Mysterious Truths Behind the Salem Witch Trials

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:27:53 PM ET
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The Salem Witch Trials are one of the most well-known examples of mass hysteria to occur in the U.S. throughout history. When thinking about the infamous trials, many people imagine strange women dressed in black gothic clothing being burned at the stake. Some may even envision the pointed hats, crooked noses and green skin associated with Halloween witches.

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Most would be surprised to learn that many so-called facts related to the trials are not true at all. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and these mysterious truths behind the Salem Witch Trials are all the proof you need to make that point.

How It Began

Witch trials weren't unique to Salem or even New England all those centuries ago. Europe dealt with multiple waves of witch hysteria throughout history, although much of it had died down by the 17th century. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the colonies, a new wave started around that same time, born out of isolation and misunderstanding.

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Many of the issues in the early New England colonies stemmed from society's devout religious foundation, and the witch trials were no exception. Fear and intolerance led to finger-pointing and accusations of witchcraft. It was a society deeply-entrenched in religion, and anything that deviated from the sacred texts was seen as a threat.

The Dangers of Zealotry

Although some authors of the time argued in favor of acknowledging all elements of the supernatural world, many members of the Puritan community chose which elements suited their system of beliefs and ostracized anything else. This often meant that angels and demons were accepted as canon, while ghosts, spirits and magic were considered heretical fantasies.

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Anyone suspected of dealing with any of these forbidden elements of the supernatural was considered highly questionable. As the paranoia grew, any association with magic or the unholy was grounds for condemnation at the very least and execution at the worst. Naturally, outsiders were always among the first questioned. In Salem, that outsider was a woman named Tituba.

Far from Home

Tituba was a woman from South America who had been brought from the Caribbean to the colonies as a slave. Her foreign heritage made her the subject of some criticism, so when the fear began to spread about people straying from the Good Book, she was a primary target.

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Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams were the first accusers at the Salem Witch Trials. They claimed that Tituba had told them tales of voodoo and occult techniques she had learned back home in Barbados. Elements of Tituba’s "confession" were later determined to be untrue, but once the words were uttered, the hysteria began to spread.

Monsters and Demons

During Tituba's confession, she spoke of various supposed indicators of witchcraft, including black dogs, hogs, yellow birds, cats, red and black rats, foxes and wolves. All these elements related to different beliefs about witchcraft and did more to confuse those in attendance than anything else.

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Tituba's appeal also included mention of a "witch cake," which she supposedly made and fed to Elizabeth Parris to help find the source of a curse that was causing her to have delirious fits. It was later determined that this part of her confession was concocted by Parris' father, who had beaten Tituba until she agreed to confess. Throughout her testimony, Tituba maintained she was not a witch.

Pointing Fingers

If Tituba was to be damned, she apparently decided she wasn’t going alone. Her testimony also condemned Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. She claimed that Osborne harbored a creature with the head of a woman, two legs and wings. Combined with her previous claims of demonic omens, witnesses assumed this meant the devil was walking among them.

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These new revelations fed the hysteria. Osborne, Good and Tituba were all sent to jail to await trial for witchcraft and association with the occult. The contents of the first testimony in the Salem Witch Trials set the stage for many of the witch stereotypes that exist today, including riding brooms, communing with black cats and working with demons.

The "Victims"

Although many people were responsible for accusing others of being witches, a group of young girls — ranging from 12 to 20 years old — led the charge. Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams made the initial allegations. The others included girls from reputable families, such as Mary Walcott, Elizabeth Hubbard, Ann Putnam Jr., Mary Warren and Mercy Lewis.

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Parris, Williams and Hubbard were among the first reported cases of "possession" during the early days of the hysteria. Parris and Williams visited a local physician and complained about strange fits involving screaming, throwing objects and body contortions. Hubbard soon claimed to experience similar symptoms and was the first to personally testify.

Sketchy Accounts

Due to poor recordkeeping, pervasive myths and the passage of time, much of the definitive evidence for the early days of the Salem Witch Trials has been lost. The previous accounts are the most reliable ones presently known. What followed, however, is slightly better documented.

