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The Salem Witchhunts: A History of Witches, Trials, and Witch Hunts!

Updated on February 28, 2018
angela_michelle profile image

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past or else be destined to repeat it.


Although the Salem Witch Trials had many of the same triggers as the European witch hunts, there were some notable differences caused by Salem's unique history. One of the most notable differences is that the Salem witch trials started long after most of the European witch trials ended. Salem Witch Trials also lasted for a very short time in comparison, but more people in comparison to the population were killed than in many of the areas where witch hunts occurred. The first accusation was on January 1692 and lasted until May 1693. The death count is unknown for sure. The most obvious difference between the witch trials was that the Salem witch trials occurred in America: to be more specific in Salem Village, Massachusetts.


How It Began

Salem witchhunts began with two young girls Betty and Abigail. Betty was nine and the Reverend Samuel Parris's daughter. Abigail was his niece and two years older than Betty. They unexpectedly began acting very strangely by twisting their bodies in strange positions and screaming. They would also cover their ears and scream during prayer, acting as if the prayers were literally harming them.

The Reverend became very concerned and began praying for the two girls, and requested that a doctor come and examine them. The doctor played an integral part in these witch hunts, because he was the first to claim that the reason for the bizarre behavior was because they were inflicted by witchcraft. This spread fear among the community.

Why Did They Believe the Outlandish Accusations?

To understand why this community would believe such a bizarre accusation, you must first realize several things about their community. First they were originally European settlers, who found a home in the new world. So they had just come from a society that feared witchcraft. The other part you must realize is how the community was set up.

There were actually two parts of Salem, the village and the town. The village consisted of 500 people. One of those who lived in the village was the minister (Samuel Parris), so that he could live close to the meeting house.


Heightened Emotional State

The town on the other hand were a poor farm community. The poverty in this town was a big source of stress in this community, as they struggled to provide enough food. This along with a state of fear and stress due to attacks that happened just shortly before the accusations. Salem Town was continually being attacked by the Wampanoag Indians; therefore, they were in constant fear that these attacks would resume at anytime. After being in such turmoil and fear, when the witch accusations occurred, they were already in a heightened emotional state.

Along with the constant state of fear, they also had very strict laws due to their Puritan lifestyle. There were laws about what type of clothes they were allowed to wear, regarding their church attendance, as well as many other customs. They were stretched thin due to their extensive work in fields and such, and Sunday was the only day of rest from their endless work.


Searching For Answers

There was so much that the people didn't understand, and they searched for answers. Due to their stress, and their lack of knowledge of science and psychology, they believed the causes to many of the actions of others was due to magic. During this time, people believed that witchcraft was the work of Satan. They also believed that anything that was bad, such as disease or drought was the cause of Satan. These beliefs actually originated in Europe and were carried over to America as people traveled here.

Because they believed that magic was done by Satan, they believed the appropriate punishment for witchcraft would be death. This also follows a line in the bible that is very misunderstood that states that the punishment of being a witch is death. This verse was actually translated incorrectly, since the closest english word to the greek was witch, although the word means something slightly different.

Beginning the Hunt For Witches!

Since the minister was a prominent person in the community, people listened to him. If the girls had been related to anyone else, the widespread panic may not have occurred, but Parris believed the only way to heal the girls was remove the witches.

Many believed the girls knew who the witches were but they refused to tell who it was. Despite their heavy resistence towards music there was a church member Mary Sibley who asked Tituba, a women known for doing "magic," to use magic to identify the witch. Tituba most likely used herbal remedies and medicinal things, but they believed this to be magic during this time. Tituba told Mary to give a cake to Parris's dog which they believed would identify the witch. Then there were others who believed prayer would cure witchcraft.

The irony in this seem to come to light and Tituba became the first one to be accused of being the witch that caused this. This was easy for people to believe. Although she originally said she was not the witch, she later confessed believing things would go easier if she confessed.

The Girls Name Witches

Yet, despite Tituba being in jail, two more girls began acting strangly; Ann Putman and Elizabeth Hubbard along with 6 more girls. All of them claimed to be victims of witchcraft. They became known as the afflicted girls.

