You know what’s disturbing about the Salem Witch Trials? Quite a lot! The Salem Witch Trials started in the spring of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. After two girls accused women of being witches, fear, paranoia, and hysteria snowballed into a societal nightmare. Many were brought before judges and sentenced to death with little to no evidence against them except for the baseless testimony of others. Needless to say, things got out of hand, destroying lives, breaking apart families, and thrusting their little village in disarray. From what caused the Salem Witch Trials to how they ended, here are 25 Disturbing Facts About The Salem Witch Trials.
Under English Law, the trials at Salem didn’t work the way we think of trials today with lawyers and strict rules about evidence. Often, these trials would be heavily weighed against the accused, and as such, many saw the writing on the wall and confessed. Surprisingly, those who confessed to witchcraft weren’t executed, but the others who refused were.
Right before the witch trials took place, a smallpox outbreak spread through the town of Salem. This only added to the brewing hysteria. Eventually, Reverend Cotton Mather accused Martha Carrier of starting it through witchcraft, calling her a “rampant hag” and “Queen of Hell,” though historical documents show she was merely independent-minded and unsubmissive.
Abigail Williams and Betty Parris
The brutal trials all started because of these two girls. The historical record states they began having terrible fits and would claim to see invisible spirits. When she was examined by the doctor, and he claimed she was bewitched, the trials began and little Williams started accusing many people, including Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osbourne.
During the trials, many tests were created to determine if someone was a witch or not. In this case, an accused person would have their finger tied to their opposite toe and lowered into a body of water. If they floated, they were a witch but if they sank, then they weren’t. The danger, of course, was drowning if they left the suspect in the water for too long.
Another test involved creating a basic cake out of rye flour and the cursed person’s urine. They’d feed the cake to a dog and if the dog showed the same symptoms, then witchcraft was proven. At that point, the dog would reveal the witch. Why a dog? Apparently, they believed dogs had a close association with the devil.
With this test it was believed while the inflicted person was having a fit, if the witch touched them, the fit would stop. So, they’d have the accused touch those having fits to see if the fits would stop. As you might suspect, once the accused touched those inflicted, the fits would stop and they’d point to the accused and call them a witch.
These trials were mostly supported by a law passed by the United Kingdom’s parliament in 1542 called The Witchcraft Act, outlawing witchcraft and making it punishable by death. For hundreds of years, more witchcraft laws would be written.
Sadly, animals were not excused from the trials. Like we said before, dogs were suspect of potentially being linked with the devil or being the devil himself. In one case, a girl accused a neighbor’s dog of bewitching her. The villagers executed the dog with a firearm, but their priest, Cotton Mather, claimed the animal wasn’t the devil because the devil wouldn’t have died.
Pressed to Death
The way they executed people during the trials was quite unusual. In one case, highly successful farmer Giles Corey was accused by three women of witchcraft. When convicted, the villagers put him on his back, placed a wooden board on him, and then gradually placed heavy stones on top, crushing him to death. This form of execution is called “Pressing.” Corey’s last words were, “More weight.”
Torture to get a confession was also a common practice during the trials. Usually, it would lead to bizarre and fanatical confessions. In one case, while a slave named Tituba was being severely beaten, she cried out, “The devil came to me and bid me serve him!” Afterward, she talked about black dogs, red cats, and yellow birds, plus a white-haired man that made her sign the devil’s book.
Of course, we’ve already discussed the first two girls who made accusations of witchcraft. This was merely the beginning. After a while, many accused others of witchcraft. Some took advantage of the hysteria to get back at rival families, while others honestly bought into it. Records show a total of 200 people were accused, and of those, 140 to 150 were arrested.
One theory about what caused the Salem Witch Trials is that many in the village suffered from Ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that affects rye grain in warm and damp springs and summers, something very common in Salem. The symptoms of the poisoning are similar to what was described, including spasms, fits, hallucinations, delusions, and vomiting.
Land and Homes Removed
While torture and execution are certainly two of the scariest parts of the Salem Witch Trials, another act was just as terrifying for many people – land removal. Many of the accused were landowners, and in some cases, rather than killing them, the local government would take away their land. In a heavily agrarian society, not having land essentially thrust you into extreme poverty.
Door to Door Witch Hunters
Eventually, rather than accusations made by others, the trials spawned real-life witch hunters going door to door and asking people to rat out their neighbors. Naturally, this only added fuel to the fire, scaring many people, and causing them to accuse others of witchcraft as well.
The Devil's Mark
A common source of “evidence” against the accused was the “Devil’s Mark.” It was believed the devil would make a pact with a witch by leaving a mark on their skin. Some believe these may have been lesions from a disease or a birthmark.
Back then, it’s doubtful many of the villagers in Salem understood what was really happening. They were all suffering from mass hysteria, a social and psychological problem common in malnourished, poor, and stressed environments. Sadly, the hysteria in Salem only snowballed and lasted for a while rather than fizzling out after a short time, resulting in many casualties.
Not everyone bought into the validity of the trials. For example, this woman often spoke up against the examinations and tried to convince others to stop going to them. Unfortunately for her, this put a target on her back and many pointed at her as a witch, thinking she was obstructing the trials. Oddly enough, when she stood trial for being a witch, even her husband testified against her. Who was her husband? Giles Corey, the man who later was also accused of being a witch and pressed to death.
The governor of Salem let the trials continue for a full year until he caught wind that his own wife was accused of being a witch. After that, he put a swift end to the trials.
Gallows Hill and Burials
The place many of the accused were hung and executed is called Gallows Hill. For years, many speculated on its location; it wasn’t confirmed to be at Proctor’s Ledge until 2016. However, even more mysteriously, no one knows where many of the accused were buried since they weren’t allowed a Christian burial.
Curiously, another form of evidence brought forward by accusers was “spectral evidence.” That’s right, a testimony of people claiming witches appeared to them in spirit or ghost form. In George Jacobs case, all the witnesses claimed he appeared to them as a ghost and beat them with a cane. Another story claimed Jacobs led a man to the water and tried to drown him there. Despite no concrete evidence, Jacobs was found guilty and executed.
With so many people being accused of witchcraft, authorities had to put them somewhere, so many were placed in the local Ipswich Jail which, as you can imagine, became very crowded, fast. The conditions were awful, the prisoners were forced to do labor, and if they couldn’t afford meals, they were only given bread and water. They also were kept in total isolation up until they eventually were executed.
During the trials, pretty much no one was immune to the accusations of witchcraft, even ministers. This became especially true for George Burroughs, the first and only minister during the trials to be accused of witchcraft. He was sentenced to death, and because of the heat wave, was buried quickly in a shallow grave with his chin and foot still sticking out of the ground.
Burned at the Stake
While popular myth points to burning witches at the stake, no one was executed this way during the Salem Witch Trials. Though some were burned at the stake in Europe, hanging was the popular mode of execution in North America.
One of Many
While the Salem Witch Trials are the most infamous in North American history, they were not an isolated incident. Other witch trials took place in America at the time, and the practice was rampant in Europe before and after.
In total, twenty people were executed due to the trials. 19 of those people were hanged at Gallow’s Hill and one, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. Four other people died in prison while waiting for trial. The other hundreds of accused were pardoned, found not guilty, never indicted, evaded arrest, or escaped from jail.