We often hear terrible stories of the Salem Witch Trials, and certainly, some members of the modern Pagan community toss out the Salem case as a reminder of the religious intolerance that has existed for centuries. But what really happened in Salem, back in 1692? More importantly, why did it happen, and what changes did it bring about?
The witch trials stemmed from accusations made by a group of young girls that various townsfolk, including a black slave, were in cahoots with the Devil. Although the list of specifics is far too detailed to go into here, it’s important to note that there were many factors that came into play at the time. First and foremost, this was an area that had been devastated by illness for a good part of the seventeenth century. Sanitation was poor, there had been smallpox epidemics, and on top of all of that, people lived in a constant fear of attack from local Native American tribes.
Salem was also a fairly litigious sort of town, and neighbors constantly battled with neighbors over things like where a fence should be put, whose cow ate whose crops, and whether or not debts were paid in a timely fashion. It was, to put it mildly, a breeding ground for fearmongering, accusations, and suspicion.
At the time, Salem was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and fell under British law. Consorting with the Devil was, according to British law, a crime against the Crown itself, and therefore punishable by death. Because of the Puritanical background of the colony, it was generally accepted that Satan himself was lurking in every corner, trying to tempt good people to sin. Prior to the Salem trials, a dozen or so people had been put to death in New England for the crime of witchcraft.
In January 1692, the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris fell ill, as did her cousin. The doctor’s diagnosis was a simple one – that little Betty Parris and Anne Williams had been “bewitched.” They writhed on the floor, screamed uncontrollably, and had “fits” that could not be explained. Even more horrifying, soon several neighbor girls began demonstrating the same bizarre behaviors. Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard joined in the fray.
Before long, the girls were claiming to experience “afflictions” from several local women. They accused Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and a slave named Tituba of causing their distress. Interestingly, all three of these women were perfect targets for accusations. Tituba was one of Reverend Parris’ slaves, and is believed to be from somewhere in the Caribbean, although her exact origins are undocumented. Sarah Goode was a beggar with no home or husband, and Sarah Osborne was disliked by most of the community for her outrageous behavior.
Fear and Suspicion
In addition to Sarah Goode, Sarah Osbourne, and Tituba, a number of other men and women were accused of consorting with the Devil. At the height of the hysteria – and hysteria it was, with the entire town becoming involved – some hundred and fifty individuals had been accused throughout the community. Throughout the spring, accusations flew that these people had had sexual encounters with the Devil, that they had signed away their souls to him, and that they were deliberately torturing the good, God-fearing citizens of Salem at his behest. No one was immune to charges, and women were imprisoned side by side with their husbands – entire families facing prosecution together. Sarah Goode’s daughter, four-year-old Dorcas, was charged with witchcraft as well, and is commonly known as the youngest of the Salem accused.
By May, trials were underway, and in June, the hangings began.