Salem witch trials: what do you think?

I've recently read a fascinating book on the subject. I'd love to hear little known or arcane facts about early American history.


You're right Mr. 'Top Contributor' I should add the book's title--Salem Witch Judge'. The book centers around Samuel Sewall and his subsequent contrition for his part in the deaths of the innocent 'witches'. Thanks for all the information everyone. I love early American history, so all additions are appreciated.

Update 2:

I also want to add--although I found the ergot theory interesting and fun to consider, it holds no water in my opinion because if the girls had been poisoned enough to be convulsive, death would be likely.

7 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    I wish you'd told us WHICH "interesting book" you just read, so I'd know how to interact with it. In any case, be aware that there are a LOT of popular MIS-conceptions about what happened at Salem, and a lot that we simply don't know (partly because it appears that the families of people involved at some point disposed of documentary evidence that would help us, partly because so much that happened was by word of mouth [gossip] and was NEVER set down in writing.)

    In particular, a couple of sources and theories you should NOT put much stock in:

    a) "The Crucible" - Arthur Miller's play has become "the" source for two generations' "knowledge" of the trials. Unfortunately, Miller's work has very little scholarly basis. Indeed, he CHANGED a number of key facts in order to make his story "work".

    In particular, he makes his story turn on an episode of adultery that clearly NEVER took place.. and he has to change the ages of the parties to make it plausible. (The real Abigail Williams was perhaps eleven in 1692, so younger when the "affair" would have happened, and John Proctor was not 40-ish but in his 60s!)

    And do keep in mind that Miller was not really trying to write a history of these events -- rather, he used them as a "parable" of what he personally believed was going on during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.

    b) the recently popularized "ergot theory" (featured, for example, in the PBS show some have cited). Sorry, but this hypothesis has little to support it, a number of holes and, most importantly, is of virtually NO use in answering the MAIN questions. Even if we surmise that there was some such dietary/medical explanation for the EARLIEST episodes (the young girls "fits"), the theory is of little use in explaining the many LATER accusations, and quite useless in explaining what is MOST important and unusual, such as, why the accusations were taken so seriously in this instance.

    Also, the theory that explains things mostly in terms of efforts to seize others' property, while having a grain of truth (some property disputes did play into certain accusations), is also extremely simplistic and fails to account for MOST of the goings on.

    I generally recommend THREE books on this topic - by Mary Beth Norton, Marion Starkey, and Rodney Stark:

    If you can only read one, pick up the following at your local library -- solid scholarship and probably THE definitive modern work -- *In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692*by Mary Beth Norton (2002)

    The critical factor in Norton's understanding is the devastating situation of the two Indian wars of the period (King Philip's War and King William's War), which particularly influenced people in the border region of Essex County (where Salem was located).

    Norton lays out her basic thesis and the factors she thinks are most critical to understanding the Salem trials in the 15-20 pages, so if you can sit down with if for maybe half an hour you'll learn a lot. She begins by laying out what made the Salem episode similar to and what made it very DIFFERENT from other witchcraft scares and trials in 17th century New England.

    Some striking things about these trials, mostly pointed out in Norton's introduction (read her whole intro for a fuller list) and many of them surprisingly overlooked by many studies:

    1) most of the accusers were girls and women aged 10 to early 20s --- a group whose testimony would generally not be taken that seriously... yet for some reason in this case it was.

    Actually, testimony in court from someone under 14 was generally not accepted... so nothing much COULD happen until older people started to testify and, more than that, to CONFESS.

    Do note that confessions were NOT coerced. The idea that torture and threats were widely used is quite mistaken.

    (Note that many other ideas about accusations and "tests" are misinformed. Fort example , the popular notions about the "swimming" of witches are quite mistaken. To begin with, this "test" was NEVER practiced in New England [Increase Mather wrote a strong argument against it as irrational and not biblically founded]. But even when this test WAS used, the suspect was tied up in a way that made swimming nearly impossible, so that most were easily 'exonerated' and fished out, NOT left to drown!)

    2) Witchcraft suspicions and accusations in general were looked at with much suspicion, understood to often be the result of local jealousies and gossip... and a very low percentage of those accused were ever tried much less convicted. Salem's numbers here are HIGHLY unusual.

    3) the particular tensions in Salem -- both the 'border war' situation and the "Salem Town" vs. "Salem Village" (that latter, now "Danvers" Massachusetts was the rural group), that latter very much exacerbated by a very nonfunctional church arrangement

    4) The common characteristics of many of the accused

    Norton notes that these can clearly be seen already with the first three accused -- one an "Indian" woman (at a time when there was MUCH fear of Indian attacks, shortly after a brutal border raid), one who was earlier suspected of being a witch (who fit the New England "stereotype" of a witch... a cantankerous, busy-body middle-aged woman), and one involved in a property dispute (of which there were several at the time)

    5) the suddenness with which the whole matter suddenly took off in April of 1692 (a few months after it all started), AND how suddenly it all STOPPED --neither of which were typical.