On February 25, 1692 Betty and Abigail claimed Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne to be witches. Most likely, they were beginning to feel pressures to claim someone, and since the two Sarah's were known for being unfriendly, they were easy for people to believe. Thomas Putnam, Ann’s father, believed they were telling the truth. He wanted to bring justice for her daughter and brought charges against the accused witches.

By March first the 3 accused witches were brought to the meeting house to decide if they should stand trial. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne both claimed innocence. During the trial, the girls began their strange behavior. They claimed a witches specter (the spirit of a witch that only victim could see) was pinching and biting them.


Fingers Being Pointed at Tituba and Others

Although Tituba initially claimed innocence, she changed her story. No one knows for sure, but it is possible she thought they would be easier on her. She also claimed the other two were witches as well. She claimed they had flown on broomsticks and even said there were more witches. As a result both Good and Osborne went to trial, while Tituba was spared, since they believed she broke Satan's hold on her by confessing. But a search for others began.

Ann Putman soon claimed another women's specter that of Martha Corey was hurting her . Martha was initially a well respected woman and said she thought the girls were lying, nonetheless she was arrested. With such a well respected person in custody, people began looking at one another with fear and suspicion suspecting their neighbors of this heineous crime. During Martha’s trials, girls claimed Martha’s specter was biting them and even had bite marks to prove.

Next they accused Rebecca Nurse. (Her tombstone is seen at the right of this article.) Although the judges first dismissed her because of her well respected position, they quickly changed their minds due to the girls increasingly bizarre behavior. Later they even claimed Dorcas Good, a four-year-old was a witch. When they asked Dorcas, she claimed that both her mom and her were witches. They carried her and her mother away in chains

Not All Believed These Tales

Not everyone believed these tales. One man John Proctor felt girls were just causing trouble. The girls then accused his wife, since he defended his wife both of them were arrested. As you can see by the picture of the tomb, he was hung due to his strong stance and resistance to the witch trials!!! If I ever find a clearer image of his tomb, I will post it instead.

Finally one of the girls, Mary Warren admitted to faking the behavior. She also said that the other girls were too. The girls turned on her and then claimed her of witchcraft. Mary was eventually released due to "admitting the truth." She said that she was in fact she was a witch and that the girls were really entranced by witches. She kept silent afterwards and all charges were dropped.

The Damage Done

Overall, the witch trials lasted over four months, which does not seem like that long. But there were 150 people in the small town who were arrested, 19 hung, and one that was pressed to death. Although no one knows for sure what the death toll was, because many died in the prisons, so an exact total of the people lost due to the witch hunts remain unknown.

It is a sad part of the American history. No one will know for sure whether mental illness, acting, or just oppression of these young girls was the cause.

  • Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
  • Kors, Alan Charles, and Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History. Second Edition. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
  • Levack, Brian P. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Third Edition. (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006).

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


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    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 5 years ago from United States

      Thank you so much, I spent about five months researching this horrific event with a class, and learned so much.

    • baygirl33 profile image

      victoria 5 years ago from Hamilton On.

      Great hub Angela! Lots of good back ground and dates.

      We think we are lucky not to have lived there but like you say,there is plenty of cruelty going on in the world today.

      Thanks for your work.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      WOW, I would love to read original hand written documents. You know I have not really studied about witch hunts in India. I bet that will be fascinating.

    • CJ Naiduk profile image

      CJ Naiduk 6 years ago from New Jersey did a really nice job giving people an overall picture of the events in a brief, succinct article. Witch hunts are something I've studied as well, and if you ever get the chance, you have to check out the Phillips Library in Salem! It holds the original hand-written documents from 1692-1693 (trial documents, accusations, personal letters, everything), which are quite fascinating, revealing, and disturbing. Unfortunately, witch hunts are not a thing of the past, and that is what I think people should take from studying them: humans are still capable of this and still practice it, disturbingly often. I invite you to check out an article I wrote about witch hunts in India that still go on to this day. Great job again.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 6 years ago from United States

      Well, we are a very cruel race. Look at racism, concentration camps, and the number of other instances that show how wicked humans can be.

    • baygirl33 profile image

      victoria 6 years ago from Hamilton On.

      I read the story of Salam some time ago and I still cower that we can be so cruel and stupid although I should not say stupid because I seem to remember that there was a hidden agenda behind the witchhunt.

      Thanks for writing on this .

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      So very true, I'll definitely have to check those stories out!!!!

