The Salem Witch Trials were a series of court hearings held in 1692-93, addressing allegations of witchcraft in several colonial Massachusetts towns. In 1692, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams – the young daughter and niece (respectively) of Reverend Samuel Parris – began suffering episodes of uncontrollable convulsions, screaming, and grunting. Doctors could find no physiological cause, and when two other girls started reporting the same symptoms, they turned to more supernatural explanations.
Four more accusations of witchcraft followed after the three initial suspects were jailed. This new list included the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good and upstanding churchgoers like Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse; after they were convicted, it seemed anyone could be a witch.
Dozens of accusations poured in over the following months. Soon, the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Village to try the rising number of alleged witches. Bridget Bishop – infamous for wearing all black clothing that bent the puritan code – was the first to be tried, sentenced, and hung. In the ensuing months, 15 additional people were executed, another four dying in prison. 80 year-old Giles Corey refused to stand trial and was crushed to death during peine forte et dure – a method of torture where increasingly heavy stones are stacked on a suspect’s chest until he makes a plea.
The evidence used against the accused was left entirely to the whim of their accusers. Though eventually deemed insufficient, early accusers relied mainly on spectral evidence, claiming that an alleged witch intentionally menaced them in a dream or vision. Courts also implemented the Touch Test: the “victim” would convulse “uncontrollably” when the accused entered the room; if the shaking stopped when the alleged witch touched her accuser, they were found guilty.
By 1693, Oyer and Terminer was dismissed in response to growing disapproval of the witch trials. The Superior Court of the Judicature handled the rest of the cases, dismissing almost all charges.
Although witch trials became infamous in America, they had long been commonplace across Europe; the Würzburg Witch Trial in 1626 Germany claimed over 900 lives. Witch-hunts still happen in Northern India, Sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia, usually resulting in the lynching of single women. These hunts might seem barbaric and ignorant to most Westerners, but magic is very real – and very dangerous – to the people who practice them. Although these deaths are tragic, evil – like so much else – is ultimately a matter of opinion.