The “bewitched” girls spun wild tales of witches’ gatherings in Salem, as in this scene from The Crucible.

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2,RH.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.3

C3 (D2/6-8): His.1, His.2, His.3,His.4, His.5, His.6, His.14

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Civic ideals and practices

America’s Most Famous Witch Hunt

In 1692, a group of people in Salem, Massachusetts, was accused of witchcraft. The resulting panic became the country’s most famous witch hunt—but not its last.

For the people of Salem, it became a terrifying sign that Satan was among them. During a frigid January in 1692, Abigail Williams, 11, and her cousin, Betty Parris, 9, began complaining of strange ailments. The girls cried out that invisible beings were biting and pinching them. They thrashed about on the floor and threw themselves against walls, jabbering nonsense. 

Reverend Samuel Parris, Betty’s father, hoped to determine the cause of their bizarre behavior before word got out. But soon other girls in the Massachusetts Bay Colony village began to exhibit similar symptoms. Their explanation? They were being tortured by three village women—who were witches.

The news sent the people of Salem into a panic. So began nearly a year of wild accusations, dramatic trials, and, finally, a series of executions.By the time it was all over, 19 innocent people had been hanged for witchcraft. 

For the people of Salem, it became a terrifying sign that Satan was among them. During a frigid January in 1692, Abigail Williams, 11, began complaining of strange problems. So did her cousin, Betty Parris, 9. The girls cried out that invisible beings were biting and pinching them. They moved about violently on the floor. They threw themselves against walls. They were speaking nonsense.

Reverend Samuel Parris, Betty’s father, hoped to figure out the cause of their strange behavior before word got out. But soon other girls in the Massachusetts Bay Colony village began to show similar symptoms. Their explanation? They were being tortured by three village women. They said the women were witches.

The news sent the people of Salem into a panic. So began nearly a year of wild accusations and dramatic trials. It ended in a series of executions. By the time it was all over, 19 innocent people had been hanged for witchcraft.

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Nineteen innocent people were hanged for being witches, as depicted here in the movie version of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

Over the centuries, the exact spot of those hangings was lost. But recently, researchers used ground-penetrating radar to help pinpoint the location. This past summer, Salem finally established a memorial to the victims at the site, now called Proctor’s Ledge. 

“We should not be here today,” said Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell at the dedication in July. He paid tribute to the victims who had been “falsely and unjustly accused of being in the snare of the devil.”

In our modern world, it might be hard to believe that such an injustice could have happened. Yet the kind of panic that seized this Puritan village and pitted neighbor against neighbor remains all too human, experts say. Even 325 years later, what happened in Salem still has much to teach us about the dangers of hatred and hysteria.

“Salem is a cautionary tale,” says historian Mary Beth ­Norton of Cornell University, “about how in the midst of great social trauma we can still engage in witch hunts.”

Over the centuries, the exact spot of those hangings was lost. But recently, researchers used ground-penetrating radar to help find the precise location. The site is now called Proctor’s Ledge. This past summer, Salem finally established a memorial to the victims at the site. 

“We should not be here today,” said Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell at the dedication in July. He paid tribute to the victims. He said they had been “falsely and unjustly accused of being in the snare of the devil.”

In our modern world, it might be hard to believe that such an injustice could have happened. Yet the kind of panic that took over this Puritan village and pitted neighbor against neighbor remains all too human, experts say. Even 325 years later, what happened in Salem still has much to teach us. It shows the dangers of hatred and hysteria.

“Salem is a cautionary tale,” says Mary Beth Norton, a historian at Cornell University. She says it is a tale “about how in the midst of great social trauma we can still engage in witch hunts.”

Panic Sets In

In March, two months after Abigail and Betty were first “afflicted,” Salem held hearings in its meetinghouse to question the three women the girls had accused of being witches. 

Two of them denied the charges. But the third woman was Tituba, the Parrises’ Native American slave. Reverend Parris had demanded that Tituba confess information that he believed she had on witches. 

