The Salem Witch Trials have always been a time in history that intrigued me. The first time I really became acquainted with it all was during a field trip I took with my girl scout troop in junior high. We went to Salem during October for their Haunted Happenings festival. It was amazing! They had spooky haunted houses, museums and reenactments, magical tarot card readings etc. I was hooked! This festival still occurs every year and if you get a chance to check it out, I strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a great time!
However, even back then it was not lost on me that these spooktacular Halloween events were tied to real history and people. I was already becoming a history and historical fiction nerd. So, what did I do? I started researching and devouring all the Salem Witch Trial books I could find.
The Salem Witch Trials really are a frightening example of the power of Mob Mentality. When I taught The Crucible to my 11th graders we even compared it to the divisive nature of politics over the years.
Magic, Children or Politics: The Start of the Salem Witch Trials
It all began in colonial Massachusetts in the early 1690s. A minister named Samuel Parris had earned a reputation among the people of Salem for being inflexible and greedy. There were folks who were beginning to question him and a chasm was growing. Parris blamed the quarreling on the work of the devil.
Then in January 1692, Parris’s daughter, Betty, age 9, and his niece, Abigail Williams, age 11, started suffering from “fits”. They screamed, threw things, uttered nonsense and contorted themselves into unnatural positions. A local doctor was brought in and blamed the supernatural. Soon another girl, Ann Putnam, began experiencing the “fits” as well. By February, the local magistrates were brought in and under their pressure, the girls blamed three women for casting spells on them. Tituba, a Caribbean woman who was enslaved by the Parris family, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne, an elderly poor woman.
The trials began in March. Osborne and Good professed their innocence, but Tituba confessed and claimed the Devil made her do it and there were other witches in Salem. All three women were found guilty and paranoia spread. Soon, accusations were flying wildly.
A special court was created and a respected minister named Cotton Mather stepped forward and implored the court to disallow the use of “spectral” evidence- dreams and visions. The court refused and instead the hangings began. Ten people were hanged that summer followed by eight more in September.
By October, Mather’s father, Increase, then president of Harvard, stepped forward to repeat his son’s request to denounce “spectral” evidence. He was quoted as saying, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”
Motivated to End the Salem Witch Trials
This time, Governor Phips, whose own wife was now being accused, prohibited further arrests, dissolved the special court and disallowed the use of “spectral” evidence.
By May of 1693, Phips went one step further to end the hysteria. He pardoned the remaining prisoners accused of witchcraft. But the damage had already been done. Nineteen men and women had been hanged on Gallows Hill. One other had been pressed to death when he refused trial, and five others had died in prison while awaiting trial.
It took many years for true restitution to occur. Judge Samuel Sewell, who oversaw the special court, and accuser, Ann Putnam, came forward to admit error and guilt in the hysteria. In 1702, a Massachusetts court declared the trials unlawful. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names to the accused and paid a restitution to their heirs. But it wasn’t until 1957- more than 250 years later- that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692.
Like me, many continue to be fascinated by the strange events and hysteria surrounding the Salem Witch Trials. Scientists and historians continue to explore explanations for the “fits” the girls suffered. These so far range from food poisoning by fungi, to a reaction to church politics, family feuds and hysterics. It still is a cause of much debate. And every year, the Salem Witch Museum and the town’s Haunted Happening festival continue to be one of the most-visited spots in the United States.
Salem Witch Trials Booklist
If you find your self captivated by this intriguing period of history, here are a few of my favorite Salem Witch Trial Books
Beyond the Burning Time
by Kathryn Lasky
This is a nostalgic one for me! This was the first book I found and read after my junior high visit to Salem. I still have it on my bookshelf today.
A Break with Charity
by Ann Rinaldi
I love this first person narrative and this one really gives you an insider perspective and feel for the hysteria and moral debates as the hysteria ensues.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
by Maryse Conde
This book is a fascinating read. I always questioned Tituba. Why would she confess? Did she not realize she was the last inciting match that burst this hysteria into flames? Did she not care? Conde goes deep into the character of Tituba and creates a believable history and story for what Tituba endured. An overall fabulous book!
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