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Many firsthand and secondhand accounts of the trials themselves as well as the heat of the mass hysteria that swept New England's Puritan population have survived to the present day. Some accounts ended up twisted with local folklore and sensationalism, leading to much of the pop culture knowledge of the Witch Trials that exists today.

Ideal Breeding Grounds

In addition to forming incredibly isolated communities of religious zealots, the Puritan colonists of Salem and the surrounding areas had a lengthy history of internal quarrels. Reports from the time outline multiple cases of neighbors bickering over property rights, grazing areas and church privileges. It’s no wonder the townspeople were more than happy to leap at the idea of something witchy going on with their neighbors.

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Furthermore, their disputes over what represented the purest form of Christianity led to plenty of arguments without the added spice of witchcraft thrown into the pot. Religious leaders were dethroned for the slightest offense, but it was all fair in the name of preserving the sanctity of their religion.

So, Who Died?

From books to movies and other sources in between, you can find examples of witches who were convicted of practicing magic and burned at the stake. Surely, this horrifying detail must be true, right? Nope. Although the practice was used in European witch trials, no convicted "witches" were burned in Salem.

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Those convicted of witchcraft in New England were often sentenced to death by hanging. Some met a dark and lonely end in jail while waiting on their execution. One unlucky victim was tortured to death. Although Monty Python movies and The Hunchback of Notre Dame featured burning witches at the stake, the practice did not take hold across the Atlantic.

En Masse

Another common misconception about the Salem Witch Trials is that they were a massacre. Understandably, any number of deaths for something so ridiculous is a tragedy, but the witch trials did not actually lead to a mass slaughter. The number of accusations, however, was substantial, given the town’s population at the time.

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From 1692 to 1693, 24 people died, 19 by hanging at Proctor's Ledge, four in jail and one — Giles Corey — by being pressed to death after refusing to plead. More than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and 140 to 150 were arrested and charged. To put this in perspective, the population of Salem in 1692 was only around 1,400 individuals.

Men and Women Alike

For some reason, many people think all the accused witches were women, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some historians believe the idea of female-only witches comes from shamans and healers, who were traditionally women in many cultures. Whatever the reason for the misconception, only 78% of convicted individuals throughout history were women.

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In Salem, both men and women were accused. The group of teenagers that did most of the accusing during the witch trials didn’t discriminate against men or women. They simply pointed and accused anyone who seemed suspicious or had ever mentioned witchcraft.

Heavier Than a Duck?

Just as the grounds for accusation were typically very shaky, the logic behind convictions wasn’t based on reason. People were sentenced to jail or death based on "evidence" that would get officials hauled off to mental institutions themselves in a modern court of law. Nonetheless, the methods were considered rational back then.

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One supposed method of determining a witch's guilt was dunking. Made famous by Monty Python, the sink or float test wasn’t used in the colonies as far as historians know. The idea behind it was that the innocent would sink and witches would float, having cast aside the rites of baptism.

Seeing Ghosts

One of the most common methods of convicting a witch was through spectral evidence. If that sounds sketchy, that's because it totally was. In the early days of the trials, spectral evidence was heavily used to find the witches responsible for causing fits.

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To provide spectral evidence, all the afflicted had to do was claim to have seen an apparition of the person who had cursed them. These testimonies led to the conviction of most of the witches jailed during the early days of the witch trials. After the initial onslaught, the use of spectral evidence came under fire for its questionable reliability.

More-Than-Plausible Deniability

Critics of spectral evidence claimed that simply taking the word of a fitful victim wasn't grounds for conviction of an accused witch. Of course, their reasoning wasn’t because it sounded like a bunch of nonsense. The explanation they offered was far more in line with their Puritanical beliefs.

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According to those against the validity of spectral evidence, the accounts of the afflicted could not be counted as sole evidence and testimony because the devil could theoretically take any form he wished when appearing to a victim. Eventually, spectral evidence was no longer considered damning, slowing the flow of convicted witches into jail cells.

Tea and Cake or Death

One of the more disgusting methods of determining who was a witch was through the use of witch cakes. These "cakes" are actually much worse than they sound, and the "proof" they provided was somehow even shakier than spectral evidence.

