Historical Highlights: Salem Witch Trials

Historical Highlights: Salem Witch Trials

Story | Michaela Clem-Jacobs

William A. Crafts (1876) | Courtesy Salem Destination Guide

As October creeps on, Halloween decorations begin to sprout up around the street, skeletons, pumpkins, the occasional Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and of course, witches. 

Witches riding broomsticks, witches stirring cauldrons, sexy witches, ugly witches, animals dressed up as witches.  The possibilities are endless.

But a deeper history backs the common Halloween decoration or movie character. This history is much less trivial than we think, and quite frankly, incredibly interesting.  Sexism, religion, law discrepancy  and xenophobia riddle this history. Witchcraft in America has a strong root in the small town of Salem, in the colony of Massachusetts in 1692.

European settlers founded the town of Salem in 1626, and the next generations of colonists lived for about sixty years without significant internal or societal conflict until the 1680s.  This decade brought many issues to light that identify as factors that led to the chaos to come.  The first event, King William’s War, caused refugees from the northern colonies and Canada to flee south and settle in Salem.  The strong xenophobia began here.  Smallpox also terrified the population of the colonies, as the constant possibility attacks due to taking over the land that belonged to the Indigenous people that lived there.  This culmination of threats put the colonists under extreme stress, which led to what we now know as the Salem Witch Trials. 

Tituba is one of the most important people in the story of the Salem Witch Trials. The town of Salem accused Tituba, an enslaved Caribbean woman of witchcraft first.  Tituba pleaded guilty and admitted to these “crimes.”
Mary Evans Picture Library | Everett Collection

The first happenings of the Salem Witch trials occurred in 1692, when two young daughters of prominent men in Salem began to act very strangely.  These young ladies came down with fits of shaking, screaming and kicking, to which all attempts at calming proved useless. The young girls claimed that a witch cursed them, and accused three women, including one named Tituba.  Tituba is one of the most important people in the story of the Salem Witch Trials. The town of Salem accused Tituba, an enslaved Caribbean woman of witchcraft first.  Tituba pleaded guilty and admitted to these “crimes.”   Tituba likely  admitted to witchcraft, with an intention intended to gain a good reputation on the side of the law, and perhaps even act as an inside voice for identifying the other “witches.” 

As tension escalated, Bridget Bishop went down in history as the first woman to be tried and killed as a witch in the Salem Witch trials.  Thirteen women and five men followed her to a similar fate.  The town accused far more women than men of witchcraft.   The colonies tried women more often likely because the concepts of witches destroyed the unstable, sexist hierarchy.  The Puritan church labeled women holding power as “ungodly.”  In fact, the Church credited witches with “making a deal with the devil to gain their power.”  Even that concept showed that the Church believed that a woman needed to go through a male entity, the Devil, to gain power.  A woman gaining her own power through her own means? Apparently impossible.  This fear of outsiders and minorities holding power resulted in the near-disintegration of a previously prominent town, and the deaths of innocent people.

So this Halloween, I take extra consideration in the symbol of witches.  It doesn’t mean I won’t ever watch The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina again, or that I won’t don my pointy black hat on the 31st of October, but it does mean that the history is much deeper and much scarier than the surface.  Perhaps the scariest part of this month is not the witch herself, but the xenophobia and sexism that made her the symbol that she is. 

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