Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds

Salem Witch Trials

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Psychics a Thriving Business in Salem, Mass.

Shae Turner Research Post on Salem Witch Trials

Allison Evans Research Post on Salem Witch Trials

Victoria Webb, Research Post 1 & Post 2 on Salem Witch Trials

The Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts from May to October of 1692 were a series of investigations and persecutions resulting in the execution (mostly by hanging) of 19 “witches” and imprisonment of hundreds of suspects. The subject remains fascinating to later Americans and has made Salem a tourist destination and a center of psychic boutique services. For cultural historians, the episode is significant as an American expression of the waves of witch trials and executions in early modern Europe (app. 1480-1750) and, more broadly, the culture wars rising from the religious warfare of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Especially before the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, people saw the world not as a knowable field of natural forces but as a mysterious realm in which strange events were animated and motivated by good or evil spirits that they could prosper or drive away. Such attitudes and reactions are deeply engrained in human evolution; we can "think" them out, but when our communities feel threatened, we quickly seek moral rather than practical answers, mostly in the form of finding someone or some class of people to blame.

Sociologists and psychologists now regard community convulsions like the Salem Witch Trials as "moral panics" or "mass hysteria," where fears and uncertainties caused by social change are projected on scapegoats. Recent examples in the USA:

the "Red Scare" (a.k.a. "Communist Witch Hunts") of the 1950s.

the Day Care Sex Abuse Hysteria of the 1980s and 90s (which strongly resembled the Salem Witch Trials by depending on children's coerced testimony and indifference to lack of physical evidence)

In such situations, the apparent violation of some sacred entity (patriotism, childhood innocence) stifles disagreement, generates fabricated or hearsay evidence, and results in punishments grossly disproportional to any material wrong.

The disturbances at Salem began when several teenaged girls, possibly influenced by a Caribbean slave woman named Tituba, began acting out, apparently having fits, wincing and shrieking. Upon being questioned, the girls claimed Satanic possession and accused three Salem women, including Tituba, of bewitching them.

Under intense interrogation, the accused women incriminated themselves and others—a classic “false confession” scenario comparable to “purges” in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, or the Central Park Jogger Case in 1989 NYC. Most of the accused in Salem were middle-aged women, making the turmoil resemble the “Witch Hysterias” that convulsed Europe earlier in the 1600s—but also men and children.

In Massachusetts Bay Colony, civil and ecclesiastical authorities worked closely. Magistrates set up a special court of investigation whose judges included John Hathorne, a great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born in Salem in 1804. (Hawthorne was certainly aware of his town's and family's history, but suggestions that his knowledge significantly influenced his fiction are probably exaggerated. His story "Young Goodman Brown" refers to a fictional Satanic meeting near Salem, but mostly as a projection of the psychological turmoil of his protagonist's mind.)

The cycle of accused people accusing other people continued until 27 trials were held, 19 people were convicted and executed, and nearly 150 people were imprisoned. Even the Massachusetts Bay Governor’s wife was implicated.

Eventually the hysteria abated, accusations decreased, and public opinion turned. Governor William Phips dissolved the special court and released the remaining prisoners. Several leading ministers who contributed to the hysteria, as well as accusers and jurors at the trials, expressed contrition for their parts in the trials and asked forgiveness from their congregations and the public. Churches acted to reverse their excommunications of accused and convicted members.

In January 1693 the Governor appointed a new court that acquitted 49 of 52 prisoners, with the rest acquitted later in the spring. Later courts annulled all convictions and rewarded indemnities or reparations to the families of the executed, effectively accepting blame and officially rejecting all lingering suspicions that the events at Salem resulted from supernatural evil or a conspiracy of witches.


What caused the Salem Witch Trials?

Religious possibilities: Since the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (and the USA's founding), the idea of supernatural evil has little to no bearing in civic affairs and justice. If evil was expressed at Salem, all evidence is that evil was expressed more by the people who claimed to represent God and justice than by the people they accused.

Puritan faith and witchcraft were not mutually exclusive. In theological terms, Puritans could see dark or demonic powers virtually anywhere except among those who thought and behaved as they did. In actual human behavior, Puritans mostly acted like most normal human beings by accommodating differences as far as helpful to normal social and economic functioning.

Possible direct causes: Morall panics and mass hysterias like the Salem Witch Trials usually result from several pressures coming to bear at once. Finding a single cause—an “a-ha!” moment—is less likely than finding a number of forces that can involve different people with diverse motives or anxieties in a single movement. (Compare to political parties or social movements.)

Possible individual causes:

Bored young women in a small town on verge of puberty + Puritan sexual repression.

Class conflicts and property disputes among factions in Salem Village and between Salem Village and Salem Town.

Fear of growing secularism or worldliness in a religious community.

The Salem Witch Trials occurred in the third generation of American Puritanism, which is typically a difficult transitional period for religious and social movements:

  • the founding generation of the New England Puritan community is dying off, leaving a void of moral authority;

  • the second generation is struggling to maintain the original community feeling or purpose;

  • many of the third generation are indifferent to or distracted from earlier concerns, while others feel threatened by change & wish to return to simple choices projected on previous generations.

Why are the Salem Witch Trials significant?

  • The Salem Witch Trials are one of the only things many Americans know about the Puritans. (Most people don’t know anything.)

    • The other two things: the First Thanksgiving & sexual repression (both of which are worth questioning).

    • (Puritanism is worth knowing about because it contributed by far the most writing to early America—its descendants dominate later American literature—and because in New England it created the most educated and community-oriented society in the later USA, in contrast to other regions that are comparatively individualistic and populist.)

  • The idea of Salem witches meeting and dancing in the forest contributes to the "American wilderness gothic," as in Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Last of the Mohicans, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Blair Witch Project, and The Crucible.

  • The Salem Witch Trials have become a prototype for later American social hysterias.

    • The McCarthy Anti-Communist Investigations of the 1950s—frequently referred to as “witch hunts”—continued the Witch Trials’ practice of making accusations without proper regard for evidence.

    • Day Care Sexual Abuse Hysteria of 1980s-early 90s also involved intense questioning of children until they said what interrogators wanted them to say, often under suggestion.

    • President Clinton’s impeachment, followed by sex-scandals in Republican Congressional leadership, leading to multiple resignations, was compared to a “witch hunt” and again demonstrated phenomena of accusers being exposed as guilty of similar or worse crimes. (cf. Salem Witch Trials and McCarthy Anti-Communist Investigations)

    • President Trump's tweet regarding Independent Counsel investigation on Russian interference with 2016 U.S. Presidential election: "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" (18 May 2017)

    • Trump judicial pick said transgender children are proof that "Satan's plan is working"


Literary legacy

Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1952)

Maryse Conde, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986, trans. 1992)

Robin Cook, Acceptable Risk (1995): medical thriller attributing hysteria to an unknown mold

See Wikipedia: Cultural Depictions of the Salem Witch Trials


Further reading / research:

Marion Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949)

Stacey Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown, & Co. 2015)

Kate Bolick, "Salem's Reign of Terror." The New Republic, 27 October 2015 (review of Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692)

 Images of the Salem Witch Trials

(aside from surveyors' maps and later photographs, all are "artists' conceptions")

actual historic images

gravesite of Susan Martin

cemetery at Salem, Mass.


fictional depictions of Tituba, West Indian slave 












fictional meeting of Tituba and Cotton Mather




images of trials & persecutions


arrest of a witch


Susan Martin in Prison

T.A. Matteson, Examination of a Witch (1853)

images from modern Salem

Halloween Street Party

<  2011 Salem Zombie Walk