5 Facts About the Salem Trials

Salem Witch Trial Scene
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

There’s always a lot of discussion in the Pagan community about the so-called Burning Times, which is the term used to describe the witch hunts of early modern Europe. Often, that conversation shifts over towards Salem, Massachusetts, and the famous trial in 1692 that resulted in twenty executions. However, in the more than three centuries since then, the historical waters have gotten a bit muddied, and many modern Pagans find themselves sympathetic towards Salem’s accused.

While sympathy, and certainly empathy, are always good things to have, it’s also important that we don’t let emotions color the facts. Add in the numerous films and television series that reference Salem, and things get even more distorted. Let’s look at some important historical evidence that people often forget about the Salem witch trials.

Did You Know?

  • It's unlikely that anyone in Salem was actually practicing witchcraft—most of the community consisted of devout and pious Christians.
  • No one was burned at the stake in Salem, but nineteen people were hanged, and one was pressed to death under heavy stones.
  • One of the most popular theories as to what could have caused the mass hysteria of Salem is that of ergot poisoning, but recent scholars have questioned this idea.
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Nobody Got Burned at the Stake

Illustration of Elderly Woman Being Led Away During the Salem Witch Trials
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Being burned at the stake was an occasionally used method of execution in Europe, when one was convicted of witchcraft, but was generally reserved for those who refused to repent of their sins. No one in America has ever been put to death this way. Instead, in 1692, hanging was the preferred form of punishment. Twenty people were put to death in Salem for the crime of witchcraft. Nineteen were hanged, and one–elderly Giles Corey–pressed to death. Seven more died in jail. Between 1692 and 1693, more than two hundred people were accused.

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It's Unlikely Anyone Was Really a Witch

Salem Witchcraft
Interim Archives / Getty Images

While many modern-day Pagans cite the Salem trials as an example of religious intolerance, at the time, witchcraft was not seen as a religion at all. It was viewed as a sin against God, the church, and the Crown, and thus was treated as a crime. It's also important to remember that there is no evidence, other than spectral evidence and coerced confessions, that any of the accused actually did practice witchcraft.

In seventeenth-century New England, pretty much everyone was practicing some form of Christianity. Does that mean they couldn’t have been practicing witchcraft? No–because certainly there are some Christians who do–but there’s no historical evidence that anyone was really working any kind of magic in Salem. Unlike some of the more notorious cases in Europe and England, such as that of the Pendle witch trial, there was no one among Salem’s accused who was known as a local witch or healer, with one exception.

One of the best known of the accused has been the focus of some conjecture regarding whether or not she was practicing folk magic, because she was believed to be a "fortune teller." The slave Tituba, because of her background in the Caribbean (or possibly the West Indies), could have practiced some form of folk magic, but that has never been confirmed. It’s entirely possible that much of the blame placed upon Tituba during the trials was based on her racial and social class. She was released from jail shortly after the hangings began, and was never tried or convicted. There is no documentation of where she may have gone after the trials.

Often, in movies and television and books, the accusers in the Salem trials are portrayed as angsty teenage girls, but that’s not completely true. Many of the accusers were adults – and more than a few of them were people who had themselves been accused. By pointing the finger at others, they were able to shift the blame and spare their own lives.

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Spectral Evidence Was Considered Legit

The Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692 by Tompkins H. Matteson
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

It’s pretty hard to show any sort of concrete, tangible evidence that someone is in league with the Devil or fiddling around with spirits. That’s where spectral evidence comes in, and it played a significant role in the Salem trials. According to USLegal.com, “Spectral evidence refers to a witness testimony that the accused person's spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream at the time the accused person's physical body was at another location. [State v. Dustin, 122 N.H. 544, 551 (N.H. 1982)]."

What does that mean, in layman’s terms? It means that even though supernatural evidence might seem sketchy to us in this day and age, for people like Cotton Mather and the rest of Salem, it was perfectly acceptable in cases of necessity. Mather saw the war against Satan as being just as important as the war against the French and the local Native American tribes. Which brings us to…


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Economics and Politics Mattered

Salem Custom House
Salem Custom House. Walter Bibikow / AWL Images / Getty

While the Salem of today is a thriving metropolitan area, in 1692 it was a remote settlement on the edge of the frontier. It was divided into two distinct and very different socioeconomic parts. Salem Village was populated mostly by poor farmers, and Salem Town was a prosperous port full of middle-class and wealthy merchants. The two communities were three hours apart, by foot, which was the most common method of transportation at the time. For years, Salem Village tried to separate itself politically from Salem Town.

To complicate matters further, within Salem Village itself, there were two separate social groups. Those who lived nearer to Salem Town engaged in commerce and were seen as a bit more worldly. Meanwhile, those who lived further away clung to their rigid Puritan values. When Salem Village’s new pastor, Reverend Samuel Parris, came to town, he denounced the secular behavior of the innkeepers and blacksmiths and others. This created a rift between the two groups in Salem Village.

How did this conflict impact the trials? Well, most of the people accused lived in the part of Salem Village that was full of businesses and shops. Most of the accusers were Puritans who lived on the farms.

As if the class and religious differences weren’t bad enough, Salem was in an area that was under regular attack from Native American tribes. Many people lived in a constant state of fear, tension, and paranoia.

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The Ergotism Theory

Martha Corey And Her Prosecutors, Salem, Massachusetts, C1692 (C1880)
Print Collector / Getty Images

One of the most popular theories as to what could have caused the mass hysteria of Salem in 1692 is that of ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus found in bread, and has the same effect as hallucinogenic drugs. The theory first came to prominence in the 1970s, when Linnda R. Caporael wrote Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?

Dr. John Lienhard of the University of Houston writes in Rye, Ergot and Witches about Mary Matossian’s 1982 study which supports Caporael’s findings. Lienhard says,

“Matossian tells a story about rye ergot that reaches far beyond Salem. She studies seven centuries of demographics, weather, literature, and crop records from Europe and America. Down through history, Matossian argues, drops in population have followed diets heavy in rye bread and weather that favors ergot. During the huge depopulation in the early years of the Black Death, right after 1347, conditions were ideal for ergot… In the 1500s and 1600s, the symptoms of ergot were blamed on witches–all over Europe, and finally in Massachusetts. Witch hunts hardly occurred where people didn't eat rye.”

In recent years, though, the ergot theory has been questioned. DHowlett1692, who blogs regularly about all things Salem, cites a 1977 article by Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb that disputes Caporael’s ergotism study. Spanos and Gottlieb argue

“that the general features of the crisis did not resemble an ergotism epidemic, that the symptoms of the afflicted girls and of the other witnesses were not those of convulsive ergotism, and that the abrupt ending of the crisis, and the remorse and second thoughts of those who judged and testified against the accused, can be explained without recourse to the ergotism hypothesis.”

In short, Spanos and Gottlieb believe that the ergotism theory is off-base for several reasons. First, there are a number of ergot poisoning symptoms which were not reported by those who claimed to be afflicted by witchcraft. Second, everyone got their food from the same place, so symptoms would have occurred in every household, not just a select few. Finally, many of the symptoms described by witnesses stopped and began again based on external circumstances, and that simply doesn’t happen with physiological illness.

For Further Reading

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Wigington, Patti. "5 Facts About the Salem Trials." Learn Religions, Sep. 9, 2021, learnreligions.com/facts-about-the-salem-trials-2562897. Wigington, Patti. (2021, September 9). 5 Facts About the Salem Trials. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/facts-about-the-salem-trials-2562897 Wigington, Patti. "5 Facts About the Salem Trials." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/facts-about-the-salem-trials-2562897 (accessed June 2, 2023).