The Witch Trials: What Really Happened in Salem

Halloween tourists are making their annual descent on the Massachusetts village of Salem to visit the scary real-life site of the supernatural on trial – the 1692 execution of 19 people for witchcraft.   Piles of popular fiction, including a new TV series starting this season, all tell the Salem witch trial story replete with wild-eyed and sexually repressed Puritan zealots roving the dark foggy countryside seeking out people – mostly women – to drag into their evil court.

Although it’s no comfort to those who faced the gallows over 300 years ago, in fact, the made for Halloween scenes are largely based on century’s old propaganda repeated by libertines today who use the Salem witch trial story to push the myth that America was, somehow, rotten to the core from the beginning.  In fact, the American colonies in 1692 were probably one of the safest places in the world to be if you were a woman.

Estimates indicate that at least 12,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Europe during the 17th century, although the estimates go as high as 300,000, during the so-called “Burning Times.” In England, witch executions had slowed down by the mid-1600’s, but still, over 250 women were executed.  By contrast, the total body count during the same time period in all the American colonies, including the Salem witch executions, was 35.

Of course, the early Americans believed in witchcraft, just like their European cousins. About 200 people were charged as witches in the American colonies in the 17th century, but almost all the charges were dismissed.

Equally important, after the witch trials were shut down in Salem in the summer of 1692, no one was ever executed for witchcraft anywhere in America again. Meanwhile, in England, witch trials continued and witchcraft was not decriminalized until 1727.  To put that date on an American timeline, note that in 1727, Benjamin Franklin was twenty-one years old and already writing pamphlets on freedom.

The real history is not easy to uncover, even in Salem, where witch trial tourism is a huge boost to the local economy.  (The town slogan is “Stop by for a Spell”).  But what we think we know about the Puritans in general and the Salem witch trials, in particular, comes from some dubious sources including Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Salem-born writer who was a descendant of an early Puritan family.  Hawthorne’s great-grandfather had been one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, which was a huge public relations problem for him.  To get around it, he changed the spelling of his name.  Then, he wrote famously damning portraits of the Puritan founders of Massachusetts, which helped distance him from his forebears and hopefully boost book sales.

This time of year, some secular writers routinely re-tell the witch trials story as an example of religious hysteria. They blame the deep faith of the Puritans, rather than the virtually universally held superstitions of the times, for the executions.

Some contemporary Puritan scholars believe that Salem marked an intellectual turning point for the early Americans.  Going forward after the trials, the colonists were forced to admit they’d made a horrible error, despite their commitment to creating a new and more moral society.

Historian Paul Johnson reports that in the months following the Salem witch trials, the General Court of Massachusetts passed a motion condemning the Salem judges.  The families of those who were hanged were paid compensation and members of the jury signed statements of regret.  Many of those who had falsely testified against the victims confessed to perjury.

Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the witch trials, almost immediately repented his involvement and called on the churches in Salem to convene for days of penance and fasting, a practice that continued annually in Salem churches for years.  Richard Francis, Sewall’s biographer, writes that Sewall’s own penance for his involvement in the witch trials was to dedicate the rest of his life trying to eradicate slavery in America.

Of course, no apology was adequate and nothing compensates for the community compliance that allowed the Salem witch trials and resulting executions to occur.  Still, the American colonies were far ahead of the rest of the Western world at the time in confronting and dismissing superstition. Their almost immediate repentance shows they were not holding themselves to the European standard.  Instead, the people who had committed to building that “shining city on a hill” held themselves to a standard that was higher than anyone in the world had yet seen.  They didn’t realize they were building what would become America, but they did know that their task was to create a place that would come to be called exceptional.

Sherry Sylvester, a political communications expert, is descended from Dinah Sylvester, a resident of Plymouth Colony, whose allegations of witchcraft against a fellow colonist were dismissed by the General Court in Massachusetts in 1661.