By: B. Schwartzman Lucio
The Salem Witch trials of 1692 are still one of the most infamous cases of American history. The small city of Salem, Massachusetts, was controlled by strict religious beliefs and a restricting societal structure in the late 17th century, which allowed for the scandalous event.
During the medieval times, religions, including Christianity, preached that witches were those who were given power by the devil to harm others in return for their loyalty. Between the 14th century and the 17th century, thousands of women accused of being witches were killed across Europe. Men were also accused of witchcraft, but mostly women were said to be gifted with the “devil’s magic”.
The arrival of Reverend Samuel Parris in 1689, who became Salem’s first ordained minister, was a controversial figure due to his greed and strict ways. Soon after, in 1692, two girls named Abigail Williams and Betty Parris (Samuel’s daughter), who were 11 and 9 respectively, started to experience abnormal symptoms such as convulsions, fits and hallucinations. A group of three girls were accused of bewitching them: Sarah Osborne, an older woman, Sarah Good, a beggar, and Tituba, a Caribbean slave. Consequently, more people found out about their witchcraft, unleashing a chain of reactions. Whilst Sarah claimed to be innocent, Tituba confessed her contact with the devil.
The accusations got out of hand and established a mass hysteria in the city of Salem. Neighbors and even family members began being accused of witchcraft, and anyone that acted slightly off the societal standards, was considered a potential witch. Over 200 people were accused of witchcraft. The “witches” were guilty until proven otherwise, not the other way round.
Lack of process and fairness characterized the trials, which resulted in the death of 20 people, 19 of which were hanged, and one was pressed to death under heavy stones. Several others died in prison awaiting trial. No one was safe from the witch hunting men, women and even children.
The trials only reached an end in 1693 when Governor William Phips was alarmed by the shocking number of accusations, which lead to mass imprisonment, even with an immense lack of evidence.
In 1711, a bill restored the rights of those accused, and granted £600 to their heirs. However, it wasn’t until 1957 that the government of Massachusetts formally apologized for the events dating back to 1692, almost 250 years before.
The Salem Witch Trials were important for society to emphasize the dangers of any type of religious extremism, which can be seen up to these days, in different forms, but still causing massive harm to the world. The trials also influenced American literature, and many plays and books were written upon the events.