Did Witch Trials Only Happen in Salem, Massachusetts?
“Witch hunt” is a term often used today that’s typically used in the metaphorical sense. People usually use the term when they feel they’re being accused of a crime without any evidence. When being investigated by the FBI, former President Trump referred to the investigation as a “witch hunt.” The McCarthy era — a period during the 1950s when people were wrongly accused of supporting communism — might be a better example of a modern-day witch hunt. After all, Arthur Miller’s McCarthy era-inspired The Crucible, a play about the Salem witch trials, is read by millions of people each year. These metaphorical witch hunts, however, are reminders that literal witch hunts took place for centuries and even played an important role in the early years of U.S. history.
Why is it that, when discussing these witch hunts and witch trials in the United States, the conversation is dominated by Salem, Massachusetts? Today, Salem is filled with museums and attractions related to the dramatic trials in 1692 and 1693. But you might be surprised to learn that Salem was only one of several epicenters of these events in American history.
Today, we’re looking at witch trials — the other witch trials in North America that don’t get talked about as much in textbooks, documentaries or horror films. And there’s a lot more than mere hocus pocus to share with you about them.
A History of Anti-Witchcraft Attitudes and Legislation
Panic over activities deemed witchcraft didn’t originate in the United States — or during the 1600s. Witch trials occurred all over the U.S. and the world. The public’s interest in witchcraft began with a revised Bible from 700 B.C.; the books Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy all began featuring passages that referred to the practice of magic as a punishable offense. Newly Christian converts like Greeks and Romans, along with early Europeans, began carrying this anxiety over acts of witchcraft and the people who performed them.
Some of the earliest witch trials included that of Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in 1431 after being “put on trial for charges including heresy, witchcraft and violating divine law.” The Catholic Church doubled down on this stance in 1487 upon the release of the Malleus Maleficarum, a book whose title translates to “The Hammer of Witches” in Latin and that recommended the death penalty for people caught practicing witchcraft. Historians believe anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed during this time and in response to the book. Most of the people accused of being witches, possibly 80% of them, were women.
In the 1500s, England passed a series of laws making witchcraft a felony punishable by death. The Witchcraft Act of 1604, which was officially dubbed “An Act Against the Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing With Evil and Wicked Spirits,” called for the death penalty “without clergy.” This meant that people were not entitled to a fair trial, nor were they presumed innocent until proven guilty.
What counted as witchcraft back then? Any practice that was rooted in paganism and anything deemed non-Christian could’ve been seen as witchcraft. Alchemy, the early science of breaking down elements to try to make gold, was a popular practice in these times, and, although scientific, was also considered “sorcery.”
The Jamestown settlers arrived in what would become the United States in 1607. Perhaps when they began their voyage, the colonists had a specific mindset — or fear— they brought with them based on the early English witchcraft laws. Not long after the founding of the colonies, settlers found themselves at odds with Native Americans, and they began projecting a fear-fueled mystique onto Indigenous groups.
That fear found a new home when directed at the women of the colonies. In Puritan communities, Eve eating the apple in the Bible meant that, to the settlers, women as a whole were more susceptible to temptation and manipulation from evil forces. According to Eastern Illinois University’s Melinda Allen, the gender ratio of some regions of the colonies was one woman for every six men. With fewer women around, the fear of being accused of witchcraft may have been used as a tool to maintain control.
Many Witch Trials Did Not Take Place in Salem
Witch trials in the U.S. began in Jamestown, Virginia — the first colony. The first person accused of being a witch during these times was a midwife named Joan Wright. It’s unclear if she was found guilty, and there is no record of her execution. The case of Grace Sherwood also sticks out among the notable witch trials in Virginia. Sherwood was given a “water test,” which involved throwing a person into water. Settlers believed that, if a person floated, they were considered a witch. Sherwood did float, but no further trial was conducted. Of the 15 people accused of witchcraft in Jamestown, 13 were women.
The Connecticut Witch Trials are also noteworthy and they predate the Salem trials by several decades. This colony enacted a witchcraft policy of its own in 1642 that essentially called for capital punishment for anyone accused. Five years later, the U.S. held its first execution related to the crime of witchcraft.
Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, was the first person executed for allegedly being a witch. Young’s daughter, Alice, was also accused of being a witch 30 years later but was thankfully exonerated. Following Young’s death, another Windsor woman named Lydia Gilbert was executed after a witch trial in 1648. Mary Johnson of Wethersfield, Connecticut, confessed to being a witch after having a child out of wedlock that same year.
In 1651, the first couple accused of witchcraft was executed. Also of Wethersfield, John and Joan Carrington were executed. Ultimately, 42 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in Connecticut and at least 10 of them were killed because of it.
Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina all adopted Britain’s Witchcraft Act of 1604 rather than writing their own like Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island did. New Hampshire and Rhode Island never executed anyone due to witchcraft accusations. The Witchcraft Act of 1604 was eventually repealed and replaced by the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Punishment for being found guilty of witchcraft changed from death to a year of imprisonment, and it became clearer that no one was actually practicing real magic or bewitching anyone, that witchcraft cases weren’t based on any tangible proof.
Why Does U.S. History Focus on the Salem Witch Trials?
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693 have earned a more prominent place in history for several reasons. The first is that the sheer number of people accused was much larger in Salem than in other colonies. Often, just a few people in a town were accused of witchcraft. In Salem, part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. Nearly 10% of those accused were executed.
The Salem Witch Trials also commanded the narrative due to the distinguished people who were accused of being witches — reverends, doctors and even the governor’s wife. Lady Mary Phips was the wife of Sir William Phips, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time, and the accusations against her helped the governor realize the dangers these false accusations presented.
Today, the Constitution grants us rights that people accused of witchcraft in the 1600s did not have. The right to a fair and speedy trial and the presumption of innocence are some of the legal principles that the country was founded on — principles that weren’t codified when witchcraft hysteria took place across the Colonial U.S. Witch hunts — and witch trials — that occurred not just in Salem but throughout the colonies may be partly responsible for codifying these rights we enjoy today, along with the separation of religion and government.
Bottom Line: Witch Trials Happened All Over the Country—Not Just Salem
Did witch trials only happen in Salem? Not at all. Witch trials happened throughout the American Colonies and Europe. Salem’s cases were merely so prolific that they influenced the town’s reputation and effectively ended baseless witchcraft accusations in the U.S. and England.