Hair-Raising Facts About The Salem Witch Trials

Some people believe that the Salem witch trials killed hundreds of women by burning them at the stake, which is untrue. For over 300 years, Americans have viewed the Salem witch trials as a shameful year of mass hysteria. Because of that, several misconceptions have overshadowed the facts about the event.

In 1692 alone, hundreds of people were convicted of witchcraft. This stemmed from family feuds, political upheaval, and mob mentality. Some of the victims weren’t pardoned until 2001. Read on to learn the stunning facts about how one alleged instance of possession turned into a stain on American history.

It Wasn’t Just Women, And There Was No Burning

George Burroughs reciting the Lord's Prayer before his execution at Witches Hill, Salem, Massachusetts
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to the popular notion of the Salem witch trials, hundreds of women were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. This is all untrue. Although over 200 people were convicted, only 19 were found guilty. Fourteen women and five men were condemned to death. Because “witch” is a gender-neutral term, anyone could be accused.

Convicted people were also not burned at the stake. They were hanged. One man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death after refusing to plead. At least five people died in jail, including two babies.

It Wasn’t Only In Salem

An overall shot of the cemetery on Bridge Street that has been closed off by the Department of Public Works
Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Despite being well-known as the “Salem” witch trials, historically, the trials occurred across several towns. The main culprits were Ipswich, Andover, and Salem. This area, known as Salem Village, encompassed modern-day Danvers in Massachusetts. Even among the Puritans, it became known for its many internal disputes.

Citizens frequently argued about property lines, “quarrelsome” neighbors, grazing rights, and church privileges. Even the church congregation was fractured, with three ministers choosing to leave over disputes. By the time witchcraft hysteria broke out, citizens were all too eager to point fingers at each other.

Why It Was Mostly Women That Were Convicted

An accused witch going through the judgement trial, where she is dunked in water to prove her guilt of practicing witchcraft.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Although men were also condemned for witchcraft, an overwhelming majority of the accused–about 78%–were women. This trend had deep roots in Puritan religious beliefs. Puritans believed that both men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but were not in the eyes of the Devil.

Because women were perceived as frail and unprotected, Puritans believed that the Devil could easily persuade them. Those who did not conform to Puritan society, who did not marry or who did not have children, were more likely to be accused of being “sinful.”

Some Of The Accused Remained Guilty Until 2001

Benita Towle, the seventh great-granddaughter of Rebecca Nurse, stoops to touch the tombstone of Nurse
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In 1992, a Salem schoolteacher named Paula Keene realized that five of the executed victims were never legally pardoned. The descendants of the women still lived in the town and felt disturbed by their ancestors’ convictions. “History proves they weren’t witches,” Keene asserted.

With help from state representatives and The Danvers Tercentennial Committee, Keene convinced the Massachusetts House of Representatives to pardon those five women. The bill was finally signed on Halloween in 2001. Bridget Bishop, Anne Pudeator, Alice Parker, Susanna Martin, and Wilmott Redd were officially proclaimed innocent.

It Was The Puritans, Not The Pilgrims

Puritan statue at the Metro Center in Springfield, Massachusetts
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Because the witch trials took place in Massachusetts in 1692, many people assume that the Pilgrims were responsible. This is another misconception. The culprits were Puritans, English Protestants who fled their native land due to religious persecution. Yes, that is ironic.

The Puritans were notorious for their strict religious piety. For instance, they forbade celebrating Christmas because they disliked its Pagan origins and lack of focus on “serious” religious thought. Over 21,000 Puritans sailed across the Atlantic, and many supported the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The First “Victims” Were Children

Engraving by Howard Pyle depicts the accusation of a bedeviled girl during the Salem witch trials.
Howard Pyle/Getty Images
Howard Pyle/Getty Images

In February 1692, nine-year-old Betty Parris and her cousin, eleven-year-old Abigail Williams were experiencing unusual fits. The girls screamed at random times, threw objects, and contorted their bodies into odd positions. They also complained of being pricked with invisible pins.

Later on, twelve-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr. experienced the same symptoms. A doctor named William Greggs claimed that he could see no physical evidence of any illness. Eventually, he diagnosed all three girls as “bewitched.” This lead to the girls’ families rapidly pointing fingers at anyone they didn’t like or who didn’t fit the Puritan ideal.

