The Salem Witch Trials

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What actually happened during the Salem Witch Trials?

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The Salem witch trials have generated a lot of interest since 1692. There have been books written, movies produced, and the colloquial term witch hunt the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views (Merriman Dictionary) probably originated with the trials. The trials began when a group of women claimed to be possessed by the devil. The young women accused a group of women of using witchcraft and sorcery to deceive them and to possess them. You might imagine, in a very conservative religious colony, the hysteria these claims produced!

Without much evidence other than hearsay, a special court was convened to hear the complaints and to determine their validity. One hundred and forty-one people were charged, and the court presided over several trials from 1692 to the end of 1693. Many of those accused of witchcraft were the result of disputes over routine matters of law. When these routine matters of law could not be settled to the satisfaction of both parties, one party might charge the other with witchcraft as a way of revenge or to continually hassle the other claimant; explaining the popular term witch hunt.

Anyone accused of strange behavior could be charged. For example, if a person had an illness or held views contrary to the church, they could be tried as a witch. In some cases, torture was used to coerce confessions from persons suspected of practicing witchcraft. In a mass hysteria, officials went door to door accusing people and arresting them. Of the one hundred forty-one people charged, one was crushed to death using large stones. Nineteen were hung, and many others died while in prison. These included men and women.

In spring of 1693, the hysteria finally died down, and common sense began to prevail, restoring civil order. Restoration of civil law started when the wife of Governor Phipps was accused by a group of women of being a witch. Governor Phipps ended the trials by appointing a special judiciary, which found no merit in fifty-two of fifty-five cases. Phipps ordered pardons for the three convictions and all of the remaining prisoners. Many years later, the state legislature authorized restitution paid to the heirs of the families accused and convicted.

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