    One key point (often missed) about how the trials stopped--, "spectral evidence", which had been admitted in earlier trials, was NOT allowed any longer as evidence for conviction. This was by order of Governor Phips, under the influence of a letter by Thomas Brattle criticizing the trials and a publication by Puritan pastor Increase Mather ("Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in Such as are Accused With That Crime" -- typical detailed title of that era!) which argued against the admissibility of such evidence. (Mather argued, as the title suggests, that if Satan were involved, he could just as easily produce apparitions of innocent people that would trick people into making false accusations. He also insisted that it were better for numerous witches to go free than for one innocent to be convicted.)

    6) Related to the ENDING -- often when witchcraft trials or accusations ended (or were dropped) the accused were still suspected long after. In THIS case, there was instead a growing conviction that it was largely mistaken and unjust. And, again atypically, there were many instances of apologies and efforts to 'set things right', including by making financial restitution to the families of those wrongly condemned.

    For this last point I'd also recommend an older book. It tries to take a sympathetic look at the various people involved, and unlike many studies, looks at what people did to correct, forgive and heal afterwards. Yes, it's dated (more recent research can counterbalance that), but it tells the basic story well and gives you a sense of the people.

    Marion L. Starkey *The Devil in Massachusetts* (1949)

    There is also some interesting material on Samuel Sewall, a judge in the trials who, five years later, made a public apology (a man of high principle and, perhaps not coincidentally, an early abolitionist)

    - summary

    - a recent book -

    *Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience* by Richard Francis (Harper Collins, 2005)

    If you are interested in the larger picture of "witchcraft" scares and trials in New England, England and elsewhere in Europe during this period -- a book I have found helpful in suggesting an explanation for the belief in witchcraft in the medieval and early modern European world is Rodney Stark's *For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery* (Princeton University Press, 2003).

    One major section (chapter 3) of this book is devoted to

    studying when and where witch-hunts took place, who conducted them, what the results were, etc. (He shows, for instance, that most studies greatly inflate the numbers. He also argues that some sort of belief in witchcraft was "normal" in these times... and suggests this belief is related to their view of a RATIONAL universe, not exactly to the type of superstitions many have blamed it on.)

    On the matter of the TYPICAL "witchcraft trial" of this period (to see how Salem DIFFERED), you might check out the following. I've not read it but it sounds promising --

    Richard Godbeer, *Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692* (Oxford University Press, 2005), based on his doctoral dissertation.

    From a review of Godbeer's book

    "The author argues that the Salem witch trials were a tragic anomaly. Salem notwithstanding, he uses the 1692 Connecticut trials to depict what he argues was more typical of legal proceedings. Witchcraft claims were often met with skepticism, and the law required for rigorous examination of witnesses' testimony and other evidence.

    "A judge might even ask a jury to reconsider a guilty verdict if he was not satisfied that prosecutors had proven their case. With lively and suspenseful story-telling, Godbeer does bring a corrective sense of balance and reason to views of a time so integral yet so little-understood in American history."

    book review at

    see also the following review, which connects the book to Norton's and other recent studies --

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  • 1 decade ago

    The Salem witch trials are a fascinating subject and one of the greatest tails of injustice around.

    From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over eighty years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft. Dozens languished in jail for months without trials. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts ended.

    Have a look at these websites for more info...

    Hope this helps.

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  • 1 decade ago

    I read a little about it. One story that stuck in my mind was this one about a girl that lived in Massachusetts. She looked at a cart as it was going down the road, and it crashed. All the logs fell out, and the people standing nearby said that she was a witch because she just happened to look when it happened. Kinda screwed up. People tend to rush to judgment, and when in fear will do complete irrational things. Another good example of this would be Nazi Germany. Witch trials started in Europe. If you would like to read some more history, you can try that.

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Well Paul HXYZ beat me to it! I saw the same PBS show and it floored me! All my life I had heard tales of mass hysteria and rampant paranoia causing the craziness in 'Salem (a contraction of Jerusalem) but here we have a theory that it was ergot poisoning that did it! I especially liked how the various experts attributed all of the so-called "crimes" to the effects of the poison!

    BTW, a recent episode of FOX-TV series "House" had a young woman with multiple symptoms including hallucinations, seizures, etc, and her disease was...ergot poisoning! Same as Salem! And I believe the last known outbreak was in France in 1957!

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    "The Crucible" is an excellent movie about the trials.

    It's true that many people were hung, but the townspeople were not proud of themselves afterwards, and it was the last trial in which spectral (supernatural) evidence was allowed in North America.

    If you can get to Salem you should go. It's a very interesting city, especially on Halloween, when it is like Mardi Gras, minus the nudity.

    Source(s): Friendly guy
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  • 1 decade ago

    On the PBS series "Secrets of the Dead" it was revealed that what happened was that during that particular year the rye crop was exposed to an abnormally high level of humidity, which triggered the growth of a fungus which contains "ergotamine", which contains LSD-27. You can figure out the rest. Some of the other witch trials involved a single individual claiming that others were witches, getting them executed, and seizing their property. This individual was eventually caught... and hung.

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    interesting salem is a cool place to visti lots of neat shops with magickal stuff

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