Salem Village

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Mass hysteria in 1692 colonial Massachusetts led to the execution of 19 innocent people for witchcraft. The tragedy occurred in Salem Village (now called Danvers), which has since been incorrectly identified with present-day Salem. Time Life Pictures/Qetty Images.

Salem Village (Danvers, Massachusetts)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

At the end of the seventeenth century, Salem Village, Massachusetts, became the scene of one ofthe more important incidents in American history. Throughout the spring and summer of 1692, 19 people were tried, convicted, and executed for practicing witchcraft, including one who was killed after refusing to plead. More than fifty others were awaiting trial when the governor moved to stop the trials in October.

The trials grew out of the widespread belief among the members of the Congregational Church, which dominated Massachusetts at the time, that Satan was an active force in the human community who often lured people into practicing malevolent magic or witchcraft. Over the half century prior to the incidents at Salem Village, there had been a number of individual trials of accused witches in the New England colonies. The problem in Salem appears to have begun when Tituba, a servant working in the home of Salem Village’s parish minister, Samuel Parris, introduced some folk magic practices to Parris’s nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and her friend Abigail Williams. The girls subsequently began to exhibit some bizarre behavior patterns and, when examined by a physician, were considered possible victims of witchcraft.

Tituba tried to counter these effects by working a magic spell. When the girls’ behavior continued, they were pressured to name who was causing it. They accused Tituba, but then also pointed their fingers at village residents Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, two women known to have bad relations with some of their neighbors. Following their arrest, Tituba confessed to practicing witchcraft and named Good and Osborne as co-conspirators. People searching the homes of the women found some items that seemed to confirm that the two did in fact practice magic.

Over the next month, four other young girls began to exhibit the same bizarre behaviors as Elizabeth and Abigail. They joined the first two in denouncing village residents as the source of the spells that afflicted them. Slowly, evidence of a possible hidden coven emerged. When the trials began in June, in many cases the only evidence against the accused was the testimony of the girls who said they were victims of witchcraft. Boston minister Cotton Mather (1663–1728), himself a strong believer in witchcraft’s existence, was nevertheless among the first to decry the use of such “spectral evidence.” However, the court disagreed with this view, and as the trials proceeded the majority of those convicted were found guilty exclusively on the basis of spectral evidence.

The first executions occurred late in July. Nineteen died before Governor William Phipps (1651–1695) stopped the use of spectral evidence and then ended the trials. After a period of reflection on what had happened, the people of Massachusetts largely concluded that a great tragedy had occurred. Most of those directly responsible for the deaths publicly recanted their actions. The trials had a significant role in convincing the general public that no such thing as malevolent magic existed. The event at Salem Village was attributed to “hysteria,” which remains a popular explanation to the present day. After the events that occurred at Salem Village were reinterpreted in a negative light, in 1711 the colony of Massachusetts passed a legislative measure that restored the rights and good names of those found guilty by the trials and granted a large sum to their heirs. In 1752 the town changed its name to Danvers, which resulted in the public’s coming to see an adjacent community, Salem, Massachusetts, as the site of the trials.

In recent years a considerable amount of time has been devoted to reexamining the Salem Village event from historical, psychological, and sociological perspectives. A much more comprehensive understanding of the forces operating behind the trials and their supporters has therefore emerged. Interestingly, a neo-pagan witchcraft movement has arisen from all this that has adopted the history of the deaths at Salem Village as part of its lost past. In an uncritical appropriation of the story of the trials, modern Wiccans have moved to Salem, where they have become a vital element in the town’s tourist industry. They treat the victims of the trials as martyrs of the Wiccan faith. At various times, government officials have responded positively to the Wiccan community, such as in 1977, when then-Gover-to open a business in Salem, as the town’s official nor Michael Dukakis named Laurie Cabot (b. witch. In 1992 the town erected a memorial to 1933), who was the first of the modern Wiccans the victims of the trials.

Sources:

Boyer, Paul S., and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Godbeer, Richard. The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692.New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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