Bewitching Myths and Facts About the Salem Witch Trials

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:57:53 PM ET
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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.

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Those who were accused and convicted were mostly sent to the gallows where they were hanged. Some perished in jail, and one of the accused was "pressed" to death, meaning a board was placed on top of him before stones were used to crush his body.

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.

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Sadly, during this time period, law and order didn't hold the same importance they do now. Even those in power had little problem taking the law into their own hands. Some of those accused were put to death without any due process.

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.

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Some children had stated the dogs had used witchcraft to send them into convulsions. People of the time also believed there were links between dogs and the devil. In reality, nobody was safe from being named a witch, even man's best friend.

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.

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Even though most of the accused were women, men weren't completely safe during the late 1600s. Anybody, regardless of who they were, could have been accused of being a witch. Most of the allegations were accepted as truth, so virtually anybody could have become a victim. The trials targeted many people.

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.

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It was a tragic time, but despite the hysteria, hundreds of people survived. Sometimes, community members came out in droves to speak against accusations. This resulted in the accused being pardoned. In some cases, prison guards were also bribed to let the accused escape.

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.

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Some believed that the illness was brought on by the use of witchcraft coming from certain people living in Salem. Other factors led to trials, but the smallpox outbreak certainly didn't calm anybody down. It likely caused things to escalate, bringing about more accusations and wild stories passed off as fact.

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.

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There are a lot of theories out there about the contributing factors that compounded to cause the atrocities that resulted. But a perfect storm of various factors played a role, not just religion alone.

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.

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The girls’ claims initially sparked the hysteria, and the adults of Salem perpetuated it until it grew out of proportion. The children began pointing fingers, and the adults listened. It's hard to believe that this atrocity started on the word of two small children without much questioning from adults.

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.

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They then fed that cake to a dog. If the dog showed "symptoms," it was considered proof that the accused was, in fact, a witch. There are even reports the dogs were able to sniff out the witches during this odd ritual.

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.

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If they floated, it was believed they were a witch. If they sank, they weren't. The accused person risked drowning during this odd practice. Many people were convicted based on this "evidence."

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.

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Official records show that there were at least 200 people accused of witchcraft during this time period. Out of those 200, about 150 were arrested due to the accusations. Rivalries were very dangerous in Salem during the trials, as it was easy to get back at anybody who wronged you.

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.

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In reality, if a person who was thought to be afflicted by witchcraft was having a fit, the witch could touch them and stop the fit. Sounds convenient for that whole rivalry thing, huh? So, a person is having a fit and one of the accused is prompted to touch them. They could stop their fake fit and "prove" that the accused was really a witch.

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.

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In some cases in which the accused wasn't put to death, their land was forcefully taken from them. In those days, many people’s land was the basis of their livelihood. Without their lands, some found themselves in poverty even though they survived the trials. Many had no means to survive the conditions that poverty later brought.

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.

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Ergot, a fungus that can affect rye grain, was common in Salem. All those fits, hallucinations and vomiting that occurred are symptoms of ergot poisoning. However, many historians attribute what happened in Salem to mass hysteria more than anything else.

“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.

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Essentially, these people were prompting citizens to point the finger at their neighbors to avoid facing accusations themselves. The tactics used by these so-called witch hunters likely involved threats, although no such behavior was ever documented officially. Still, historians have speculated about the methods that were used.

"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.

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The people of Salem believed that witches made pacts with the devil. Afterward, it was believed that he would leave his mark on the newly ordained witches. This was used as evidence in some of the trials.

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.

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It was, however, a very different time with very different practices. And though there were those who saw what was happening and had the capacity to understand that it was wrong, speaking up wasn't in their best interest. Despite this, some people did defend their friends and loved ones.

...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.

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The woman was tried for being a witch, and her husband testified against her. It didn't end well for the couple; her husband eventually was the one put to death. It's unclear if anybody else spoke up after that. There’s a high likelihood that people were terrified of becoming the next victims.

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.

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After an entire year of madness, the governor of Salem heard whispers that his wife was the next in line to be accused of witchcraft. This scared him enough to put an end to the trials. If only he had been willing to see the truth sooner, many people could've been saved.

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.

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None of those who were put to death during the trials were allowed to have Christian burials. Many of the bodies have never been located. This has left a big hole in the hearts of those related to the victims, even today.

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.

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Some spectral evidence led to executions during the trials. George Jacobs was one person who was put to death based on nothing other than spectral evidence. Accusers claimed the man led them to water to drown them while he was in "spectral 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.

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Many prisoners were kept in total isolation while awaiting their trials, and others were forced to work for their meals. The conditions were so terrible that many people’s bodies atrophied, which ultimately helped them get convicted of witchcraft because they looked so withered and gaunt.

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.

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The first capital crime was idolatry, and the second was witchcraft. This law read, "If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death." People took this seriously — as the witch trials demonstrate.

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.

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The child was put in the care of guardians for about eight months and was never put through a trial. That a 4-year-old child was arrested for witchcraft is perhaps one of the more disturbing facts related to the Salem witch trials.

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.

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Many residents of Salem didn't appreciate his unorthodox practices when it came to the church. He was well-known for reciting the Lord's Prayer during his execution, as it was believed that a witch could not do this. In previous trials, many were made to recite that prayer as proof of their innocence.

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.

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During the 15th and 16th centuries, witch trials took place all over those European nations. Mass hysteria due to fear of witches seemed to be everywhere during that time, and there was never a good reason for these other panics, either. It was a strange and dangerous time.

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.

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People believed that Ann Glover was a witch because she failed to recite a prayer in English, which wasn't her first language. She was hanged. The witch hysteria eventually spread to Salem. The influence of what happened in Boston probably played a role in what happened elsewhere.

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.

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Some of the accusers simply faked "fits" on the floor to further prove the guilt of the accused. Unfortunately, people took these displays seriously. Reality back then differed greatly from what goes on in courtrooms today.

“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.

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If the person didn't bleed, it meant they were a witch. These men were using devices that made it look like the needles were going into flesh when they really weren’t. Lots of bribery took place surrounding these tests, which, like other tests, offered a good way to get rid of a rival — or sometimes save a loved one.

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.

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Giles Corey was the only victim who was pressed to death. Four others died in prison. Hundreds were accused and pardoned. Some were found not guilty, some escaped jail and others were never indicted. Ultimately, the Salem witch trials were a tragedy brought on by mass hysteria that never should've happened.