CW: witches, death
The Crucible, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Vampire Diaries, American Horror Story season three, at least a dozen documentaries and horror movies, an abundant amount of historical books, even video games are obsessed with one topic: the Salem witch trials.
Until this year, I didn’t know as much as I would have liked to about the Salem Witch Trials. I didn’t realize how short the period in which the trials took place was or how they were fueled by repression. And now, having done the research and started The Crucible in class, I find there is so much to know about them outside this media, and I find it even more unsettling than witchy horror.
Fair warning, much of this article will be American-centric because the Puritan community that perpetuated these trials was so important to founding America.
The Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials began in the spring of 1692 when a group of girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts believed they were afflicted accused local women of witchcraft. That’s right, young girls started this.
Many of the girls that led the accusing, including Elizabeth Hubbard, were sent to America without their families and spent years paying off their life in America with servitude. While it is unclear why they decided that they were being tormented by these women, American historian Carol Karlsen suggests in her book, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, that these girls who did not have assets of their own and no dowry to find a husband with were using witchcraft to attract attention to their issues.
They often used spectral evidence, which was what they called dreams and visions about women practicing witchcraft. Spectral evidence was grounds for a conviction. The girls would behave oddly and convulse and temporarily lose their sight, symptoms that have been also been attributed to fungi poisoning even though the reason (whether attention, poison, or some other) cannot be known.
The First Accused — January 1692
The first accused were Abigal Williams and Betty Parris, ages 11 and 9, who began behaving like the afflicted, all creepy and writhing. The local doctor, William Griggs, blamed it on the Devil. After that, other girls in the community began miraculously exhibiting the same terrifying symptoms, leading to the eventual allegations against a Caribbean slave, Tituba, the homeless Sarah Good, and the poor, old, Sarah Osborne who was also suspected of having an affair with a servant.
These women were accused of bewitching the young symptomatic girls and tried in front of their accusers, all of whom fell into spams of screaming and unnatural contorting during the trials.
How Accusations Worked
For most of that terrible year, the acquisition system worked as such: the accused either admitted to being a witch and was set free to repent in front of God, or the accused denied the charges and was hanged. Many men, women, and children were blamed and over 200 were arrested. Exactly 20 were executed. Some, however, did die in prison as well.
Tituba confessed to save herself and blamed both Sarahs for pressuring her and that became the cycle. Those who confessed lied and blamed others to get back into the Church’s good graces.
In May 1692, the new governor, William Phips created courts for these trials, known as the Court of Oyer and Terminator, which lasted until early 1693 (roughly a year). They ended because the president of Harvard College, Increase Mather, brought the reliability of spectral evidence into question, and accusations and hysteria waned shortly after.
I do want to bring light to one part of the accusations that I find interesting: many of the later witches hung were respected members of the Church community. Can you imagine devoting your life to God, leaving your home, settling in unforgiving harsh America to worship Him in peace — only to be accused of being unholy?
Everything some of these settlers accused did was in the name of God, and I cannot stress how terrible it would be for these religious women (and a few men) to be tortured into admitting or being hung for something they hated and most definitely were not.
The witch trials and the idea of difference being an indicator of the devil (all three of the first accused were slight outcasts) stems from the Puritans. The Puritans were an extremely religious protestant group who fled Roman-Catholic-run England to establish their religion as law in America. The defining characteristics of their society were that they did nothing that was not intending to serve God and that individual expression was discouraged if it did not benefit the community. This created a repressed society.
All this being said, the Salem Witch Trials were driven by mass hysteria, came from an upsurge of panic and a rush to bring out long-hidden feuds, which bring me to the final part of this truly complicated year: the politics of the devil.
Power in the Salem Witch Trials
Widely explored in The Crucible (with a few historical tweaks) are the Putnams and Porters, rival families who perpetuate the trials. It shows men grappling for power in their communities and the evil that comes with such. Thomas Putman, the father of the afflicted Ann Putnam Jr., testified against 43 suspected witches. The rivalry of both affluent and politically divided families heightened with the arrival of Reverend Samuel Parris back in 1689.
This division in orthodox, God-fearing Puritan families quickly scapegoated those not well-off. It made it easy to accuse a slave or a beggar of afflicting their children.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible -- 1953
The Crucible was a play written in response to the Red Scare and McCarthyism post WW2 where American citizens and the government were worried about communists taking over America. They would suspect everyone around them of being Communists and would blindly and fearfully accuse each other. Joseph McCarthy brought hundreds of government officials into question.
Arthur Miller wrote this play, which is a slightly altered account of the Salem Witch Trials, as an allegory for the world he was living in. This play popularized the trials and made Salem, Massachusetts the tourist destination it is.
He dramatized it a lot, though. For example, one of the first accusers, Abigail Williams, a girl of eleven, was depicted as a spiteful 16-year-old who had an affair with a married man and accused his wife to get her out of the way. Understanding this is an indication of how much drama there will be in future retellings as well.
I also personally think the (well-deserved) popularity of The Crucible casts the trials as less religious and more hateful than they probably were, but that’s neither here nor there. The Crucible does a wonderful job of explaining the price that came with keeping Salem a stable theocracy and its people religiously pure, depicting the masses taking the first chance they got to be vindictive and religiously renowned.
I cannot stress enough that every subtopic here and every figure mentioned deserves its own article. That said, I have done my best to explain history in one, and hope this helped clear up exactly what these trials were.
Stay tuned for an article explaining why they are featured in American pop culture so much and the implications of them on the values of both American society, and that on anywhere else American media is viewed.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.