Mysterious Truths Behind the Salem Witch Trials
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.