During the 16th and 17th century with the colonisation of the Americas, and the spread of Christianity, there developed an unnatural fear of witchcraft and the supernatural. People believed the devil, and demons, were the influence behind any type of magic. This idea of the intervention of dark forces in daily life resulted in the persecution of many innocent people, accused of using their witchcraft to the detriment of others.
Beginning in February 1692 and ending in May 1693, over 200 such accusations were made in several Massachusetts towns including Salem Village (modern day Danvers), Salem Town and Ipswich. The trials became known as the Salem Witch Trials and resulted in 20 people being executed, and 5 others, including 2 young children, dying in prison while awaiting trial.
The accusations began in Salem Village, in February 1692, when 9-year-old Betty Paris and her cousin Abigail Williams, who was 11 at the time, began having unexplainable fits. The girls constantly complained of being pinched and pricked. They reacted by screaming, throwing things, uttering strange noises, moving into unnatural positions and climbing on to furniture. Doctors could find nothing wrong with either girl and, shortly after, other young women in the village began displaying the same symptoms.
Three people were initially arrested for inflicting the girls, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba. All were social outcasts, mainly because of their refusal to attend the village’s church services. None of the women were represented, and after being interrogated for several days they were thrown into jail on March 1 to await trial. Subsequent arrests included regular church goers, which caused an even greater panic among the villagers. They had previously believed that the saved could not be affected by the devil’s influence, but now realised that nobody was exempt. Dorothy Good’s, Sarah’s 4-year-old daughter, testimony was the only evidence used to determine her mother’s fate.
As the arrests continued, the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer was established in order to prosecute the villagers. When the court convened on June 2, 1692 the first person to be placed on trial was Bridget Bishop, who was accused (and convicted) because of her dark sense of style and lack of church attendance. After she was hanged on June 10, the trials continued, first in the original court and then the Superior Court of Judicature, which took over in January 1693. The last trial and execution took place in May 1693, but families and friends continued to maintain their loved ones innocence.
In November 2001, over 300 years after the trials, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act which declared the ‘witches’ innocent of their crimes. Even though now exonerated, the victims all lost their lives unjustly and the Salem Witch Trials has become an infamous part of history. Authors and historians refer to the proceedings regularly to explore the effects that the fear of witches has had, and still continues to have, on our western society.