The Salem Witch Trials: What Really Happened | Alice Lin
It all began in January 1692, when two young girls, Betty (9) and Abigail (11) got “sick” after playing a fortune telling game. They contorted their bodies violently, had outbursts of screaming, hid under furniture, made odd sounds, threw things, and overall experienced strange symptoms. The doctor couldn't find any physical problems and eventually suggested the supernatural. From a modern day perspective, these girls were likely affected by epilepsy, delusional psychosis, or convulsive ergotism caused by eating products made with rye that was infected with the fungus ergot.
Eventually, the two girls blamed three marginalized women in the community for their illness: Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, Sarah Osborne, an unpopular bed-ridden elderly lady, and Tituba, a slave. Both Good and Osborne pleaded innocent, but Tituba, likely scared due to her delicate position in society, pleaded guilty and “confessed” to making a deal with the devil and even implicated other women. With this, paranoia mounted, and the witch hunt got started in earnest. Soon, more and more people were experiencing the symptoms of being bewitched. Additoinally, more and more people were accused of being witches and not just the marginalized members of society — respected figures were beginning to be targeted as well.
Through April and May, the witch hunt continued to spread, but this time it went beyond the community in Salem Village. Neighboring towns began witch hunts of their own, sending the suspected witches to Salem for trial. By June, more than 200 people accused of being witches were arrested and held in local jails. The justice system was unable to handle the increase in traffic, so a special court, known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer, was created by the governor to handle the accused.
Trials were objectively unfair — the accused had to defend themselves without a lawyer or any legal counsel, and much of the most damning evidence was spectral evidence (evidence based on the visions and dreams of the “victims.”) Many suspected witches “confessed” and named other witches to escape punishment, while those who maintained their innocence faced harsher punishments. Although there were critics of the witch trials, most were afraid to come out openly for fear that they would be accused of protecting the devil or even practicing witchcraft themselves. In this way, the witch hunt was an uninhibited, self-perpetuating cycle, an unfortunate and dangerous positive feedback loop.
However, as trials and hangings continued, public opinion slowly turned against the witch hunt. On July 19, Rebecca Nurse, a well-respected member of the community unlike the other accused women, was hanged, planting a seed of doubt in the community about the validity of the trials. Then in mid-September, Giles Corey, a suspected witch who refused to enter a plea to stop his trial, was crushed to death by heavy stones in an attempt to force out a plea. His cruel torture and death increased opposition to the witch trials.
The real turning point occurred at the end of September, when the courts prohibited the use of spectral evidence, drastically decreasing the amount of people convicted. With this, the witch hunt began its descent. The final nail in the coffin was the governor’s dismissal of the Court of Oyer and Terminer on October 29. In the end, 19 people died, 18 by hanging, one by torture, and 2 dogs were also shot for being suspected of witchcraft.
The Salem Witch Trials now serve as a cautionary tale, warning us to beware the potentially devastating consequences of fear and ignorance governing our actions. It also attests to the dangers of religious extremism and the importance of a fair and just judicial system.