The 1692 Salem Witch Trials
In January of 1692, nine-year-old Betty Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece of Salem Village minister Reverend Samuel Parris, suddenly feel ill. Making strange, foreign sounds, huddling under furniture, and clutching their heads, the girls’ symptoms were alarming and astounding to their parents and neighbors. When neither prayer nor medicine succeeded in alleviating the girls’ agony, the worried parents turned to the only other explanation; the children were suffering from the effects of witchcraft. As word of the illness spread throughout Salem Village, and eventually Essex County, others began to fall ill with the same alarming symptoms. The afflicted complained disembodied spirits were stabbing them, choking them, and jabbing them with pins. Soon names were cried out as the afflicted began to identify these specters. Neighbors, acquaintances, and total strangers were named in the statements and examinations that followed. Gossip and stories from decades prior were dredged up as fear continued to spread. Over the course of the year 1692, approximately 150 people across Essex County were jailed for witchcraft. Ultimately, nineteen people were hanged and one man was pressed to death after being examined by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. This was the largest witch-hunt to ever take place in America, and would be the last large-scale panic to take place in the New World.
To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of seventeenth-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, a recent smallpox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. This was made worse by a growing factional conflict in Salem Village, the Village’s rivalry with nearby Salem Town, and the removal of the Massachusetts Bay Charter in 1684 which left the colony in a state of fear, confusion. To many it seemed the Puritan ideal of a “City on a Hill” was slipping away, decades of work suddenly pulled from their grasp. Many wondered if Satan’s forces had infiltrated their new land.