March 1st 1692: The Salem Witch Trials begin

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Depiction of the trials from 1892 (200 years after the events)

 

On this day in 1692, three women were brought before local magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts, thus beginning the infamous Salem Witch Trials. The women were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba and all three had been accused of witchcraft after local girls began experiencing strange fits. Given the lack of medical knowledge at the time and the preponderance of beliefs in the supernatural, witchcraft was the only logical explanation for their condition. The accused women matched the description of the stereotypical witch: Good was a beggar, Osborne rarely went to church and Tituba was a slave of different ethnicity.

 

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Deposition of Ann Putnam Jr. (one of the original ‘afflicted girls’) against Tituba

 

The women were interrogated by magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin and Tituba eventually confessed to witchcraft, claiming Good and Osborne were her co-conspirators. Her confession spurred the trials to continue, as the magistrates and townspeople considered it incontrovertible evidence of witchcraft. The three were then sent to jail; Osborne died in jail, Good was hanged and Tituba (as a useful confessor) was kept alive and eventually released after the trials ended. This initial interrogation was followed by many more accusations of witchcraft throughout the village and the surrounding area, fueled perhaps by local rivalries, poisoned grain, mass fear of Indian attack or pure hysteria.

 

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Memorial to those who died during the crisis in Danvers (was Salem). Erected to mark the 300 year anniversary of the trials

 

The manhunt resulted in 19 ‘witches’ being hanged, one pressed to death and hundreds more imprisoned in horrendous conditions. Salem has had a curious enduring legacy in America and beyond; it has become a cautionary tale for religious extremism and false accusations. Arthur Miller picked up on this when he wrote his famous play ‘The Crucible’ based on the events at Salem, but commenting on the communist ‘witch-hunt’ of McCarthyism in the 1950s. It is an interesting question to consider: why has Salem had such an impact? There were many witch trials throughout the Western world in the early modern period, some causing far more deaths than Salem. The historian Bernard Rosenthal addresses this in his work ‘Salem Story’ in which he examines the continued fascination with Salem. Rosenthal concludes that we focus so much on Salem, and use it as a byword for mass hysteria and supposed ‘ignorance’, to isolate the demons within us. By relegating all past cases of witchcraft hysteria to one small town in Massachusetts, we as a society convince ourselves that it was a freak incident that could never happen to superior ‘modern’ people like us. Arthur Miller shattered this mirage when he compared anticommunism to Salem, and a recent surge in interest in  the crisis has been attributed to the restricted civil liberties of the War on Terror. It is an uncomfortable fact that Salem was not some ‘blip’ in the progress of Western civilisation. It was typical of its time, widespread beyond Salem Village and actually involved the whole of Essex County, and most importantly, was not the last case of mass hysteria in Western society.