I was always interested in witchcraft, and how it evolved throughout the years. From the Maleficus Maleficarum to the hysteria on the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, to modern day feminist witches hexing the patriarchy, it's always been a fascinating topic of discovery for me.
But nothing is more synonymous with the word witch than the Salem Witch Trials.
The Salem Witch Trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, where more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, and in line with the Maleficus Maleficarum, which depicted witchcraft as the devil's magic, 25 people were executed. It was a time of paranoia, injustice and hysteria in which practicing Christians could blame individual villagers for the struggles of the village.
The witchcraft hysteria actually rippled through Europe from the early 1300s to the 1600s, but Salem Witch Trials were one of the very last trials during this time, which is arguably why it is so iconic and memorable. The town of Salem, Massachusetts, was struggling as it was, with English rulers waging wars between regions of New York and Quebec and Nova Scotia and causing rifts between the families with ties to the port of Salem and the fledging agriculture. Instead of just, you know, being terrible people, these fights were believed to be from the Devil himself, which was cemented when in January 1692 when the Reverend's 9 year old daughter Elizabeth and 11 year old niece Abigail started having "fits".
These fits were comprised of peculiar sounds, contorted positions and throwing items across the room, which the local doctor blamed on the supernatural. When another 11 year old girl named Ann started having similar fits, the girls were pressured into blaming three women in the town for afflicting them with a curse; the women being a Caribbean slave by the name of Tituba, a homeless beggar by the name of Sarah Good, and an elderly impoverished woman named Sarah Osborne.
This began the witch hunt of Salem, where the women were all brought before the local court, claiming innocence (Except Tituba, who confessed that "the Devil came to me and bid me to serve him"). They were all but in jail, but the seed of paranoia was planted and hundreds of people were brought in for questioning. The first women to be executed under this paranoia was a woman named Bridget Bishop, who was a gossip older woman. She professed innocence but was later found guilty and hung on June 10, 1692 on the rumoured Gallows Hill. Soon afterwards, more hangings occurred.
However, Governor Phipps, in response to a respected minister's plea to implore spectral evidence rather than just simple finger-pointing, agreed to prohibit further arrests and released many accused witches. He dissolved the witch trial court on October 29 and pardoned all who were in prison for witchcraft charges by May 1693. By 1697, many people began to confess error and guilt for their part in the trials, but it wasn't until the year of 1957 that the town of Massachusetts formally apologised for the events of 1692.
By this time, 19 people were hanged at Gallows Hill, a 71 year old man was pressed to death by heavy stones, several people had died in jail and nearly 200 people had been accused of the immortal sin of witchcraft. The damage was done.
In 1976 however, a psychologist named Linnda Caporael blamed the abnormal habits and hysteria of the accused on a fungus known as ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses, which was commonly farmed during colonial times. Toxicologists have later said that eating ergot-contaminated foods can lead to muscles spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. It would explain the first series of events in the small children who were having fits.
Witchcraft or fungus, Salem has since become the location for many pop culture writings and musings, including Playwright Arthur Miller's tale of the 1953 play The Crucible, was mentioned in popular novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was featured prominently in James Morrow's series The Last Witchfinder, a feature location on an episode of Supernatural, was the set of a horror film called The Covenant, is the name of Sabrina the Teenage Witches' talking familiar, and was a setting for the Rob Zombie Horror Film The Lords of Salem.
Despite it's ominous past, the town of Salem has fully embraced it's heritage, being known today as a positive look on witchcraft and learning from history's past mistakes.