The Salem Witch Trials are a dark stain on American history and on the history of Christianity. Although the infamous persecution of witches lasted only a year, and less than 30 people total were put to death, this event remains terrifying in the minds of all who know about it. Partly, this is because we now know that virtually anyone could be accused of witchcraft for no reason at all and sentenced to death with no proof at all.
The mayhem all started in 1692, when two cousins aged nine and 11 began experiencing delusions, strange fits, and other mysterious maladies. A doctor decided they had been cursed by a witch, a conclusion that the little girls went along with. Little did they know, this conclusion of theirs would change history. And so the first three accused witches — Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and an Indian slave from Barbados named Tituba — were charged with practicing witchcraft on the cousins. Following their accusations, more and more people became “afflicted,” and more and more people were accused, jailed, tried, and punished for being witches.
There are many facts about the Salem Witch Trials that even today people are surprised by. For example, did you know that not a single person was burned at the stake in Salem for being a witch? They were all hanged (with the exception of one man, who suffered a much worse fate, and whom we will discuss on this list). Read on to learn 15 more dark truths about the Salem Witch Trials.
15. Animals Got the Death Penalty, Too
One particularly disturbing fact about the witch hunt in Salem is that animals could be found guilty of participating in witchcraft as well as humans, and they could be (and were) sentenced to death for it. It was believed that witches had animal helpers that could take almost any animal form and do their dirty work for them. This meant that dogs, cats, mice, and virtually any other kind of animal were at risk of becoming a suspect under the right circumstances. In fact, among the official list of victims of the Salem Witch Trials are two dogs, one of whom was found innocent shortly after he was shot. Regarding cats, two were accused of being witches when Tituba, a slave and the first to be accused of witchcraft, said she was being stalked by a black cat and a red cat. She told authorities that the cats threatened to hurt her if she didn’t hurt the children.
14. Confess and Live, Deny and Die
Perhaps the single most interesting fact of all regarding the Salem Witch Trials is that of all of the accused, every suspect who confessed was spared, and every suspect who refused to confess was executed. Contrary to popular belief, it was not just women who were accused of being witches; there were plenty of men who were included in the witch hunt, accusations, trials, and punishments. 200 people in total were accused of practicing witchcraft, and between 140 and 150 people were actually arrested for the crime in the early 1690s. Of those arrested, the numbers of men and women are fairly equal, and a complete list of names can be found at historyofmassachesstts.org. Seven of the condemned were men (including Giles Corey, whom we already discussed), and the rest of them were women. Perhaps surprisingly, a disproportionate number of the victims were elderly.
13. One Man Was Pressed to Death
When it comes to executions, especially in the olden days, people managed to get pretty creative. They thought up all sorts of excruciatingly painful methods of execution, which are thankfully not used in modern times (for the most part). In 1692, during the Salem Witch Trials, there was a total of 27 people put to death for the crime of witchcraft. 19 of them were hanged, which is pretty awful. Seven died while in prison on charges of witchcraft, either awaiting execution or serving time. The last man, Giles Corey, was not so “lucky,” for his death was much worse. He refused to plead either innocent or guilty, so according to the law at the time, he could not be tried if he would not plead either way and instead was stripped naked, and a heavy board was laid on top of his body. Then, boulders were laid on top of that. After two days of this torture and still refusing to plead guilty to witchcraft, the 81-year-old Corey would simply say, “More weight!” every time he was asked. It is said that the sheriff would even stand on top of him from time to time, adding more weight. One witness, Robert Calef, said, “In the pressing, Giles Corey’s tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with the cane, forced it in again.” Corey suffered in silence for two days, and it’s thought that he did so because then the government could not forfeit his estate upon his death. He died in full possession of his estate, which went to his sons-in-law.
12. Confession Under Torture
Sadly, modern times have not completely given way to more humane ways of coercing a confession from a suspect of any criminal nature; brutal methods are still used around the world (including in the West) to this day to extract confessions from people. The same was true during the Salem Witch Trials. As we already talked about, those who confessed may face jail time but were spared death, and vice-versa. In the case of Giles Corey, nothing could be done (not even crushing him to death over two torturous days) to get him to confess. But crushing a person was not the only torture employed to get a “witch” to admit his or her sins. In addition to the very creative methods pictured above, the people of 1692 Salem, Massachusetts also used cutting, dunking, the Heretic’s Fork (basically a pitchfork attached under the neck), the Pear of Anguish (a device placed into a person’s orifice and gradually expanded), sleep deprivation, and more. As you can imagine, plenty of innocent people wound up confessing to being witches under the delirium of pain.
Smallpox possibly played a large role in the Salem Witch Trials, although no one back then likely knew it. The disease is a deadly one that covers the infected person’s entire body with pimple-like postulates (don’t Google it unless you’re prepared to cringe; this photo is mild compared to the others). Europeans brought smallpox to North America, and about half of the Native American population was wiped out because of it. In Salem in 1692, 500 people were killed by smallpox, an epidemic that caused symptoms in the girls that people believed were instead caused by witches. Additionally, the fear and paranoia surrounding smallpox were so great that they made the hysteria about witches and the need to find a source of blame even greater. In the end, there are several possible causes for what happened in Salem, and it could be one or a combination of things that was the real cause, including smallpox.
