Inside the Salem Witch Trials

tags: Salem Witch Trials

In 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed. Although we will never know the exact number of those formally charged with having “wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously” engaged in sorcery, somewhere between a hundred and forty-four and a hundred and eighty-five witches and wizards were named in twenty-five villages and towns. The youngest was five; the eldest nearly eighty. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; daughters their mothers; siblings each other. One minister discovered that he was related to no fewer than twenty witches.

The population of New England at that time would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, they had sailed to North America to worship “with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were,” as a clergyman at the center of the crisis later explained. On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization from scratch. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence.

New England delivered greater purity but also introduced fresh perils. Stretching from Martha’s Vineyard to Nova Scotia and incorporating parts of present-day Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine, it perched on the edge of a wilderness. That was a precarious position well before 1692, when the colony teetered between governments, or, more exactly, as a Boston merchant put it, “between government and no government.” The settlers unseated their royal governor in a deft 1689 military coup. They had endured without a charter for eight years.

From the start, the colonists tangled with that American staple, the swarthy terrorist in the back yard. Without a knock or a greeting, four armed Indians might appear in your parlor to warm themselves by the fire, propositioning you, while you cowered in the corner with your knitting. You could return from a trip to Boston to find your house in ashes and your family taken captive. The Indians skulked, they lurked, they flitted, they committed atrocities—and they vanished. “Our men could see no enemy to shoot at,” a Cambridge major general lamented.

King Philip’s War, a fifteen-month contest between the settlers and the Native Americans, had ended in 1676. It obliterated a third of New England’s towns, pulverized its economy, and claimed ten per cent of the adult male population. Every Bay Colony resident lost a friend or a relative; all knew of a dismemberment or an abduction. By 1692, another Indian war had begun to take shape, with a series of grisly raids by the Wabanaki and their French allies. The frontier had recently moved to within fifty miles of Salem. ...

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