Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by JoAnn from Lexington, SC. JoAnn Wonders, “What were the Salem Witch Trials?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, JoAnn!
It's Halloween night and your doorbell chimes over and over again, as a steady procession of goblins, ghouls, and ghosts appear on the porch in search of sweet treats. Then you hear a light knocking at the door. You answer and a small child asks you to guess what she is.
She's dressed all in black with a pointy hat and a broomstick. What could she be? It doesn't take long for you to figure out that black clothing plus a pointy hat and a broomstick can equal only one thing: a witch!
According to most dictionaries, witches are people (usually women) who claim to or are thought to practice magic or sorcery. Unlike magicians, however, witches are believed to possess evil or wicked powers due to their association with the devil or other forces of evil.
Do witches really exist? The vast majority of people today no longer believe in witchcraft or witches. However, hundreds of years ago, people did believe in witches, and their belief led to the tragic events that have come to be known as the Salem witch trials.
In January 1692, two young girls living in Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) began experiencing bouts of violent convulsions and screaming. The girls, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, were the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, the local Puritan minister.
Local doctor William Griggs diagnosed the girls and concluded that they had been bewitched. The girls claimed that their Caribbean slave, Tituba, and two other women from town, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, had bewitched them.
These women were arrested and accused of witchcraft, creating the beginnings of a panic in the small village and surrounding areas. Tensions were already high in Salem Village due to a recent smallpox epidemic and ongoing fears of attacks from Native Americans.
Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne denied being witches, but Tituba confessed and named others who were supposedly witches. Historians now believe she likely did this in an attempt to save herself from what was likely to be a certain conviction.
Hysteria spread beyond Salem Village into the rest of Massachusetts, as many others were accused of witchcraft. In total, more than 150 men, women, and children were accused of witchcraft. Some of the accused were upstanding members of the local church and community. At times it likely seemed that no one was safe from accusation.
The local justice system was quickly overwhelmed by claims of witchcraft. In May 1692, Governor William Phips established a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear and decide witchcraft cases.
The court handed down its first conviction against Bridget Bishop on June 2, 1692. Bishop was hanged eight days later on what would become known as Gallows Hill. Over the next few months, 18 more people would be hanged on Gallows Hill, while several other accused witches died in jail.
By September 1692, public opinion began to turn against the trials and the hysteria subsided. The special Court of Oyer and Terminer was disbanded and all those accused of witchcraft were eventually released and pardoned.
The Salem witch trials left a painful legacy of bitterness in Salem Village and throughout Massachusetts. One positive outcome was the revision of court procedures and the laws of evidence.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer had based many convictions on spectral evidence (testimony about dreams and visions). Governor Phips later demanded that spectral evidence be disregarded and that standards of evidence be similar for all crimes.