And so, Norton believes, Tituba did her duty as a slave and told the village justices what her master wanted. Yes, the devil had confronted her and, although she tried to resist, forced her to hurt the children. Worse, Tituba said, other witches lived among them in Salem.

Now people were really alarmed. More public hearings followed. The number of bewitched girls grew to eight or more. Village adults, too, began to accuse each other of witchcraft. 

In March, two months after Abigail and Betty were first “afflicted,” Salem held hearings in its meetinghouse. The purpose was to examine the three women the girls had accused of being witches.

Two of them denied the charges. But the third woman was Tituba, the Parrises’ Native American slave. Reverend Parris believed that Tituba had information about witches. He demanded that she confess. 

Norton believes that Tituba told the village justices what her master wanted in order to do her duty as a slave. She said the devil had come to her and forced her to hurt the children. Even worse, she said, other witches lived in Salem.

Now people were really alarmed. More public hearings followed. The number of bewitched girls grew to eight or more. Even village adults began to accuse each other of witchcraft.

“Witches” Take the Stand

As the hearings continued, they became more and more chaotic. One notable example involved accused witch Elizabeth Proctor, who appeared before a packed meetinghouse in April 1692.

Proctor swore before God that she was innocent while the bewitched girls threw fits. Abigail Williams reached out to strike Proctor, then clutched at her own hand, howling in pain. Proctor was burning her! she cried. Other girls pointed at the ceiling: Proctor was flying above them! When Proctor’s husband, John, defended his wife, the girls suddenly collapsed to the floor, as if his evil spirit had knocked them all down.

As the hearings continued, they became more and more chaotic. One notable example involved accused witch Elizabeth Proctor. She appeared before a packed meetinghouse in April 1692.

As Proctor swore before God that she was innocent, the bewitched girls threw fits. Abigail Williams reached out to hit Proctor. Then she grabbed her hand and howled in pain. Proctor was burning her! she cried. Other girls pointed at the ceiling and said Proctor was flying above them! When Proctor’s husband, John, defended his wife, the girls suddenly collapsed to the floor. It seemed like his evil spirit had knocked them all down.

The girls claimed a witch was flying above the packed courtroom.

It didn’t matter that Proctor denied the charges. Of course a witch wasn’t going to admit it, the judges at the hearing believed. In the end, she was convicted and sent to prison. By the end of May, at least 60 other people found guilty of witchcraft were there with her. 

It didn’t matter that Elizabeth Proctor denied the charges. The judges figured she just didn’t want to admit to being a witch. In the end, she was convicted and sent to prison. By the end of May, at least 60 other people found guilty of witchcraft were there with her.

Devils and Indians

What really caused the frenzy in Salem? First of all, the idea of witches and devils was not strange to the Puritans of early America. For them, life was hard and they did not doubt that unseen forces played a major role in their troubles. 

“Puritans firmly believed that they were on a special mission from God,” says historian Tom Heinzen of ­William Paterson University. “This meant to them that they were a special target of Satan.”

So “when a baby suddenly died, or when milk soured, or cows and horses became ill,” the Puritans believed that witchcraft was at work, says Norton. And to them, she says, witchcraft was the work of the devil.

The settlers also faced a very real danger from Native Americans, who were pushing back against the colonists. Attacks from New England Indian tribes had wiped out families, even entire towns. Some of the people fleeing the attacks had taken refuge in Salem—including several of the bewitched girls. When they described the devil in their visions, he often looked like an Indian.

Norton believes that the people of Salem connected the war in the “visible world”—against the Indians—with the war in the “invisible world,” against Satan. To them, it was a fight against evil for their very survival.

What really caused the frenzy in Salem? First of all, the idea of witches and devils was not strange to the Puritans of early America. For them, life was hard. They believed unforeseen forces could be playing a major role in their troubles.

