) the Black Death or bubonic plague, the most fatal pandemic to ever occur in recorded history.
The bubonic plague wreaked havoc all across Europe, leaving it in an unstable place. Along with the destabilization of Europe, anti-Semitism, which was already prevalent, rose as Jewish communities were blamed for the bubonic plague. According to the University of Notre Dame, witches were also blamed for the plague. Witchcraft accusations developed alongside anti-Semitism. These accusations were often similarly focused on deals with the devil.
“Malleus Maleficarum” operated on the assumption that a witch was a person, assumed a woman in the manual, who was actively working with Satan. Women who delivered stillborn babies were often considered witches within the context of this manual — a dangerous idea for societies that regularly dealt with miscarriage and infant loss.
Accusations of witchcraft, practically speaking, both coincided and departed from the manual in that they typically had more to do with legal standing, economic status, race, religion and often gender.
Salem witch trials
While witch trials in early modern Europe were on the decline in the 1600s, New England experienced witch panics during that time — specifically, two significant trials. The first New England witch trial began in 1647: the Connecticut witch trials.
The Salem witch trials, which took place in Salem, Massachusetts, began during the tail end of the Connecticut witch trials. In 1692, accusations of witchcraft began flying around Salem Village.
The first known accusations came from Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. Both girls — who were 9 years old and 11 years old, respectively — accused an enslaved woman named Tituba of bewitching them after they began displaying strange symptoms, according to History.com. Tituba was enslaved by Samuel Parris, forced to go from Barbados to colonial New England. Some historians believe that Tituba’s race and status in society were a reason why Betty and Abigail accused her of witchcraft.
Betty and Abigail then accused two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, of witchcraft as well. Arthur Miller drew on these early accusations to write his play “The Crucible” in 1953, using the Salem witch trials to comment on McCarthyism.
These early accusations in conjunction with Cotton Mather and Increase Mather’s influential writings about the “afflictions” of the Goodwin children and theological responses to witchcraft launched the Salem witch trials in New England.
Soon, Salem Village launched into panic and several accusations were made. In March 1692, 4-year-old Dorothy Good — the daughter of Sarah Good, who was accused of witchcraft by Betty Parris and Abigail Williams — was accused also of witchcraft: “when this Child, did but cast its eye upon the afflicted persons, they were tormented, and they held her Head, and yet so many as her eye could fix upon were afflicted.” Dorothy was later jailed.
According to Historic Ipswich, Dorothy was jailed for several months until her father, William Good, was able to afford her bail. Sarah Good was hanged after she gave birth in jail to an infant named Mercy. The infant died as well.
John Demos detailed in “Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England” how other women were accused, like Martha Corey, who had been accused by Anne Putnam, and Bridget Bishop. Even though Bishop maintained her innocence, she was still executed. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Cotton Mather had begged the court to not use spectral evidence. Spectral evidence was any testimony about visions or dreams, which was often used during these trials. The court refused and continued to use such evidence.
According to History of Massachusetts, the year would see more than 200 accusations of witchcraft, around 140 to 150 people arrested for witchcraft and several executed or several who died in prison. Gov. William Phips put an end to the Salem Witch trials in March 1693, but by that point, several had died or been executed.
Three centuries later, Massachusetts has officially pardoned all who were wrongfully convicted during the trials. According to The Guardian, the last to be exonerated was Elizabeth Johnson, Jr. Although Johnson had submitted an exoneration request in 1712, it wasn’t until March 2022 that she was finally pardoned.
NPR reported that Salem has memorialized the 19 who were hung, the five who died in prison and the one who was stoned during the trials.