The Salem Witch Trials
From June through September of 1692, fourteen women and five men were hanged in Salem Village on charges of witchcraft, and Martha Carrier was among them. Nearly 150 men, women, and children were imprisoned, and an unknown number perished while they languished in crowded jails for months until the trials were brought to an end. One man was stoned to death in an effort to force him to testify. Children were brought to testify against their parents, or to admit to also being witches, and some were tortured. Many of the accused pled guilty to save themselves from death, and were imprisoned and deprived of their property rights.
How it all began
In the early winter of 1692, 9-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams, began to have mysterious fits, writhing and contorting in pain, making strange sounds, and claiming they felt as though they were being pricked or pinched. When several other girls in the village began to exhibit similar behavior, a village doctor declared the girls to be suffering from Satan's hand. Pressured to identify those who cast the spells, the girls named three women: Sarah Good, a poor beggar woman; Tituba, a Carib Indian slave; and Sarah Osborn, who had married an indentured servant and had not attended church in over a year. Soon girls all over town were claiming to have seen witches flying about, began having similar fits, and accusing witches of causing them.
Why did it happen?
Several theories have attempted to find a physiological reason for these mysterious fits, the most interesting being a disease called convulsive ergotism brought on by ingesting rye infected with ergot. Most convincing, however, are a number of social factors that contributed to the mass hysteria. Cotton Mather had recently published a popular and widely discussed book describing the behavior of those believed to be bewitched, and the fits exhibited by the girls of Salem mirror Mather's accounts. Smallpox epidemics, congregational strife, frontier wars with Indians, and land disputes among the townspeople presented reasons for fear, distrust, and a willingness to offer false accusations.
This article was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the
October 2009 paperback release.
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