“Puritans firmly believed that they were on a special mission from God,” says Tom Heinzen. He is a historian at William Paterson University. “This meant to them that they were a special target of Satan.”

So “when a baby suddenly died, or when milk soured, or cows and horses became ill,” the Puritans thought that witchcraft was at work, says Norton. She says they believed witchcraft was the work of the devil.

The settlers also faced a very real danger from Native Americans. Tribes were pushing back against the colonists. Attacks from New England Indian tribes had wiped out families and entire towns. Some of the people fleeing the attacks had gone to Salem to be safe. This included several of the bewitched girls. When they described the devil in their visions, he often looked like an Indian.

Norton believes that the people of Salem were connecting two wars. They saw the war against the Indians as being in the “visible world.” They connected it with the war against Satan in the “invisible world." To them, it was a fight against evil for their very survival.

The Hangings Begin

In late May, after three months of hearings, the new English governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, appointed a court to hold formal witch trials. The court began to order executions for those it found guilty. On July 19, five “witches” were hanged at Proctor’s Ledge. 

As accusations spread further, many people confessed to being witches, hoping to save themselves. They pointed the finger at others who, they said, had made them do it. “Nobody that confessed was hanged,” says Heinzen. The warped logic of the trials, he says, “required that innocent people lie.” What about people who insisted they were not working for Satan? They were usually found guilty, though they were telling the truth.

There were three months of hearings. Then formal witch trials began in late May. The new English governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, appointed the court. The court began to order executions for those it found guilty. On July 19, five “witches” were hanged at Proctor’s Ledge.

As accusations spread further, many people confessed to being witches. They were hoping to save themselves. They pointed the finger at others who, they said, had made them do it. “Nobody that confessed was hanged,” says Heinzen. The twisted logic of the trials, he says, “required that innocent people lie.” What about people who insisted they were not working for Satan? They were usually found guilty even though they were telling the truth.

A Community Is Shaken 

Yet all the while, doubt was growing about the justice of the trials. Some people defended their neighbors. Others questioned the “evidence” of dreams and evil spirits that only the accusers could see. 

Then, on August 19, one man accused of witchcraft, a minister named George Burroughs, perfectly recited the Lord’s Prayer before he was hanged. The crowd was shocked. To their thinking, a man possessed by Satan would not be able to recite the prayer. “That was a raw, turning-point moment,” says Heinzen.

Yet all the while, doubt was growing about the justice of the trials. Some people defended their neighbors. Others questioned whether dreams and evil spirits could be “evidence.” After all, the accusers were the only people who had seen them.

Then, on August 19, one man accused of witchcraft perfectly recited the Lord’s Prayer before he was hanged. He was a minister named George Burroughs. The crowd was shocked. To their thinking, a man possessed by Satan would not be able to recite the prayer. “That was a raw, turning point moment,” says Heinzen.

Many people confessed to being witches to save themselves.

By then, pressure was growing among influential people in Boston to end the trials. In October, Governor Phips did just that. Some 56 people remaining in Boston jails were gradually released.

In the end, 150 people were formally accused of witchcraft, 27 were convicted, and 24 were executed or died in prison. In 1711, Massachusetts courts began quietly clearing the names of the convicted.

By then, pressure was growing among influential people in Boston to end the trials. In October, Governor Phips did just that. Some 56 people remaining in Boston jails were gradually released.

In the end, 150 people were formally accused of witchcraft, 27 were convicted, and 24 were executed or died in prison. In 1711, Massachusetts courts began quietly clearing the names of the convicted.

The Lessons of Salem

Are witch hunts history? Far from it. “I think they’re happening all the time,” says Heinzen. Today, the term is most often used to refer to widespread and damaging false allegations—what experts call “social panics.” 

One of the most famous cases is the anti-Communist hysteria that seized the U.S. in the 1950s (see sidebar, below). More recently, President Donald Trump called investigations into ties between his presidential campaign and Russian hacking during the 2016 election “the single greatest witch hunt” in American political history.  