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For starters, they were made using rye meal and urine from the accused witch’s victim. Once the batter was mixed, it was formed into a cake and fed to some unfortunate dog. In theory, a guilty witch would scream as the dog ate and digested the delectable pee patty. It’s not clear how often this allegedly identified a witch, but it was a pretty common tactic.

A Strange Explanation

Considering it was a witch cake (or at least a theoretical one) that got the ball rolling and the ropes swinging in Salem, it might be worth noting how the cakes allegedly worked. The superstition was that witches could curse someone using "evil particles" expelled from the eyes.

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These "venomous and malignant particles" made their way into the body of the cursed, circulating in their system through the length of their affliction. Urine from the cursed contained some of these particles, which remained bound to the witch. When the dog consumed the urine biscuit, the witch in hiding cried out in pain as the particles were destroyed.

A False Admission

Unlike spectral evidence, the use of witch cakes was never questioned or phased out during the trials. In the primary case of the Salem Witch Trials, Tituba "confessed" to making a witch cake to help Elizabeth Parris, who had begun to show signs of what was assumed to be possession.

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It was later revealed that Tituba had probably not made a witch cake but had been coerced into making such a confession by Elizabeth's father. Accounts of the trial and its aftermath indicate that he likely beat her until she agreed to give the scripted confession that convicted her.

Merciful Words

Accused witches could also prove their innocence through the recitation of scripture. If a person had committed their soul to Satan, they couldn’t smoothly utter passages from the Bible. The accused was typically asked to recite the Lord's Prayer, and if they faltered at any point, that was more than enough to prove their guilt.

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Even if they managed to recite whatever passages they were given, it might not be enough to save them. At least one account holds that a man who flawlessly recounted a prayer was sentenced to death anyway because it was "a trick of the devil." That sounds like a no-win scenario.

A Hands-on Approach

Stemming from the same school of understanding as witch cakes, touch tests were a favored method for finding a witch in a crowd. The idea was that the touch of the one who had cast a curse on the afflicted could undo it. The experience was commonly practiced among the accused.

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The witches were blindfolded and presented to their victims, who often started retching and seizing upon seeing them. Once the witch's hands were placed on the body of the cursed, the fits often stopped, and the afflicted could claim the one touching them had caused them harm. The touch test alone was enough to convict someone.

Personal Probing

You’ve probably heard the myth that witches have extra nipples (or something to that effect). There's actually a historical — although not factual — basis for that rumor. During witch trials, it was common for the accused to be publicly stripped down to their undergarments and searched for unusual marks.

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The blemishes in question were called witches' teats, and having one was undeniable evidence that a person was a witch. These "teats" were actually moles or other raised bumps on the skin that were unresponsive to touch. These marks were supposedly evidence of the devil marking his charges following their initiation rites.

Nothing Says "Guilty" Like Home Invasion

Of course, if you were accused of being a witch, you gave up any and all rights to privacy. In addition to shamelessly probing your body for bumps or throwing you in a pond to see if you would float, authorities usually searched the homes of those accused of witchcraft.

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Damning items such as spell books, pots of ointment and suspicious-looking figurines were guaranteed to earn the accused a trip to jail and possibly the gallows if they were found in their home. It was unlikely anyone bothered to ask how they got there.

Not the Devil's Work

Would you be shocked to learn the hysteria that led to the Salem Witch Trials wasn't actually the work of the devil? Of course not, but the actual cause isn't exactly common knowledge, so get your trivia deck ready because this is a tidbit you'll definitely want to add.

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While the religious zealotry of the Salem communities and their relative isolation from the rest of the (sane) world undoubtedly played a huge role in the inception and perpetuation of the witch trials, they weren't the sole causes. The true cause of colonial New England's mass hysteria wasn't discovered for another 300 years.

Rye, Oh Rye

As indicated by the contents of witch cakes, rye was a fairly common cereal grain at the time. It made hearty bread and generally stored well. Tainted rye, however, is seriously bad news. A blight called ergot is considered to be largely responsible for the hysteria that led to the Salem Witch Trials, and it came in the form of poisoned bread.