The First Accusation Had Roots In Racial Prejudice

Illustration depicts enslaved Barbadian woman Tituba in a room with three Puritan girls, Salem, Massachussetts, 1690s.
Interim Archives/Getty Images
Interim Archives/Getty Images

After the diagnosis of Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, their families accused a woman named Tituba of cursing their daughters. Tituba was South American, and historians believe that her racial differences made her a bigger target. Tituba initially denied the accusations, but later confessed and accused two other women as well.

According to historians, Tituba was likely Carib-Indian or African and was captured near modern-day Venezuela. As such, she was accused of practicing voodoo. Secondhand accounts say that she helped the girls perform divination to see their future spouses, although there is no substantial evidence to support these claims.

People Confessed Just So They Wouldn’t Die

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Getty Images

Most historians agree that those who were accused of witchcraft weren’t likely practicing magic. Because of the harsh political climate at the time, people accused one another to settle familial feuds rather than to provide solid evidence. Also, those who confessed were reintegrated into society. This lead to plenty of victims “confessing” to save their own lives.

Historian Elizabeth Reis claims that, based on evidence, some people may have actually worshiped the Devil. Others believed that they might have done so temporarily. Abigail Faulkner, one of the accused, claimed that the Devil may have overtaken her for one moment in which she harmed her neighbors.

They Convicted People Through Baking Cake

GettyGovernor Phelps ordered the relase of all prisoners held in charge of witchcraft, Salem, Mass.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the original case of Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, a neighbor to the girls asked the family’s slave to bake a witch cake. The neighbor, Mary Sibly, intended to use English white magic to pinpoint the witch. The cake was made with rye meal and urine from the two girls. Sibly then fed the cake to a dog.

According to English folk tradition, the witch would feel physical pain when the dog ate the cake. Later on, the Puritan congregation warned Sibly against using any kind of magic, even white magic. But that didn’t stop citizens from using magic to “confirm” a witch’s identity.

Skepticism Could Get You Accused

Martha Corey and her prosecutors, Salem, Massachusetts, 1692
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

One of the most famous tales of an accused witch is that of Martha Corey. She and her husband, Giles Corey, attended the early witchcraft trials. Martha Corey openly doubted the initial accusations, which made her a target. Although Martha was a full covenanted church member, that didn’t stop her from being accused.

Corey and another member of the Church, Rebecca Nurse, were convicted and hanged for witchcraft. The townspeople denied them a proper burial; instead, they tossed them into shallow graves with no headstones. This sent a warning to anyone who secretly doubted accusations of witchcraft.

At The Time, Witchcraft Was Worse Than Murder

A scene in the courtroom during The Salem witch trials of 1692.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Martha Corey’s husband, Giles, was an 81-year-old farmer and prominent member of the church. Years earlier, he had been convicted and found guilty of murdering one of his farm hands. He was let off with a fine. After Martha Corey died from the noose, Giles was arrested again.

Giles refused to plead. The congregation condemned him to peine forte et dure, a form of torture in which increasingly heavy stones are placed upon the victim’s chest. The townsfolk intended to force Giles Corey to plead, but he was eventually crushed to death.

Rumors Of Witchcraft Spread Before The Trials Began

Artwork called The Salem Witch, Salem, Massachusetts, 1924.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Before 1692, rumors of witchcraft were already spreading throughout Salem Village. Reverend Cotton Mather published several pamphlets in this area, and he wrote many about his belief in witchcraft. In his book, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, Mather described his experience with the local Goodwin family.

According to Mather’s account, John Goodwin’s eldest child was “possessed” to steal linen from a washerwoman. Goodwin’s wife, who was described as a disagreeable woman, was blamed for witchcraft and casting spells on the children. This story became popular and fueled the craze of 1692.

This Situation Wasn’t Unique

Illustration, entitled 'The Legend of Salem,' depicts Reverend George Burroughs, accused of witchcraft, as he stands in chains before a court
Interim Archives/Getty Images
Interim Archives/Getty Images

Although the Salem trials are one of the most well-known cases of witch trials, they weren’t the first or the last. Witch trials had occurred in Europe since the 13th century. The peak of these trials occurred between 1560 and 1630 when around 50,000 people were burned at the stake.

When the 1692 trials rolled around, the witchcraft craze had already declined in Europe. Whether or not there had been real witch cults is largely debated by historians. Either way, the Puritans carried this fear of witchcraft to the New World.

