Salem witch trials

Women's History Month: The Salem Witch Trials

March 05, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Was it witchcraft, simple hysteria or a hallucinogenic poison? Hundreds of people were accused of doing the devil’s work during the Salem witch trials.

The Salem Witch Trials: Fact and Fiction

Salem, Mass., is the site of one of the most gruesome moments in American history. In the late 17th century, more than 200 people were accused of “practicing the Devil’s magic,” resulting in an eventual death sentence for 20 of them. The citizens of Salem gave in to paranoia and mistrust during the Salem witch trials, which began when two young girls, ages 9 and 11, suddenly exhibited symptoms of hysteria. 

The Smithsonian explains that Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams were abruptly overcome with tremors and spasms, and fits of crying and throwing things. Prompted by town officials to make accusations, the girls complied, claiming several Salem women were witches and had “afflicted” them. The accused included Tituba, a Caribbean slave belonging to Elizabeth Parris’ family; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, a poor and elderly townswoman. The citizens' paranoia eventually gave way to shame and remorse. The witch trials have remained a significant part of the country's history, and influenced countless works.

Arguably one of the most famous works inspired by the tragedy at Salem is Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible.” Published in 1953, the play subtly comments on the persecution of Americans during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to rid the United States of communist influence. To learn more about his use of the Salem witch trials as a context for the play, check out an exploration of the historical accuracy of “The Crucible,” which includes words by Miller himself on the alterations he made to some of the historical facts and figures of the trials.

You Are There: Documents, Maps and Activities

The Salem witch trials were a well-documented affair, with court transcripts available from the hearings. The University of Virginia hosts the “Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project,” which provides details of the trials, as well as record books and letters. Use the interactive maps to view the locations of the accusers and their victims, and follow the chronology of the events. The site also provides biographies of the people involved in the trials.

A number of interactive Web sites allow you to trace details of the Salem witch trials. The PBS series Web site “Secrets of the Dead” explores a possible scientific cause for the hysteria, which at the time was seen as possession by the devil. Linnda Caporael first theorized that ergotism (ergot poisoning) might have been the cause of the hallucinations and erratic behavior mistaken for witchcraft.

Caporael discovered the ergot fungus on rye plants in Salem when she investigated the site for a college project. The residents of Salem were known to subsist on rye, and modern-day toxicologists recognize ergot as inducing hallucinations, spasms, vomiting and delusions when consumed—all symptoms of “witchcraft,” as reported in 1692. Don’t miss the “Explore Salem” feature on this site: Hover your mouse over the timeline of the trials to trace them month by month from January 1692 to May 1693.

National Geographic also hosts an interactive tour of the trials, with a somewhat more macabre bent. “Salem: Witch Craft and Hysteria” invites you to experience the trials as they progressed. As you begin your tour, the site asks: “Will you survive?”

To learn more about the trials offline, read “The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege,” by Marilynne K. Roach, which offers a comprehensive look at the background of the trials.

Visiting Salem, Mass.

If you’re feeling really brave, take a trip to see the grounds of the Salem witch trials in person. Be warned: If you journey to quaint Salem, Mass., to explore witch-hunting sites, you’ll be disappointed. After the witch trials took place, Salem Village changed its name to Danvers. If you do find yourself in the area, however, you’ll still get to see some nifty exhibitions dedicated to the witch trials. See the Salem Wax Museum, or visit The Salem Witch Museum, which hosts tours of Danvers and the surrounding towns affected by the witch trials.

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