Salem witch trials

On June 10th, 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, for witchcraft, the first person to be convicted and executed for this offence in a series of trials between 1692 and 1693. The hearings and prosecutions became known as the Salem witch trials. Altogether over 200 persons were accused, and 19 of them, 14 women and 5 men, were hanged. Another man was crushed to death when he refused to plead, and at least 5 more died in prison.

Bishop was accused of bewitching five women, and evidence was supplied by witnesses that her spectral shape, materialized with the connivance of the devil, would pinch, choke or bite them. It was also alleged that the shape threatened to drown one victim. Spectral evidence featured strongly in the prosecutions, with those afflicted testifying they had seen the apparition of their tormentor. While some suggested that the devil could use anyone’s shape, the Court ruled that it could only be done with the person’s consent, proving they were in league with the devil.

Witch cake was used, this being “white” magic used to identify witches. A slave was instructed to make the cake from rye meal and the urine of the afflicted girls, and feed it to a dog. The belief was that the invisible particles a witch sent to afflict the girls would remain in their urine, and that the witch would betray her identity by her cries of pain when the dog ate the cake.

It was America’s most celebrated case of witchcraft trials, although some took place elsewhere in the colonies. It has been immortalized in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, “The Crucible,” which presented a fictionalized account, and the Salem cases have featured in several books and movies. One reason for the fascination is that they took place on a borderline between a theology-dominated medieval world and a more rational modern scientific one.

The episode is widely cited as a case of mass hysteria, warning us of the dangers of being carried along on a wave of superstition and false accusations. It has also been used to point to the dangers of religious extremism in isolated communities, and to the consequences of abandoning due process in the interest of saving society from perceived threats.

The trials have been compared to the investigations conducted by Senator McCarthy in the early 1950s, and the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. While Soviet records now show that there were active Communist spies and subversives in the US at the time, the hearings amounted to mass persecution of people who had dabbled in youth with left-wing politics. Arthur Miller’s play was almost certainly an allegory of this.

More recently on social media, a lynch mob can rapidly form with Salem-style mass hysteria, denouncing the “crimes” of “cultural appropriation,” “triggering,” “misogyny,” “neo-colonialism,” “transphobia,” and various other “offences” that make people feel ”unsafe,” often based on the flimsiest of evidence, perhaps of youthful remarks made years ago. People don’t tend to get executed for this type of witchcraft these days, but jobs can be lost and careers destroyed, often based just on an accusation rather than a conviction. The Salem episode still has much to teach us.