A Family Feud Drove The Entire Event

Portrayal of Ann Putnam in the move The Crucible
Twitter/@annputnam17
Twitter/@annputnam17

Some historians believe that a family feud may have kickstarted the 1692 witch trials. One of the first victims was twelve-year-old Ann Putnam, who exhibited symptoms of possession after hearing about the first two girls. At the time, there was a vicious rivalry between the Putnam and the Porter families.

Throughout the trails, Anne Putnam was one of the most active accusers. Neighbors who knew about the Putnam and Porter families would fight over them. Citizens of Salem would often get into fights solely over their opinion of the feud. In 1706, Anne Putnam apologized and said that Satan had tricked her into naming people.

The Accusers Used Spectral Evidence

Witch trial in Salem, lithograph by George H. Walker.
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Getty Images

Most accusers of the Salem witch trials relied on “spectral evidence.” This is when the accusers claimed to see the apparition of the person who was harming them. In court, judges accepted this testimony. But it also sparked a debate over whether the accuser had to work with the Devil to see the witch’s form.

Reverend Cotton Mather–the author who first started the witchcraft rumors–warned people to be careful using spectral evidence. Unfortunately, his work wasn’t published until after the trials ended. In 1693, Minister Increase Mather wrote to the court and convinced them to not rely on spectral evidence alone.

The Infamous Touch Test

Video recreation of the touch test used during the Salem Witch Trials
YouTube/Tom Phillips
YouTube/Tom Phillips

One of the most common and well-known pieces of evidence was the touch test. The accused witch would touch the victim while that victim was having a fit. If the fit stopped, that meant the “witch” truly cursed the victim. Reverend John Hale explained that the witch supposedly sucked the magic out of the victim, which stopped the fit.

Of course, this tactic is inherently flawed. Victims could intentionally stop their outburst if they wanted the accused to be thrown in jail. Other pieces of evidence were harder to fake, such as locating poppets, ointments, and books on palmistry and horoscopes.

One Man Sacrificed Himself For His Wife

Real-life couple Yves Montand and Simone Signoret play John and Elizabeth Proctor in a production of Arthur Miller's stage play 'The Crucible'
Serge Berton/BIPs/Getty Images
Serge Berton/BIPs/Getty Images

Another famous story from the Salem witch trials is that of John and Elizabeth Proctor. John Proctor was known to dismiss all accusations, and he voiced some negative reactions to the initial claims of witchcraft. This likely provoked people to accuse his wife of witchcraft.

When John Proctor objected to the accusations, he was convicted of witchcraft as well. On August 19, 1692, John was hanged along with four others. Elizabeth was spared because she was pregnant. After she gave birth, she was declared “legally dead,” so she could not claim property or any other legal rights.

The Trials Ended After The Governor’s Wife Was Accused

GettyGovernor Phelps ordered the relase of all prisoners held in charge of witchcraft, Salem, Mass.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are several reasons why the Salem witch trials ended in 1693. Many villages had lost family and friends due to the trials. On top of that, many people began to doubt the “evidence” used for conviction, especially spectral evidence. During his execution, former minister George Burroughs recited the Lord’s Prayer at the gallows, which people thought was impossible for a witch.

But the abrupt ending came about after accusations became too bold. Near the end of 1692, someone accused Governor Phipps’ wife, which the townspeople quickly denied. The Governor dissolved the court and moved the hearings to a higher court that did not accept spectral evidence.

Citizens Of Salem Regretted Their Actions

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts.
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

After Governor Phipps moved the witchcraft hearings to a higher court, the townspeople realized that they had executed many innocent people. The Court of Oyer and Terminer, which previously oversaw all hearings, was blamed for the witch-hunting. Jurors and judges had to flee the villages or apologize.

Even the leading accusers and supporters of the trials eventually expressed their regret. Many publicly apologized and asked for redemption. They even changed their town’s name to Danvers and dissolved the idea of witchcraft entirely. As a result, the Salem witch trials became a dark and formidable period of American history.

The Trials Didn’t End After 1692

The Danvers Witch Trials Memorial in Danvers, Mass.
Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Although many people view the witch trials as ancient history, that’s far from the truth. After the Salem incident, witch trials continued well into the 20th century. Sporadic witch hunts popped up in England, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, and Russia. Between 2005 and 2011, over 3,000 people were lynched in Tanzania for allegedly being witches.

In the United States, witchcraft wasn’t legally protected under the First Amendment until 1964. Witches in the military weren’t recognized until 1986. Today, selling divination practices and magical remedies is outlawed in some states, although these are more of anti-fraud laws than anti-witchcraft laws.