Law and Famous Trials

Salem Witch Trials

What were the Salem witch trials?

A series of trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, the proceedings against 200 people accused of witchcraft became allegory for searching out or harassing anyone who holds unpopular views. Indeed, the 19 hangings that resulted from the witch hunt provide students of history with a cautionary tale about the hazards of mass hysteria.

In the seventeenth century, people widely believed in witchcraft and that those who wielded its supernatural power could perform acts of ill will against their neighbors. Courts somewhat regularly heard cases involving the malice of witches: Before the notorious trials of 1692, the records of colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut show that 70 witch cases had been tried, and 18 of the accused were convicted. But nothing had reached the scale of the 1692 witch hunt. In January of that year, the daughter and niece of a Reverend Samuel Parris began exhibiting strange behavior. Upon examination by a doctor, the conclusion was that the young girls (ages nine and eleven) were bewitched. Compelled to name those who had bewitched them, the girls named a Carib Indian slave who worked in the minister’s home, and two other women—one a derelict and the other an outcast. They were arrested. Hearings were held and others were accused, including upstanding members of the community whose only “crime” seemed to be their opposition to Reverend Parris. Members of his congregation became corroborative witnesses. By May jails in Salem and Boston were filled with suspected witches awaiting trial. The court, now with a docket of some 70 cases, convened on June 28.

Through the summer months and into September, 50 of the accused confessed to practicing witchcraft, 26 were convicted, and 19 were executed. The colonial governor of Massachusetts became alarmed by the number of convictions; he ordered the Salem court to disband and commenced hearings of the remaining cases in a superior court. Of 50 still accused, the court indicted only 23; of these, there were only three convictions—all of which were overturned. In 1693 the colonial governor pardoned those whose cases were still pending and declared that witchcraft was no longer an actionable offense.


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