A truly modern equivalent can often be found on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. There, accusations and rumors can quickly go viral even if they’re not true. One critic has labeled such online pile-ons “witch hunts on steroids.”

For the people of Salem, the events that tore their community apart so long ago remain both relevant and educational. “We would like to think we became better people,” says Barz-Snell. “The truth is that the lessons from Salem are not just learned once, but must be learned and relearned by each generation.”

Are witch hunts history? Far from it. “I think they’re happening all the time,” says Heinzen. Today, the term is most often used to refer to widespread and damaging false allegations. These are what experts call “social panics.”

One of the most famous cases is the anti-Communist hysteria in the U.S. in the 1950s (see sidebar). More recently, President Donald Trump referred to witch hunts when talking about investigations into ties between his presidential campaign and Russian hacking during the 2016 election. He called those investigations “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

A truly modern equivalent can often be found on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. There, accusations and rumors can quickly go viral even if they are not true. One critic has labeled such online pile-ons “witch hunts on steroids.”

For the people of Salem, the events that tore their community apart still matter. The events are still educational even though they happened so long ago. “We would like to think we became better people,” says Barz-Snell. “The truth is that the lessons from Salem are not just learned once, but must be learned and relearned by each generation.”

CORE QUESTION: What factors allowed the false accusations of witchcraft to spread throughout Salem? Cite text evidence.

McCarthyism and The Crucible

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To many Americans, the most famous witch hunt in political history was the one known as McCarthyism, which haunted the U.S. in the 1950s.

In 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy generated nationwide alarm by alleging that hundreds of Communists were working in the U.S. State Department.  

At the time, the U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War. 

McCarthy’s accusations helped inflame fears that Communism from the Soviet Union and China threatened U.S. national security. The result was a panicked effort to find hidden Communists in every walk of life.

In April 1954, McCarthy’s charges were challenged in 36 days of dramatic televised Senate hearings. That December, the Senate formally condemned him and his career soon ended in disgrace.

Playwright Arthur Miller was an outspoken critic of McCarthy. Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible used the story of Salem to attack the irrational fears on which McCarthyism fed. Since then, the play has been continuously read and performed as a lesson on the damage of witch hunts.

To many Americans, the most famous witch hunt in political history was the one known as McCarthyism, which haunted the U.S. in the 1950s.

In 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy generated nationwide alarm by alleging that hundreds of Communists were working in the U.S. State Department.  

At the time, the U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War. 

McCarthy’s accusations helped inflame fears that Communism from the Soviet Union and China threatened U.S. national security. The result was a panicked effort to find hidden Communists in every walk of life.

In April 1954, McCarthy’s charges were challenged in 36 days of dramatic televised Senate hearings. That December, the Senate formally condemned him and his career soon ended in disgrace.

Playwright Arthur Miller was an outspoken critic of McCarthy. Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible used the story of Salem to attack the irrational fears on which McCarthyism fed. Since then, the play has been continuously read and performed as a lesson on the damage of witch hunts.

European Colonies in the New World (circa 1700)

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Map Skills

1. Salem was part of which colony? 

2. Which colonies bordered Massachusetts? 

3. Which three European countries claimed territory in North America?

4. What was the earliest British colony?

5. When was Connecticut settled as a colony?

6. Which colony was settled in 1670?

7. What mountain range bordered Britain’s colonies?

8. About how many straight-line miles separate Charleston and Boston?

9. What was the oldest settlement on this map and where was it located?

10. Name all 13 of the original British colonies.

1. Salem was part of which colony? 

2. Which colonies bordered Massachusetts? 

3. Which three European countries claimed territory in North America?

4. What was the earliest British colony?

5. When was Connecticut settled as a colony?

6. Which colony was settled in 1670?

7. What mountain range bordered Britain’s colonies?

8. About how many straight-line miles separate Charleston and Boston?

9. What was the oldest settlement on this map and where was it located?

10. Name all 13 of the original British colonies.

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