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Ergot is a blight caused by the growth of fungus on rye grains. The affliction, ergotism, is often violent and sometimes deadly. Most commonly, it manifests as convulsions, hallucinations and psychosis. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t take the psychoactive route, ergotism could cause gangrenous lesions and death.

Science Prevails (Eventually)

The modern (and scientifically viable) explanation for the hysteria leading to the Salem Witch Trials is all thanks to Dr. Linnda Caporael of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She posited that many of the strange symptoms exhibited by the "victims" during the witch trials were actually the result of a natural poison.

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How did an entire region end up getting poisoned by the same thing? That’s easy: They all shared a dietary staple. Rye was a common crop at the time, and they all used it to make bread. Dr. Caporael examined the symptoms and the formative climate of rye ergot and found that the pieces fit together surprisingly well.

One Bad Trip

Dr. Caporael realized that cases of rye ergot spiked following harsh winters and wet springs, two seasonal conditions that existed prior to the rye crop harvested for consumption in 1692. The fungus that grew as a result of the ergot contained lysergic acid and ergotamine, which are toxic to humans.

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With the limited medical and scientific knowledge of the 17th century, the unusual looking rye grains were likely passed off as a result of too much sun and consumed anyway. The tainted rye containing the precursor to LSD made its way into bread across Salem, leading to a year-long and area-wide acid trip that ultimately went down in history.

Of the Same Ilk

Mentions of witches can be found in historical records dating back to biblical times, and their persecution followed shortly after their appearance. "Witch" has become a catch-all term to indicate a person, usually a woman, whose seemingly mystical personal conduct doesn't mesh with the Bible.

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Witch trials swept much of Europe beginning in the mid-15th century and running through the 17th century. As trials died down in Europe, they started in the colonies. Unlike Salem, the witch hunts in Europe are believed to have been the result of economic hardship and famine. When conditions got tough, witches and black magic became convenient scapegoats.

Little Ice Age

Around the time witch hunts first began to crop up in Europe, the weather took a strange downturn. Temperatures plummeted, and seasons were cold and wet. As a result, the 1500s were marked by failed crops, famine and plagues of caterpillars and vermin that ballooned in numbers as their food supplies failed and discarded crops spiked.

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The economic downturn and hunger that ensued left people frustrated, hungry and perhaps more than a little delirious at times. Pair those symptoms with the Christian zealotry that was ubiquitous at the time, and you have the perfect breeding grounds for finger-pointing and the impassioned persecution of anything strange.

Saw It in a Movie

Despite the horrors of the witch hunts that were enacted across Europe and its colonies, they have been a source of fascination and entertainment in popular culture for years. Monty Python and the Holy Grail offers one of the most recognizable examples, featuring a scene where an obviously fake witch is put on trial.

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Even in children's media, movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame shows Esmeralda being burned at the stake for allegedly practicing witchcraft, although all she really did was oppose the church. It's a wonderful example of the actual reasons that were often behind the roundups and executions of so-called witches during much of history.

It's Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus

One movie that's gained a huge cult following since its release in 1993 is Hocus Pocus. A Halloween classic, the movie takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, and follows the misadventures of three resurrected witches. Although the film contains few factual elements related to the actual trials, it's one of the more popular movies that mentions them.

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Although the movie is a comedy — a slightly dark one — it does present viewers with the modern interpretation of the witch trials. Today, the trials are "a thing that happened a long time ago" to most people. It's a period of history that's not heavily discussed, although perhaps it should be.

The Truth Is There

Despite the modern lighthearted approach to the witch trials and the humorous tones in which they are often conveyed, it’s important to understand the truth of what drove the real witch hunts of the early modern era, and that includes the social issues that fanned the flames of a health crisis and made it worse.

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Famine and widespread crop blights are likely a thing of the past, but fanaticism still persists today in many forms. It seems unlikely that the widespread persecution of a group solely as a scapegoat could happen today, but viewing events through the lens of history could save humanity from the curse of repeating the past.