Today in History

Today in History: March 1

Witchcraft in Salem

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Petition for Bail from Accused Witches, ca. 1692.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

On March 1, 1692, Salem, Massachusetts authorities interrogated Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and an Indian slave, Tituba, to determine if they indeed practiced witchcraft. So began the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 (external link). Over the following months, more than 150 men and women in and around Salem were jailed on charges of exercising "Certaine Detestable Arts called Witchcrafts & Sorceryes." Nineteen people, including five men, were eventually convicted and hanged on Gallows Hill; and an additional male suspect was pressed to death. Others died in prison. Today they are seen as victims of a tragic mistake.

Cousins Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris, ages eleven and nine, respectively, began to enter trance-like states and to suffer from convulsive seizures in January 1692. By late February, prayer, fasting, and medical treatment had failed to relieve their symptoms, or to quiet the blasphemous shouting that accompanied their fits. Pressured to explain, the girls accused the three above-named women of afflicting them.

A recent epidemic of small pox, heightened threats of Indian attack, economic uncertainties, and small town rivalries may have all primed the people of Salem and its surrounding areas for the mass hysteria that fueled the witchcraft trials. Although social status and gender offered little protection from accusations, historians note that single women particularly were vulnerable to charges of practicing witchcraft, while pre-adolescent girls were likewise most vulnerable to affliction. Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, for example, all lacked male protectors, while three of the signatories to the bail petition pictured above are widows.

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An act to reverse the attainders of George Burroughs and others of witchcraft. Boston: Printed by B. Green, Printer to His Excellency the Governour and council 1713.
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

Acting on the recommendation of the clergy, civil authorities created a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the accused witches. As the number of imprisoned people approached 150, however, public opinion shifted against the proceedings. On October 29, 1692, Massachusetts Governor William Phips dissolved the special court, releasing many suspects and preventing further arrests. When the remaining witchcraft cases were heard in May 1693, the Superior Court failed to convict anyone else. Legislation passed in 1711 restored the rights and good names of those who had been accused.

In the 1950s, Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, explored the Salem witchcraft trials. Written during a period when concern about "subversive activities" ran high, Miller used his play to protest the red scares of the postwar era. Once again, Miller implied, innocent people were sacrificed to public hysteria. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, Miller refused to supply names of people he met years before at an alleged communist writers' meeting. The resulting contempt conviction was overturned on appeal.