Between 1692 and 1693, more than 200 people in colonial-era Salem, Massachusetts were falsely accused of practicing witchcraft, and 19 of them were executed. More than three centuries later, the Salem witch trials remain one of the most disturbing, traumatic moments in American history, and an example of the perplexingly enigmatic nature of evil.
Why, in a paroxysm of paranoia, did Salem’s citizens turn on their own neighbors, and fantasize that they had become minions of Satan and committed crimes that never occurred? Why was Salem’s populace so willing to believe the worst, and why did people acquiesce to colonial officials’ use of breathtakingly cruel methods of torture—such as crushing an elderly man’s ribs under the weight of rocks--to extract confessions from the accused?
Fear and religious fervor undoubtedly played a role in the colonists’ extremism. As Elisabeth Reis, author of “Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in New England” explains, the New England Puritans had a “very real dread of the devil,” whom they saw as continually waiting to ensnare them and lead them to eternal damnation. Other theories hold that the witch trials were a reaction to stresses that the colonial society was experiencing. But regardless of the cause, the Salem Witch trials provide unsettling historical proof that it doesn’t necessarily require a Hitler, Osama bin Laden or Charles Manson to perpetrate horrifying evil. To the contrary, they suggest that unexceptional, seemingly rational and moral people are capable of committing or supporting cruel injustices as well.
In understanding what occurred in Salem during this time, it’s important to place them in a historical context. When the events occurred, it was a common belief that people could pledge allegiance to Satan and become witches with supernatural power to harm others. Mass persecution of suspected witches was such a frequent occurrence that by one estimate, some 50,000 men and women were executed for witchcraft across Europe between 1500 and 1800. Historians say that hysteria about witchcraft often seemed to coincide with situations in which people were under stress from larger outside events, such as wars, that they were helpless to control. As John Goldsmith, curator of the Cromwell Museum in Huntington, England, told the BBC in 2010, witch trials may have helped restore people’s sense of control.
"People who were different in any way, through age, or physical disability, or mental disability, were picked out by those who wanted to believe there was some specific reason why things had gone wrong," Goldsmith said.
Salem Village (which was located in the present-day location of Danvers, Mass.,), had the requisite conditions for that scenario. A war between England and France in North America had driven scores of displaced people into Salem, and their needs put strain on the community’s resources. The village also was in turmoil from internal controversy, because of Rev. Samuel Parris, who had arrived a few years before the trials to become the first local ordained clergyman. Parris was disliked by some as rigid and greedy, and that had provoked quarrels—which Puritans were inclined to see as the work of the Devil.
Those tensions put the community on edge, and set the stage for the outbreak of hysteria that was to come in January and February of 1692. That’s when several young girls, including Parris’ nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, suddenly starting behaving strangely—screaming, throwing things, making strange sounds, and contorting themselves into odd positions. The fits spread to others as well. A local physician, Dr. William Griggs, concluded that that the symptoms had been caused by witchcraft. The girls accused Rev. Parris’s West Indian servant Tituba and two other women of having cast spells upon them. They also reported that they had seen witches flying about.
Today, many believe that the girls concocted the hoax, using descriptions of demonic possessions in the then recent book by Boston clergyman Cotton Mather as source material. But when Tituba, who may have been afraid of being a scapegoat, confessed to being a witch and implicated the other defendants, it fueled the frenzy. Eventually, William Phipps, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, created a special court to hear witchcraft cases. Its five judges—three of whom were friends of Mather—used methods that today would seem bizarre, such as compelling a defendant to touch one of the supposed victims, to see whether it stopped the demonic symptoms. They also accepted as evidence gossip, rumors and tall tales—such as one man’s claim that he had witnessed a suspect transform herself into a cat.
As more people were accused of being witches, the inquest also began to rely upon torture to extract confessions. Two teenage boys who were arrested, for example, were confined with their necks hogtied to their heels, “till the blood was ready to come out of their noses,” as one of their fellow prisoners later recalled.
The trials were so clearly rigged and based upon concocted evidence that even Mather felt compelled to complain. "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned," he wrote in a letter to the governor. Eventually, after Phipps’ own wife was accused of witchcraft, he apparently conceded the farcical nature of the proceedings, and in May 1693, he pardoned all those who had been imprisoned on witchcraft charges. But it was too late to save the 19 who had been hanged and the elderly man who had been killed by being crushed with stone stabs during torture.
What remains frightening about the Salem witch trials is that they highlight a dark side of human nature which has come to the fore again and again—in the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, for example—and which still lurks within in people’s psyches today. As Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman and Andrew Howie wrote in a 2013 article for the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law, “The community legitimized the roles taken by the girls, misguided professionals (clergy and doctors) helped, and those in authority willingly acquiesced, a phenomenon that has been repeated across time and place.” They also show how seemingly rational, moral people can be induced to support wrongs or even perform them, if they fail to contemplate the nature of their deeds--a notion that philosopher Hanna Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
That suggests that no matter how far we think we’ve advanced since Puritan times, there’s always a danger that the horror of the Salem witch trials will, in some fashion, repeat itself once again.