The Salem Witch Trials

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Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials took place in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. During that time more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, also known as the Devil’s magic.1 By the end of the trial nineteen were executed by hanging and one was pressed to death with stones. Seventeen others died in prison while awaiting trial.2 Although the trials were named after Salem Village, one of the towns involved, trials were also conducted in other towns across the eastern shore of Massachusetts including Salem Village (now Danvers), Ipswich, Andover, and Salem Town.3 The “witchcraft craze” actually began in Europe around the fifteenth century. Many religions, including some Christian sects, believed that the Devil and other evil spirits could give certain people special powers to hurt other people. Most during the time accepted the belief that anything bad that happened was caused by the Devil. The Devil was blamed for events such as infant death, crop failures, and even arguments.4 Historians estimate that tens of thousands of people, mostly women, were executed in Europe during this time.5 As the witchcraft trials started to decrease in Europe, the idea of witches and witchcraft became popular in many American colonies. Many factors came together in the Massachusetts colonies to cause people to believe in witches and witchcraft. Religious intolerance, fear of the unknown, the influx of refugees to the area, legal instability, and the recent “witchcraft craze” in Europe all contributed to the Salem witch trials.6 The original settlers of the Massachusetts colonies were conservative Puritans who left England because of their opposition to the Church of England, the established church of England. The Puritans opposed many of the traditions of the Church of England, including the Book of Common Prayer, the use of the Holy Cross during baptism, the use of cap and gowns by priest, and kneeling during the sacrament.7 In the 1620’s and 1630’s the Church of England attempted to marginalize the Puritans and other religious non-conformers to prevent the spread and influence of these sects.8 Many of these Puritan groups left England and settled along the coast of New England. The idea of self-governance was a foundational principle among the Puritans and their goal was to build a society based on their religious beliefs. The church governed through a congregational polity, or form of church government that emphasized the rule of the majority of the members of the congregation.9 Colonial leaders in Massachusetts were almost always also leaders in the Puritan church. Puritans had very strict beliefs and rules for behavior. Music, dancing, celebration of holidays such as Christmas and Easter were forbidden because the Puritans thought they were pagan traditions. The only singing allowed was church approved hymns. The only schooling for children was in the Bible and the Puritan church doctrine.10 Any behavior that was different from what they viewed as correct behavior was thought to be caused by black magic and the Devil. In 1689 the American colonies became host to a war between England and France. The war was known as King William’s War in the colonies. Many refugees from upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec moved to the Salem area. The colonies did not have enough food or work to support the refugees and many of the refugees were not followers of the established Puritan church. This caused arguments about property lines, grazing rights for animals, and church authority over these new citizens.11 All the quarreling and family rivalries were thought to be caused by the Devil. Another change was a new charter government called the Massachusetts Bay Charter.12 Puritan beliefs were the basis of the former government and court structure. The new charter government included the appointment of Sir William Phips as Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay....
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