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Debunking myths about the Salem witch trials


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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