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Let the wild accusations fly as we look at the Salem witch trials

Screenshot: The Wizard Of Oz
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Salem witch trials

What it’s about: One of the most infamous incidents in America’s colonial history. Driven by superstition and fear, citizens of four towns in the Massachusetts colony turned on their own, accusing a number of men and women of witchcraft, 20 of whom were executed. Over 300 years later, “witch trial” is synonymous with any overzealous prosecution of an innocent person, and the Salem trials are held up as cautionary example of what happens when finding someone to blame becomes more important than guilt or innocence.


People had been executed for witchcraft before in the American colonies, but it was a rare event until 1692, where 20 people—14 women and six men—were executed in a 15-month span, and five more died in prison (two of them infants). The seeds were sown a few years earlier, when Boston minister Cotton Mather began warning of “stupendous witchcraft” in New England, specifically the case of a local mason named John Goodwin. Four of Goodwin’s six children began having fits including back and neck pain, loss of motor control, and “tongues being drawn from their throats.” The incident itself may have been mass hysteria, or an undiagnosed illness. But Mather and many of his followers saw it as evidence that the devil was real, and actively persecuting the people of the Massachusetts colony.

A few years later, two cousins in Salem—the 9- and 11-year-old daughter and niece of a local Reverend Parris—began displaying symptoms “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect,” screaming, throwing things, and complaining of “being pinched and pricked with pins,” despite a lack of physical evidence. Soon adult women began exhibiting the same symptoms. With 17th-century medical science at a loss, people’s suspicions turned to witchcraft. Three women were arrested, all of them outsiders—Sarah Good was homeless; Sarah Osborne rarely attended church, and had remarried (the Puritans disapproved of both); Tituba was a slave, either African or Native American. The three women were interrogated and jailed, but they were only the first of many. Subsequent women to be accused were either similarly isolated from the community, or quickly became so once accusations were leveled.

An 1892 lithograph depicting the trial, complete with special effects!

Strangest fact: While the Salem witch trials remain strong in the popular imagination, much of the familiar imagery of the trails is wrong. For starters, no one was burned at the stake—nearly all of the executed women were hanged. Five died in prison. And the trials weren’t limited to Salem. Four towns participated—Ipswich, Andover, Salem Town, and Salem Village. The early New England settlers weren’t big on coming up with names, which is why the third settlement after Providence and Boston was called Newton—New Town, which we’re pretty sure was the default name given to them by SimPuritanColony. Salem Village eventually changed its name to Danvers.


Biggest controversy: Tituba, one of the original three women accused of witchcraft, was said to have read to local girls from Malleus Maleficarum. The controversial book was written by German clergyman Heinrich Kramer, and claimed witchcraft was real. It described witches who practice infanticide, cannibalism, “perform filthy carnal acts with demons,” cast evil spells, and could steal a man’s penis. The Catholic Church condemned the book three years after its 1487 publication, but it remained popular well into the 1600s.

A page from a 1520 edition of Malleus Maleficarum, which roughly translates to “the hammer of witches,” a name that would work equally well as a black metal album or a spell from Harry Potter.

Thing we were happiest to learn: This was no doubt small comfort to the women executed and their families, but there was at least a backlash to the trials. After the first few accusations, they began to spread almost exponentially, as accused women—hard-pressed to prove conclusively that they weren’t witches, and presumed guilty by the courts—were pressured to plea bargain by naming accomplices. Any deviation from strict Puritan norms could be seen as a sign of guilt, and there were many rivalries, both interpersonal and between the two Salems, that motivated further accusations.

After eight women were hanged together, Mather wrote an account of the trials, Wonders Of The Invisible World, and presented it to colonial governor Sir William Phips. Rather than be impressed by the trials’ success, Phips said he “understood what danger some of their innocent subjects might be exposed to.” In his own words, he “put a stop to the proceedings of the Court and they are now stopt till their Majesties pleasure be known.” On Phips’ order, there were no more executions. There were two more rounds of trials, but most of the accused were found innocent, and Phips pardoned the last three women to be found guilty of witchcraft.


Many contemporary clergy criticized the trials, including Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather (has there been a family in American history with better first names?). Outrage over the trials continued for years. In 1695, prominent Quaker Thomas Maule published Truth Held Forth And Maintained, which included a chapter on how misguided the trials were, stating, “it were better that one hundred Witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a witch, which is not a Witch.” Maule was imprisoned for a year for publishing the book, but exonerated. By 1697, one of the prosecutors and several jurors from the trials publicly apologized, and in 1711, after a decade of petitions, the colonial government reversed the judgement against 22 of the accused. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift signed a decree proclaiming the innocence of every woman accused in the trials.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Salem courts’ investigative methodology wasn’t exactly CSI. First, Reverend Parris, in an effort to discern what had happened to his girls and who was responsible, asked a neighbor to persuade one of her slaves to make a “witch cake.” The cake was made from rye meal and the afflicted girls’ urine, and was then fed to a dog. Somehow the dog eating the cake would physically hurt the witch, as some of her essence remained in the girls, was expelled through their urine, and then was chewed on by the dog, according to the 1690s’ airtight understanding of the natural sciences.


But this was considered folk medicine even by the standards of the day. Once the courts got involved, they got series. First there was the “touch test,” in which the accused was made to touch a victim while they were having a fit. If the victim stopped, the accused had clearly caused the fit in the first place and was a witch. The accused possessing books on palmistry, horoscopes, or even pots of ointment could be damning evidence, as were “witch’s teats,” a mole anywhere on the body that was insensitive to the touch.

At least no one suggested building a bridge out of the accued. (Screenshot: Monty Python And The Holy Grail)

Also noteworthy: While “witchcraft” was the best explanation available for inexplicable pains or seizures, modern medicine thinks it knows better, and various researchers have attempted to explain the original incident that sparked the witch trials using modern diagnostic methods. Competing theories include hysteria from the stress of the constant threat of attack from nearby Native Americans, an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, or even eating rye bread that contained claviceps purpurea, a fungus from which LSD is made. But some think the entire situation was purely psychological, and that jealousy and spite boiled over in the close-knit communities surrounding Salem.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Sadly, the Salem witch trials aren’t the only time Americans have punished someone for a crime they didn’t commit. Wikipedia has a long list of wrongful convictions in the United States, which lists high-profile cases decade by decade. The 1980s alone saw the notorious case of Claus Von Bülow, a British socialite accused of poisoning his wife; a rash of day care centers accused of bizarre and elaborate sexual assault against their young charges, all of which turned out to be completely fabricated; the first man ever to be exonerated by DNA evidence (his name was the too-on-the-nose Kirk Bloodsworth); and the case of the Central Park Five, a group of teenage boys convicted of raping a jogger in New York City, and were jailed until a man already serving a life sentence confessed to the crime and evidence bore out his claim. Prince among men that he is, Donald Trump famously called for the death penalty even though the accused were minors, and continued to insist on their guilt even after evidence had proven otherwise.


Further down the Wormhole: The Salem story is still ongoing, as in January of this year, the University Of Virginia determined the exact location of the witch trial hangings, and the city plans to build a memorial on the site. Like most universities, UVA has a number of service fraternities and sororities, a tradition that has its roots in fraternal orders—groups of people (historically, usually men only) who would band together for mutual financial support, a shared interest, or just to have an excuse to drink. We’ll put on a comical pair of antlers and look at the list of general fraternities next week.

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