Salem Witches


In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts an extraordinary series of events coupled with the hysterical reaction of the community, resulted in what is referred to as the Salem Witch Hunt. Hundreds of individuals were tried for the crime of witchcraft and many were executed as a result. Join Active Minds as we seek to understand this astounding moment in our country's early history.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts in 1692. The events began with accusations against three “outsiders” in Salem society, but eventually expanded to include dozens of individuals, including the wife of the Governor of Massachusetts. By the time the furor had subsided in 1693, 143 people had been accused of witchcraft, 19 had been executed, a 71-year-old man was pressed to death with heavy stones, and several people had died in jail.
  • At that point the Massachusetts Bay Colony (less than 70 years old) was in the middle of significant change brought on by events both in the colonies and in England. A combination of factors created a climate that led to the accusations and eventual trials. A small pox outbreak, the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter by Charles II and the constant fear of Indian attacks created anxiety among the Salem Puritans that God was punishing them. This fear of punishment established a fertile atmosphere in which accusations witchcraft could be interpreted by the Puritans as indicative of God's wrath.
  • Now, over 300 years since the events of 1692, the Salem Witch trials, the events continue to fascinate us. Arthur Miller’s popular play “The Crucible,” a fictionalized version of the actual events in Salem, used Salem as an allegory for the McCarthy communist hysteria in the 1950s.

Exploration Questions

  • Of all the reasons given for the cause of the Salem Witch Trials, which do you feel are the most compelling?
  • Other than the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, can you think of other moments in American history when fear and hysteria have led to damaging, even deadly results?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you believe in witches? If yes, why? If no, why not?
  • Do you think America’s tolerance in general has improved since the Salem Witch Trials?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Hill, Francis. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. DeCapo Press, 2002. 296 pages. This acclaimed history illuminates the horrifying episode of Salem with visceral clarity, from those who fanned the crisis to satisfy personal vendettas to the four-year-old "witch" chained to a dank prison wall in darkness till she went mad.
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  • Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin Books, 2003. 176 pages. Based on historical people and real events, Arthur Miller's play uses the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence unleashed by the rumors of witchcraft as a powerful parable about McCarthyism.
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