No, in Salem they never burned a single person for being a witch, nor did they accuse women only. Here are the most persisting myths about the Salem Witch Trials.
The Salem Witch Trials are one of those baffling episodes in human history that make you wonder how on Earth could people have ever acted the way they did. They are the perfect example of how superstition, fear, paranoia, and an all-too-literal interpretation of religion can often lead to dire consequences. Indeed, the Bible urges everyone to kill witches and condemn witchcraft wherever it’s found (Exodus and Leviticus have rather explicit passages about the topic). And for a long time people took it all very seriously.
During the 1690s, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was facing troublesome circumstances as their resources were strained and strange afflictions sprung up. Several people, starting with three girls, began exhibiting worrying symptoms, such as convulsions and hallucinations. The local physician’s diagnosis was bewitchment, and the girls eventually accused three “witches” for their condition. What followed was one of the most regrettable series of public trials ever to be held in America (and in the history of witch hunting).
As a fascinating tale of warning and a window into the minds of those living in 17th century New England, the Salem Trials have captivated the imagination of artists and historians ever since. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many myths and prejudices have been conjured up with the passing of time. Here are a few of the most persistent ones.
The victims were burned
In fact, the English penalty for those convicted as witches was hanging, not burning. While it’s true that many European (mainland) nations burned their “witches,” most notably France, England historically refrained from such punishment. As such, those convicted during the Salem Witch Trials were hung in what would become known as Gallows Hill. And though one victim, elderly farmer Giles Corey, was crushed to death under the weight of stones when he refused to plead either guilty or innocent, not a single person was burned during this time in Salem.
Only women were accused of witchcraft
Misogyny was a thing, for sure. But during times of deep paranoia often suspicions find no boundaries. Men as well as women were accused, tried, convicted, and executed. Four of the 19 people hung in Salem were men, and there was a generalized fear that no one, male or female, young or old, was safe from conviction. Even a 4-year-old girl was accused and interrogated, and her shy answers were interpreted as a confession.
It happened only in Salem
It’s important to realize that the so-called “witchcraft craze” afflicted Europe for over three centuries, from the 1300s to the 1600s. The superstition spread to puritan New England, whose first witch-related execution occurred in 1647 with the hanging of one Alice “Alse" Young in Connecticut.
These other cases notwithstanding, the Salem Witch Trials themselves involved as many as 24 communities outside of Salem Town (modern-day Salem) and Salem Village (modern-day Danvers). It started in Salem, and was centered there, but the fear and accusations spread throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And while all the accused were brought to Salem for trial, many of them weren’t residents there and often didn’t even know people from the area.
The witch hunt went on for years
The whole affair occurred in the span of a few months, starting in March 1692, reaching its highest craze in September of the same year, and dwindling down right afterwards. By May 1693, everyone who was still in prison charged with witchcraft was unconditionally pardoned and released.
Most people at the time supported the trials
While witchcraft was recognized as an official crime in New England during this period, many were rightly suspicious about what could count as proper evidence for the trials. On June 1692, minister Cotton Mather wrote a letter to the court in charge of judging the Salem witches begging it not to allow “spectral evidence,” or testimony that relied on dreams and visions alone. Sure, the court disregarded this request for months, but it was clear people were concerned about injustices even as the events were taking place.
Mather’s father, Increase Mather, then president of Harvard College, agreed with his son as he too denounced the standards of evidence for witchcraft, which he argued shouldn’t be different to those used for any other crime, asserting that “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”
By October 29, following Mather’s plea and after his own wife was questioned, Governor William Phipps prohibited further arrests, released many of the accused, and dissolved the original Salem court which was later replaced by another that, fortunately, disallowed spectral evidence and thus condemned only 3 out of 56 defendants. That’s 3 too many, but still better than the rate of conviction of the previous months.
A few years after the fact, most who were involved in the trials regretted their participation. Judge Samuel Sewall, for instance, publicly admitted he was in the wrong for the convictions. In 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the Salem tragedy, realizing it had all been a huge mistake. The colony eventually passed a bill which restored the good names of all the victims and granted a monetary restitution to their heirs in 1711. It took more than 250 years, however, for the state of Massachusetts to formally apologize for the witch hunt.
As a whole, the events in Salem did much to highlight the injustice of accusations surrounding witchcraft. They helped question the very tenability of witchery in general, and since then calling someone a witch gradually stopped having much merit. Fortunately, it’s hard to find someone who takes witchcraft, and the relevant passages in the Bible that mention it, very seriously. Hopefully, not only can we learn from our mistakes, but maintain the lessons far into the future still. Of course, in a world where anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and young Earth creationists are a thing, it’s important to keep in mind that any belief, no matter how absurd and ridiculous it may seem, could be reignited for the worse. Let’s just hope the belief in witches doesn’t make a comeback at all—it’s already done enough damage as it is.
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