    • Fluffy77 profile image

      Fluffy77 7 years ago from Enterprise, OR

      I remember learning this in school as a kid, good to share this to keep people aware. Judgement of others can go real ugly and fast, hope we try to remain more open minded and enlightened today. We have come quite a long way from then, thank God. To think, just having a simple little mole could brand you and evil witch and to die!! This history, is very odd to us all today. Yet, in one light good to have so we never repeat these things again. I have some creative writing stories on a young girl haunted by her own history, I wrote there are three of them. Check it out, if you like this you may like it too. Thanks again for writing on this very historically important subject.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Your welcome. I absolutely love research!!!

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      THank you so much invisible stats.

    • gramarye profile image

      gramarye 7 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      This is a really interesting hub. Thanks for the effort you made.

    • Invisiblestats profile image

      Invisiblestats 7 years ago from london

      GreaT HUB

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      I actually have never read that book, which is amazing if you think of how many books I have read on the topic. I really should as well. If you do, let me know what you think!

    • TurtleDog profile image

      TurtleDog 7 years ago

      Great hub and well illustrated! Found it on Shetoldme of all places (I guess that site does work ;-). Thanks for posting. I'll have to finally read The Crucible now.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Yes, very true. It's very sad.

    • wade11hicks profile image

      wade11hicks 7 years ago


      Very interesting hub! It's so crazy how back in the day people would kill innocent women for no reason. It's so sad.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Garnet!! So are you an actress? You said your "first" play.. I heard that too actually. I'm not sure how much I believe it, since there was a lot of other stuff going on as well, but you never know. I don't think we will ever truly know. But it is really sad it ever happened.

    • GarnetBird profile image

      Gloria Siess 7 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      I watched a history special on toxic mold that many believe infected Salem's food and caused hallucinations.The first play I was ever in was The Crucible by Arthur Miller (I played Mrs. Proctor) haha!! Nice Hub.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      This has always fascinated me as well. I don't think I would have wanted to be there. For one, even without the witch hunts it was a really bad time for Salem. The witch trials only exacerbated the problem!!!

    • profile image

      MaryRenee 7 years ago

      Angela: Awesome hub! This topic has always fascinated me. Every time I read about the Salem Witch Trials, it always makes me wonder what it would have been like to have been there. Witnessing all the craziness! Awesome hub, bravo! :)

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      TH, Hmmmm, interesting thought. Well, would you consider Tituba a witch back then?

    • tom hellert profile image

      tom hellert 7 years ago from home

      THI also wonder how many that died were witches? There had to be some especially back in the days people were more "in tune to spiritual magical things" more so than we are today. We may never know....


    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      starvagrant, I'm glad to educate you. honestly I've never seen the movies. (I have trouble sitting through a movie) but I have read many books on the topic. I should try them. :)

    • starvagrant profile image

      starvagrant 7 years ago from Missouri

      Interesting hub. I haven't studied the history and the dramatizations I've seen (Arthur Miller's the Crucible and the Salem Witches Trials movie (2008 with Kirstie Alley)) kind of compress the story. It was good to get a sense of time regarding these events.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Captain Jimmy, thanks for the great compliment. Peaked at your hub, very good topic. I like that its biblically based.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Dallas, very true, ignorance does not always equal bliss. In fact, I think often ignorance ends up hurting humankind. Think of all the racism, sexism, etc. Those are all basically derived from ignorance. A lot of what caused the witch hunts was sexism as well as culturalism, and people looking down at others who were not as fortunate as themselves.

    • angela_michelle profile image

      Angela Michelle Schultz 7 years ago from United States

      Fred Allen, I've actually thought the same thing. Who knows though. I think despite our advancements we have a long road ahead of us. The history books show that history does repeat itself, but manifests itself in different ways.

    • Captain Jimmy profile image

      Captain Jimmy 7 years ago from WV

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 7 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Ignorance is not bliss! Sad part of our history. Unintended consequences.. great hub!

    • fred allen profile image

      fred allen 7 years ago from Myrtle Beach SC

      Fascinating read! Glad that our civilization has advanced to the point where we can look at this period with amazement at how primitive this behavior was. There are still many injustices occurring and perhaps if society survives that long 300 years from now people will be commenting on how primitive our society was.


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