Coronavirus - Click here for information. Closed through May 4.

History and Education

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.

In June of 1692, the special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to determine) sat in Salem to review these witchcraft cases. 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. Goodwife Bishop was found guilty and 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. Trials resumed in January of 1693, this time with a new court, the Supreme Court of Judicature, the same court we use in this country today. This court differed from the first in that it no longer accepted spectral evidence. This evidence, never before allowed in New England courts, was based upon the notion that the accused were able to use their invisible shapes or specters to torture their victims. With this standard of evidence gone, 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. One judge, Samuel Sewall, and 12 jurors, came forward to apologize for their roles in the Salem witch trials. The other magistrates never admitted there had been a miscarriage of justice, going to their graves believing they did what was best for the colony. 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. It is significant to the parallels between the Salem witch trials and more modern examples of “witch hunting” like the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s.

The mission of the Salem Witch Museum is to be the voice to the innocent victims of the Salem witch trials, while also bringing awareness to the root cause of witch-hunts from 1692 to the present day. By understanding this history, through audiovisual displays, guided tours, educational events, and discussion, we strive to connect this tragedy to the modern-world and highlight why history matters.

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.

Learn More

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.

Learn More

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.

Learn More

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.

Learn More
Witches: Evolving Perceptions

Our second exhibit, “Witches: Evolving Perceptions” is a guided tour which examines the European witchcraft trials, how the word “witch” has evolved and changed over time, and the phenomenon of witch-hunting.

This staff guided tour provides an overview of the European witchcraft trials of the early modern era. Witch-hunts began in Europe in the fifteenth century and continued well into the eighteenth century. During this time, shifts in religious thought, evolving superstitions, and general legal and social changes combined with a period of particular fear and tension due to massive outbreaks of disease, major religious wars, economic shifts, and irregular weather patterns. This dangerous mixture led to centuries of witch-hunts across Europe and its colonies and the deaths of at least 45,000 (though the exact number remains unknown). This constantly evolving and growing tour focuses on why witch trials began, where they were the most intense, how the stereotypical image of a witch emerged in popular memory, and what the word “witch” means in the modern-day.

 

In 2019, we had the great joy of announcing the acquisition of a first edition of L. Frank Baum’s classic novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Considered to be America’s first fairy tale, this novel is responsible for several changes to the image of the witch in the twentieth-century. This very special book is currently on display in this exhibit.

The tour concludes with a discussion of a formula for a witch-hunt and how this formula may be applied to three twentieth-century examples. When studying the history of witchcraft, it is important to understand that witchcraft was a crime created and imposed on innocent people. No individual actually had the power to cause hailstorms, spread mass disease, or fly through the night to a gathering of evil beings. This was a crime imposed on innocent people during times of mass fear and hysteria. While the legal prosecution of witchcraft came to an end in the eighteenth century, the pattern of behavior that caused witch-hunts can be identified throughout history and in the modern day. Visitors are encouraged to submit their own example they believe fits this formula, and may do this online at https://salemwitchmuseum.com/witch-hunt.

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