This edited article about the Salem witch trials originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
As if the terror in the forest was not enough – the blood-freezing war whoop, the sudden attack, the scalping knife – fear now stalked the small town. Suspicion, hysteria, accusations, counter-accusations and condemnation to death were rampant among ordinary, decent folk, or, rather, folk who had been decent and ordinary before the witchcraft trials had begun. For this was the little settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, in New England in 1692.
The name of Salem was to become so infamous that the great English diarist, John Evelyn, would soon be nothing: “Unheard of stories of the universal increase of witches in New England: men, women, and children, devoting themselves to the devil.”
The Devil had come to Massachusetts, triggering off the fear and horror which the word “witchcraft” aroused in most people’s minds. In the British Isles, many thousands of innocents were put to death between the 14th and the 18th centuries, while in Europe as many as nine million may have perished. And many of those who condemned them to the stake or the gibbet or other savage forms of death, were sincerely convinced that they were doing God’s will.
The people of Salem, like most New Englanders, were descended from the Pilgrim Fathers and other religious groups who had left home to seek freedom of worship in a new world, but most of them embraced a faith sterner by far than anything from which they had fled. The gentleness of the New Testament was too weak for these hardy souls who carved a new way of life out of the wilderness. They followed the precepts of the Old Testament at its fiercest. A terrifying poem called The Day of Doom had been all the rage since the 1660s and frightened the life out of adults and, especially children. In it was stressed the ultra-harsh doctrine that only the Elect could be saved and that even a new-born baby was destined for Hell if it died unbaptised, though it would be allowed “the easiest room in hell”. This shocking doctrine, so alien to many religious folk then and practically all today, must be emphasised, for the horror that happened in Salem began because religious hysteria was induced in its young.
Young people were not so much ill-treated in Salem as put into strait-jackets of impossible respectability, piety and boredom. No wonder Betty Williams, the nine-year-old daughter of the Reverend Parris, and her spirited older cousin, Abigail Williams, delighted in the company of the aged family slave, half-Carib Indian, half-African, Tituba, who told them tales of magic and witchcraft learnt in her native island in the Caribbean.
Gradually, older girls began to attend these forbidden delights that were to end so tragically. Trouble started when Betty began to behave peculiarly, even emitting strange hoarse, choking sounds, almost like a dog’s bark. And she, then Abigail, became absent-minded and would stare straight ahead, as rigid as a statue. The mixture of a harsh religion and Tituba’s tales had induced in them a state of hysteria, of mania, until first they, then the other girls, came to believe that they were possessed by the Devil. The result was appalling, for suddenly they accused Tituba of being a witch and Tituba, to save herself, accused one, Sarah Good, who allegedly had appeared as a wolf and had ridden through the air on a pole.
Frenzy swept through Salem as trials began, trials at which the screaming girls were on parade accusing one citizen after another of witchcraft. And it must be stressed that everyone then believed in witches. Some of the most respected citizens were soon on the receiving end of the girls’ screaming accusations until the atmosphere in the town became nightmarish beyond belief. On one occasion, the mass hysterics claimed to see, and no doubt in their frenzy they saw, a strange black figure whispering in the ear of one, Martha Corey, and a little yellow bird flying round her head, the same bird that had been seen around poor, condemned Sarah Good. How could one defend oneself against such monstrous accusations?
Like his wife, Giles Corey was old, and he, too was accused. All he had striven for would be ruined, for his property would be confiscated, if he was condemned. Being a lawyer, he saw a way of saving it for his family. If he pleaded neither innocent nor guilty, but remained silent, he could save his property, if not himself. So it came about that in that time of torment, nineteen men and women were hanged, including poor Martha, but her Giles was still alive.
He stood in the court room listening to the evil lies that spilled out of the girls’ lips, accusing him of every crime in the book, and he remained silent, to the fury of his judges, once his friends. Finally, the valiant old man was taken away, laid on his back and covered by a flat, wooden board on to which were piled heavier and heavier weights. Still he remained silent, as his judges waited for an admission of guilt, until, finally, the breath was crushed from his body. He had triumphed.
The nightmare had begun in February and not until the May of the following year, with the jails crammed with prisoners waiting to die, did it cease. The community had come to its collective senses and the Governor of Massachusetts ordered that all prisoners should be released. It was over.
The wounds took many years to heal, generations even, but most of those who had helped in the orgy of fear were truly repentant and a more tolerant atmosphere in things religious and non-religious alike was born. Thus out of evil came forth good.
This article and image(s) are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.