When we say the “biggest trials of the century,” keep in mind we didn’t say which century. Every generation of people have their own historical horror stories, and we like to unpack the most interesting ones. What could be more interesting than a literal witch hunt? We’ll discuss why witchcraft has always been on the mind of the Christian faith and what the unfortunate young women of Salem did to seal their fate.
What do you expect to see when you buy tickets to a magic show? More than likely, you know you’ll see masterful illusions and slight of hand. You don’t expect to see more fantastical instances of magic ripped straight from television shows like Game of Thrones. But early Christians believed in magic — and they believed that witches were responsible for conjuring the devil.
The Bible itself sows the seeds that would blossom into hate later. Deuteronomy 18:11-12 said that those who would “[cast] spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” Another passage from Exodus says that those who partake in witchcraft should be put to death.
There are numerous other theories as to why the belief in witchcraft became so strong. Although the very belief in witchcraft was outlawed by Christian authorities in the Early Middle Ages, eventually things changed. They changed so much, in fact, that by the end of the Middle Ages and well into the next era, tens of thousands of people (mostly women) were accused of witchcraft or practicing magic, and sentenced to die.
In 1692, several girls accused many local women of witchcraft — suggesting that because of these women, they had been possessed. The first cases were heard in June of that year, when the first woman was sentenced to die by hanging. Over one hundred people were accused of witchcraft in the following months, and at least 18 were tried and convicted and sentenced to die.
Of course, like all things in the real world that seem too fantastical to be true, the hysteria was likely based on medical ignorance. Earlier the same year, 9-year-old Elizabeth Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams began showing strange symptoms. They would explode into fits and screams. A local doctor decided they had been bewitched. It wasn’t like they had a slip and fall attorney to argue on their behalf or suggest that perhaps they were pretending or should be diagnosed with some other strange disease.
Soon, other girls began to show the same symptoms. Many of these girls accused a slave, Tituba, an older woman named Sarah Osborn, and a homeless woman named Sarah Good of doing the deed.
Strangely, Tituba confessed to the inevitable interrogation. Historians believe it most likely that she wanted to avoid the end-of-life punishments usually doled out to witches by informing on others. Each subsequent batch of women involved a confession and informant, which is why so many were named.
Surprisingly, those involved in putting forth the Salem Witch trials seemed genuinely appalled by their actions. Restitution was paid to the surviving family members by 1711. We haven’t even managed to pay restitution to African Americans for enslaving them for centuries, so maybe we could learn something!