One freezing day in January of 1692, something strange happened inside the Parris household of Salem Village, Massachusetts. As sleet and snow heaped higher outside their door, Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail began to twitch and twist their bodies into strange shapes, speaking in words that made no sense. Betty’s alarmed father, the Reverend Parris, immediately called on a doctor to examine the girls. The doctor’s diagnosis? The pair had been bewitched.
At the time, Salem Village was a small New England town populated mostly by Puritans, or religious individuals with a belief in the devil. The Puritan way of life was strict, and even small differences in behavior made people suspicious. Upon hearing about the Parris girls’ behavior, much of the Puritan community agreed that the duo had been victims of witchcraft.
When asked who had done this to them, Betty and Abigail blamed three townswomen, including Tituba, a Native American slave who worked in the Parris household. Tituba was known to have played fortune-telling games which were strictly forbidden by the Puritans. The other two accused women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne, weren’t well liked by the community either.
The three women were thrown in jail to await trial for practicing witchcraft. During the trial, Tituba confessed to having seen the devil and also stated that there was a coven, or group, of witches in the Salem Village area. Good and Osbourne insisted they were innocent. The court didn’t believe them, and found all three women guilty of practicing witchcraft. The punishment was hanging
As the weeks passed, other young girls claimed to have been infected by witchcraft too. They accused other townspeople of torturing them, and a few of the so-called witches on trial even named others as witches.
Women were not the only ones believed to be witches—men and children were accused too. By the end of the trials in 1693, 24 people had died, some in jail but most by hanging.
The Hysteria Fades
Eventually, after seeming to realize how unfair the trials were to the accused, the court refused to hear any more charges of witchcraft. All of the accused were finally pardoned in 1711.
No one’s really sure why the witch craze spread the way it did, but it brought lasting changes to the United States legal system and the way evidence and witnesses were treated. The Salem Village hangings were the last executions of accused witches in the United States.
(Text adapted from the National Geographic book Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schnauzer.)