Bewitching Myths and Facts About the Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials are one of the most significant examples of mass hysteria in history, but there are a lot of tall tales surrounding the actual trials. Over time, many of those myths have been accepted as facts and have even been taught in schools.
While some of those myths are unbelievable, the actual facts about what happened are even more bizarre. Grab a broom and some potion; we’re revealing some bewitching facts about the Salem witch trials and dispelling some of the most common myths.
Nobody Was Burned at the Stake
Many people believe that those who were accused and convicted of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials were burned at the stake. While this did happen in Europe, it did not happen during the Salem trials. This is one of the more popular myths surrounding the events, but it’s a huge misconception.
Not All the Accused Were Tried
Another common myth is that every person accused of witchcraft during this time was tried for their crimes. This isn't true. Giles Corey, the man who was pressed to death, didn't even acknowledge the accusations against him. He didn't claim that he was innocent or guilty, but he was killed anyway.
Even Dogs Were Accused of Witchcraft
Many don't realize that it wasn't just people who were accused of witchcraft during the trials — even dogs were targeted. At least two dogs were accused of witchcraft and were killed because of these accusations.
Men Were Also Accused of Witchcraft
It's a myth that only women were accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. There were also at least five men who were accused and subsequently killed. Other men were also accused but managed to avoid death sentences.
Not Everyone Who Was Accused Was Killed
There were a lot of accusations at the time — and there were death sentences for many of the accused. However, it's a common myth that every single person accused was put to death. This isn't true. Many were actually pardoned. Lots of them had to wait out the hysteria in jail cells, but they did manage to live.
Smallpox Added to the Hysteria
While the trials were a time of hysteria, certain factors only increased that hysteria and likely exacerbated everyone’s stress and panic. Right before the trials began, there was a smallpox outbreak in the town of Salem.
It Wasn't Just About Religion
Religion played a major role in the Salem witch trials. However, it wasn't the only force that caused this mass hysteria to take place, contrary to popular belief. The residents of Salem were under the stress of living in a new colony; conflict with indigenous groups, family rivalries and illnesses faced by the residents also played major roles in what happened.
Two Girls Started It All
The Salem witch trials began because of two girls who were very young at the time. The girls started having fits and then began claiming they could see invisible spirits. It's unclear what prompted the girls to start citing the supernatural as a reason for their behavior, but children do strange things.
Dogs Ate Cake to “Diagnose” Witchcraft
As mentioned, there was believed to be a link between dogs and the devil. The people of Salem put so much faith into this that one of the tests to spot a witch involved an odd practice. People baked cakes using rye flour and the accused person's urine.
The "Water Test" Did Happen
There were more tests administered to those accused of witchcraft, but few are as well-known as the "water test." However, there are some misconceptions about how this test was actually performed. The accused had to have a finger tied to a toe on the opposite side of their body, and then they were lowered into water.
There Were Accusations Galore
As you can imagine, accusations of witchcraft ran wild in Salem. Those looking to settle a score needed only to point their finger at somebody they had an issue with, and their enemy would soon find themselves on trial. There was a lot of this type of petty, revenge-seeking finger-pointing that took place.
The "Touch Test" Also Resulted in Convictions
Another bizarre test administered during the trials was known as the "touch test." Again, this test did really take place, but there are some fallacies out there about how people actually performed it.
Land Was Seized
In addition to being jailed, possibly tortured and possibly put to death, there was another injustice that happened that people often don’t discuss when talking about the Salem witch trials. Many of those who found themselves accused of witchcraft owned land.
Some People Were Likely Poisoned
There have been many theories about why the trials became as bad as they did. One of those theories deals with poisoning, but it isn't the type of poisoning you might have thought it was. The poisoning that this theory references actually has to do with ergot.
“Witch Hunters” Exacerbated the Problems
There are a lot of myths out there about "witch hunters" playing a vital role in the trials. While this is true to an extent, it wasn't like anything you've seen in the movies. The witch hunters simply went door to door.
"The Devil's Mark" Was a Form of Evidence
If you've researched the trials, you may have heard about the devil’s mark. Most of the time, these were probably birthmarks or some sort of lesions resulting from a disease. Either way, these marks were a common form of evidence used to convict accused witches.
Some People Did Speak Up...
It's a common belief that everybody just sat back during the trials and let it all happen, grateful it was happening to someone else and not them. That isn't true. Some people did question what was happening. Others even went as far as to spread the word that what was going on was wrong.
...And They Paid the Price for Doing So
One of the women who did have the courage to speak up may have regretted it almost instantly. As soon as she started spreading the word that what was happening was wrong, she was accused of being a witch herself. Many thought she was trying to halt the investigations.
The Governor Protected His Wife
Some believed that the trials ended because people realized how ridiculous the situation was. That wasn’t the case at all. The Salem witch trials ended for a reason very close to home for the governor of Salem.
Nobody Knows Exactly Where the Bodies Are Buried
There are quite a few memorials for the victims of the Salem witch trials. Despite that, nobody knows the exact locations of the bodies of all those who met their ends at the gallows. Some are buried at a spot known as Proctor's Ledge, but many more are unaccounted for.
Ridiculous Evidence Was Presented in Court
Forget touch tests and dog cakes for a moment — there was an even more ridiculous form of evidence presented in court. It was known as "spectral evidence." This reportedly involved witches appearing to accusers while in ghost or spirit form.
Prison Conditions Were Awful
Some of those accused of witchcraft spent long stretches of time in jail. The conditions in the prison were so horrible that some died while awaiting their trials. Jails filled up quickly due to the mass hysteria that had overtaken society at that point.
There Were Actual Laws Regarding Witchcraft
The past is full of strange laws. However, many people don’t know that actual laws existed regarding witchcraft. The Puritans based their way of life, and government, entirely on religious beliefs; it's not necessarily surprising that their laws reflected those beliefs.
One of the Accused Was 4
Nobody — nobody — was safe from being accused of witchcraft in Salem. Case in point? Dorothy Good was only 4 years old when she was arrested. Because she was the daughter of one of the first people to be accused, Sarah Good, it didn't take long for people to start targeting the little girl.
A Minister Was Also Accused and Executed
It bears repeating that nobody was safe. A minister named George Burroughs was the only minister who was found guilty of witchcraft and put to death. The people of Salem believed he was controlling the witches in the village.
Other Countries Had Similar Witch Trials
The witchcraft panic didn't start with Salem. It didn't even start in the United States at all. Switzerland, Germany, France and parts of central Europe saw trials similar to the Salem witch trials first.
Boston Witch Trials Happened First
Boston is where the witch hysteria began in the United States; it didn't start in Salem. Four years before the Salem trials, a woman named Ann Glover was the last person in Boston to be hanged for the crime of witchcraft.
Trials Were Very Different
Trials, as you can imagine, were very different in those times. For instance, there were no lawyers present to defend those who were accused. Flimsy evidence, if any at all, was all it took to convict those who were accused. The defendants had only themselves to rely on during the trials.
“Prickers” Were Deployed
"Prickers" administered yet another form of bizarre testing that took place during the Salem witch trials. The prickers were men who were paid only when they located a witch. The test they performed involved pricking people with needles.
The Real Numbers Tell a Disturbing Story
There are a lot of numbers floating around out there regarding the actual number of deaths that resulted from the Salem witch trials. Some are much higher than others. According to most estimates, 20 people were executed after the trials, and 19 were hanged at Gallows Hill.