The Salem Witch Trials have got to be one of the most interesting mysteries in history, with few facts truly known about them amidst the fiction and myths they inspired. While the trial themselves were known in their age as a messy string of events that led to a few ugly deaths and a notorious witch hunt started by the puritans in Salem MA, the aftermath of history made these events much more fascinating to our modern minds. In a way, it is perfectly understandable why this kind of a trial and its story would gain such an important place in our contemporary imagination, since it’s so troubling how different from us those people were, though they were theoretically some of “us”, and not from a distant strange land. In this article, we will present to you some facts about the Salem Witch Trials, a timeline of the event, as well as the most important modern fictional accounts about them.
Timeline of the Salem Witch Trials and Quick Facts
The events took place in colonial Massachusetts, on a Puritan religious background, stretching on a period of a bit over a year, between the fuzzy dates of February 1692 and May 1693. The aftermath of the trials included the execution and death of twenty people, most of them being women (since the puritans’ conception of witches portrayed them as women). The primary location was Salem Town, though the events and trials were divided between several towns and cities of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
- The initial cause for the mass hysteria that followed was that two local kids, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (related by blood to Rev. Samuel Parris) started having epileptic-like fits, in early 1692. Modern science indicated that these effects, similar to LSD overdoses, were actually caused by ergot poisoning (or ergotism). Soon, another girl, Ann Putnam, accused the same symptoms and blamed them on witchcraft. The fact that Ms. Putnam was involved is interpreted in some sources (books and articles) as evidence that the real cause was actually a family feud.
- The next event was the accusation of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and the slave girl Tituba (also held accountable for alleged poisoning) of being behind the young girls’ affliction. All of these women were seen as outsiders to Puritan culture for various reasons (one was a homeless beggar, one was a slave of different ethnic background, and one remarried with a questionable behavior).
- Next, respectable people began to be arrested as well, even though they were members of the church and even the town council, based on very little evidence or just on the fact that they opposed the arrest of a family member. The wiki sources include on this list Rebecca Nurse, Mary Warren (herself one of the accusers), Bridget Bishop and others, as well as two men (John Proctor and Giles Corey).
- After brief examining of the accusations, confessions and more names were obtained, sometimes through torture. According to historical documents (including a court transcription), this led to
- Some of the people involved were John Alden (among the accused) and Rev. Cotton Mather, who were later portrayed in movies and fiction as important characters.
- In August 1692, executions were already beginning to take place. The victims were sentenced to hanging, and one of them was pressed to death (Giles Corey, for refusing to plead guilty or not guilty).
- During September, more hangings happened, but in October, the madness was reaching its end. The special court handling the trials was dissolved, and further information from the archives shows that even though another court was given a start in January, it only acquitted the accused or pardoned those found guilty. Most historical theories, based in part on a contemporary source such as the local Oregon newspaper and the court documents, indicate that external (national) pressure led to the mellowing down of the trails.
The Aftermath of the Trials
Multiple accounts and quotes of those turbulent times survived and have been used in various ways (whether for a documentary, a movie or a book). Whatever the reasons behind such a modern project, it’s quite clear that they all share a similar fascination in unveiling the secrets of the Salem Witch Trials. The event was not just another unsolved mystery of the past, but its significance lies in its value of warning to modern times: the warning of what happened when people allowed isolation and fanaticism get the best of them.
Among the causes that made this tragedy possible was also the so-called policy of McCarthyism, which by definition allows people to throw accusations of treason, disloyalty or subversion without much regard for evidence or plausibility. This is a state of mind that defines archaic societies, in contrast to contemporary ones, where the well-being of the individual theoretically is held in higher regard. The theater play The Crucible (by Arthur Miller) managed to compare this doctrine to the witch trials, for the famous first time.
The Salem Witch Trials in Fiction and Non-Fiction
While the topic of the trials is definitely dead-serious and not a topic of fun and games, it also led to them bearing a fascination that made them a focus for education-related videos or fictionalized tales. To the date, there have been a lot of works featuring this historic event, covering every form of expression, whether it is an essay, a play, a magazine piece or a game. Our list of must-sees and must-reads includes:
- The National Geographic documentary and the Discovery Channel documentary (in the realm of non-fiction).
- Salem TV Show (2014), based on the biography of a fictional witch character, Mary Sibley, and her lover, John Alden. You can watch a trailer for the first season here, if you’d like. (The main photo featured above is the show’s poster.)
- The Salem Witch Trials movie of 2012, featuring Kirstie Alley as Ann Putnam.
- The Salem Witch Museum exhibition, featuring a lovely interactive video and lots of reconstituted pictures of the events (beyond a mere powerpoint or summary which you might expect).
- You can also visit the memorial in Salem for all the people who have died during the trials.
- The computer game Midnight Mysteries – where your detective skills are put to good use vs. witches – featured a chapter dedicated to the Salem Witch Trials (here is a walkthrough, by the way, in case you are curious).
- Also like a game is a webquest series with an educational purpose, created by The National Geographic, where the students have to find clues about the Salem Witch Trials in order to solve the mystery.
We hope you enjoyed our rather long article about this regrettable event and that you found the answers you were looking for, as well as plenty of fun recommendations of movies and games to explore. All in all, it seems that the Salem Witch Trials is still an inspiring topic to this date, judging by the recent shows and so on dedicated to the subject.