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The Salem witch trials—like so many moments in history—is plagued by misconception and misinformation. There have been a lot of bad takes over the last three centuries that have stubbornly remained within our midst, and it can be interesting to parse through them and separate the truth from fiction.

 

Here are three that I think are particularly stubborn and important to dispel:

 

The “witches” in and around Salem in 1692 were persecuted for their beliefs.

 

First, and most importantly, there were never any witches in Salem. The people who were accused, convicted, jailed, and executed were not guilty of their so-called crimes. Period.

 

Furthermore, a “witch” in seventeenth-century Massachusetts was nothing like how we think of a witch today. A witch was not somebody who practiced a nature-based set of beliefs, like, say, Wicca, for example. Or a green-faced woman who stirs a steaming caldron, like in the Wizard of Oz. A seventeenth-century “witch” was somebody who had sold their soul to the devil to obtain some earthly power. While there is little doubt that most Puritans were deathly afraid of witches and the power that they derived from the underworld, witches existed squarely within the Calvinist belief system that Puritans attested to.

 

The witch hunt was mostly driven by long-standing infighting between neighbors.

 

There’s little doubt that late-seventeenth-century Salem was filled with conflict—these were litigious people who seemed to revel in suing each other. But to say that the witch crisis of 1692, which resulted in about 200 accusations and 25 deaths, was driven entirely by neighborly infighting is an oversimplification. This was a society that very much believed in the power of the devil to undermine the goodness of their community. And while some of these long-standing squabbles certainly played a role in some of the accusations, in truth, much of the witch crisis was driven by a growing sense of fear that built to a crescendo over the course of the year. The more people claimed to be afflicted, the more accusations that were made. And as more accusations were made, the fear pulsating throughout the community continued to grow. It was a vicious cycle with devastating results.  

 

It was all about property.

 

Again, property disputes were sometimes the basis of bad blood between neighbors, but they didn’t lead to a witch crisis. Individuals could not gain control over other people’s property by accusing them of being a witch. And the government could not seize the property of those who were accused.  

 

 

What are some other myths? Let me know in the comments below.

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What we know today as the Salem witch trials occurred 332 years ago, mostly over a brief seven-month period, in and around Salem Village. The number of Puritan settlers living across the entire region at the time numbered only a few thousand at most.  Over the course of this crisis, approximately 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and at least 25 people died because of those accusations—19 convicted and executed, one tortured to death, and at least five more died in jail awaiting trial.

 

Over the broad scope of history, stretching around the globe, there have been thousands of similar tragedies that have been largely forgotten, particularly more than three decades after they have happened. Yet, our interest in the witch crisis in Salem only seems to grow with each passing decade.

 

Why is that?

 

Is it because it involves sensational accusations of witchcraft? Is it because literally millions of us living in the United States today can trace our heritage back to the people involved?

 

I assume it’s a bit of both of those things…and more.

 

In many ways, the Salem witch crisis is an ideal microhistory. It’s a compelling, engaging, tragic, horrific story that sheds important light on a timeless human experience. The Salem witch trials are a nearly perfect example of how our fears can overtake all rationality and drive us to do the most horrific things. That isn’t to say that our late-seventeenth-century forefathers didn’t believe wholeheartedly in witchcraft and the power of the devil—they most certainly did. But almost as quickly as the hysteria blew up, it died down completely once cooler heads prevailed. A community had collectively allowed its fear and emotion get the best of it, with devastating results.

 

Why do you think the Salem witch trials remains such a compelling topic for so many of us today? Let me know in the comments.

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