History/Education

The 1692 Salem Witch Trials

In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village became ill. When they failed to improve, the village doctor, William Griggs, was called in. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the death by hanging of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; seven others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed.

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 17th-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem. Their names had been “cried out” by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England, the practice of witchcraft.

In June of 1692, the special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. Presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton, the court was made up of magistrates and jurors. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem who was found guilty and was hanged on June 10. Thirteen women and five men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October of that year. The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the “witchcraft” court, did not allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch trials were over.

As years passed, apologies were offered, and restitution was made to the victims’ families. Historians and sociologists have examined this most complex episode in our history so that we may understand the issues of that time and apply our understanding to our own society. The parallels between the Salem witch trials and more modern examples of “witch hunting” like the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s, are remarkable.

Education Department – faq@salemwitchmuseum.com

The Salem Witch Museum Timeline

An overview of The Salem Witch Museum from its founding in 1972 to the present.

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The Salem Witch Museum: Past and Present

For the past four decades, the museum has told the true story behind the Salem witch trials of 1692 and provided context for understanding the phenomenon of "witch hunts" and witchcraft in general from the Middle Ages to modern times.

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The Salem Witch Museum Offers Free Admission for Residents

The Salem Witch Museum has offered free admission to Salem residents for the past several years. With the museum's recent exterior conservation and planned redesign of its web site, administrators are hoping that more Salem residents will be drawn to its doors.

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The Salem Witch Museum Launches Major Conservation Project

After a full eight months of preservation work to the museum's brownstone and brick exterior - costing upwards of $500,000 - the classic Gothic Revival structure won't look any different than it did before all the work began. Every one of its crenellations, arched windows, buttresses and battlements will appear to be untouched.

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Witches: Evolving Perceptions

Because there is confusion about the meaning of the word “witch,” our guided exhibit examines the changing interpretations over time while also looking at the stereotype, the practice of witchcraft today and most importantly the phenomenon of witch hunting

You are invited into the exhibit space by a picture of Macbeth’s three witches, examples of the stereotype. Next you see nine images on a wall – all can be labeled “witch” but by their variety you conclude that file definition of the word has changed as our beliefs and customs have evolved. The images range from the witch in Hansel and Gretel to the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz to Joan of Arc and John and Elizabeth Proctor of the Salem trials.

How have these changes occurred?

To trace the evolution of the word, figures in sets tell their stories – starting with an ancient Celtic midwife. She speaks about her role in society as a respected healer and guardian of the stability of the community. In the next set a hag dressed in black with pointed hat and green face flies across the moon on her broom. She is the transformation of the strong Celtic woman, diminished and demonized by the church fathers in the middle ages. She speaks of her role as the troublemaker in society on whom all evil things are blamed.

Along a wall adjacent to the stereotypical witch figure, a time line of dates and images from western and pagan history illustrates the gradual change from midwife to mischief-maker. The most recent dates show an understanding of the mistakes of the past.

Around a comer stand a male and female figure. They are practitioners of Wicca or witchcraft and they talk about the ancient origins of their beliefs and their role in society today. They are the descendants of the Celtic midwife, looking to the earth mother for healing and for spirituality.

Finally, a large picture of Senator Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Welsh asks visitors to consider the phenomenon of witch hunting. The formula for a witch hunt - fear + trigger = scapegoat, is written across the photo: Contemporary examples of witch hunts - the Japanese American internment after Pearl Harbor, the McCarthy hearings on Communism and the persecution of the gay community at the start of the AIDS epidemic - bring the lessons of stereotyping and prejudice full circle.

We encourage you to explore more in Salem and learn more about the Salem Witch Trials on these sites.