In 1692 a group of adolescent girls in Salem Village,
Massachusetts, became subject to strange fits after hearing tales
told by a West Indian slave. When they were questioned, they accused
several women of being witches who were tormenting them. The townspeople
were appalled but not surprised: belief in witchcraft was widespread
throughout 17th-century America and Europe.
What happened next -- although an isolated event in
American history -- provides a vivid window into the social and psychological
world of Puritan New England. Town officials convened a court to hear
the charges of witchcraft, and swiftly convicted and executed a tavernkeeper,
Bridget Bishop. Within a month, five other women had been convicted
Nevertheless, the hysteria grew, in large measure
because the court permitted witnesses to testify that they had seen
the accused as spirits or in visions. By its very nature, such "spectral
evidence" was especially dangerous, because it could be neither verified
nor subject to objective examination. By the
fall of 1692, more than 20 victims, including several
men, had been executed, and more than 100 others were in jail -- among
them some of the town's most prominent citizens. But now the hysteria
threatened to spread beyond Salem, and ministers throughout the colony
called for an end to the trials. The governor of the colony agreed
and dismissed the court. Those still in jail were later acquitted
or given reprieves.
The Salem witch trials have long fascinated Americans.
On a psychological level, most historians agree that Salem Village
in 1692 was seized by a kind of public hysteria, fueled by a genuine
belief in the existence of witchcraft. They point out that, while
some of the girls may have been acting, many responsible adults became
caught up in the frenzy as well.
But even more revealing is a closer analysis of the
identities of the accused and the accusers. Salem Village, like much
of colonial New England at that time, was undergoing an economic and
political transition from a largely agrarian, Puritan-dominated community
to a more commercial, secular society. Many of the accusers were representatives
of a traditional way of life tied to farming and the church, whereas
a number of the accused witches were members of the rising commercial
class of small shopkeepers and tradesmen. Salem's obscure struggle
for social and political power between older traditional groups and
a newer commercial class was one repeated in communities throughout
American history . But it took a bizarre and deadly detour when its
citizens were swept up by the conviction that the devil was loose
in their homes.
The Salem witch trials also serve as a dramatic parable
of the deadly consequences of making sensational, but false, charges.
Indeed, a frequent term in political debate for making false accusations
against a large number of people is "witch hunt."