10. The Witch Cake
Much less pleasant than it sounds, the “witch cake” was one of the many tests used to determine if a suspect was, in fact, a witch or not. The rather large role of animals (particularly dogs) in the Salem Witch Trials comes into play again here. It was believed that the so-called witch’s cake would prove a person’s innocence or guilt. Such a cake was made with rye flour and the urine of the “inflicted,” or one of the people suffering the symptoms that started the whole witch hunt in the first place. This cake was then fed to a dog, and if the dog then showed the same symptoms, witchcraft had taken place. In this case, the dog would then “point” to which witch had made him ill. This was a common practice for determining witches in England at this time, as well.
9. The Touch Test
There were several tests used during the Salem Witch Trials to “prove” a suspect’s guilt or innocence, and one of those was called the Touch Test. The idea was that victims of black magic would have a physical reaction to being touched by the one who had cursed them, so the suspected witch would be made to lay a hand upon a possessed person who was delusional or in the midst of an episode, and if no reaction occurred, that “witch” was deemed innocent. Contrary to that, if the possessed person suddenly got better or came out of their fit, it was deemed that the “witch” had placed them under a spell, and she was found guilty. The most famous case of this test being used was in the trials of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, who were elderly women both hanged even though the two blindfolded little girls reacted the same way to many different people touching them.
8. The Swimming Test
Probably the most infamous, and definitely the cruelest of the witch tests was the swimming test in which a suspected witch was stripped down to her undergarments, tied up, and thrown into the nearest body of water. If they sunk, they were innocent. If they floated, they were a witch. Most people think that the witches all drowned during these cruel tests, and while accidental deaths did happen this way, the suspects usually had a rope tied around their waist so they could be pulled from the water if they did sink. This test came about because it was believed that water would reject witches’ bodies since witches were thought to have spurned the sacrament of baptism.
7. The “Devil’s Mark”
This test was not as much of an actual test as it was an inspection, although one still needed to pass. Those suspected of witchcraft were often publicly made to strip and be closely examined for the so-called Devil’s Mark, which could be anything from a blemish on the skin to a birthmark and everything in between. It was said that witches received such marks when they made their pact with Satan. The mark was thought to be numb, so it would not be painful to the touch, and it could, according to the village people, change shape and color. A third nipple was also a sign of a witch, as was any mole, sore, tattoo, scar, etc. Some people were so desperate to not have their skin conditions discovered that they went as far as burning or cutting them off. However, this usually backfired since of course, burning and cutting left scars.
6. Ergotism Theory
The tragic events of 1692 could possibly be because of something no one suspected (or even knew about) until the 1970s, when behavioral psychologist and professor Linnda Caporael noticed a link between the hallucinogenic effects of LSD and the odd symptoms reported by the Salem witch accusers. It turns out that the fungus ergot (which LSD is derived from) was blamed for other outbreaks of bizarre behavior throughout history. Caporael looked into it further, and the Ergotism Theory was born (ergotism is the term for ergot poisoning). Ergot affects rye, which was consumed by the village people of Salem, and if poisoning occurs, the central nervous system is affected. All of the symptoms reported by the accusers in Salem in 1692 can be attributed to Ergotism — the convulsing, vomiting, delusions, and everything else. Furthermore, Caporael discovered that the physical conditions required for ergot to thrive (such as damp, rainy springs and summers) were all present in 1691-1692. The accusers almost all lived in the swampy west of the village, which would have been perfect breeding ground for ergot. Even the very sudden end of witchcraft accusations can be explained by Ergotism, as the summer of 1692 was very dry, and would not have produced ergot in the rye crop. It’s definitely food for thought, if anything.
5. It Began Long Before 1692
Over one century before the horrors that occurred in Salem, a law had been passed that would ultimately help lead to the tragedy. Under the “Witchcraft Act” that was passed in 1562 in England, any behavior or practice even remotely associated with witchcraft was deemed illegal. In order for people to recognize witchcraft if they came upon it, lists and books were published explaining in detail the things that could be considered such. This was so serious, in fact, that by 1644, the English government had created an official position called the Witchfinder General, which is exactly what is sounds like. This hysteria and goal to hunt down possible witches may have played a role in the paranoia and persecution of witches by the Puritans of Massachusetts. It’s no coincidence, after all, that Europe and North America embarked on this misguided quest to find witches at around the same time.
4. Anything Could Get You Accused
As long as an accusing person concluded that a death or illness had occurred as a result of witchcraft (I reiterate concluded, not proven), then that person had grounds under the law to accuse someone of witchcraft. As we know now, these accusations were taken very seriously and could result in a person’s death, and shouldn’t have been so easy to make. Basically anyone could accuse anyone of anything, and in the age of smallpox and inadequate medical knowledge, paranoia often got the better of people, and accusations ran rampant throughout Salem at that time. The supposed witch would be arrested and tried, then released, pardoned, imprisoned, or hanged depending on his or her luck.
3. Punishments Other Than Death
Often, the only punishment people imagine when they think of the Salem Witch Trials is death as it is the most severe and the most obvious. But there was another common punishment that’s of course not as scary as being hanged but was nevertheless (especially given the time period) daunting. And that was the confiscation by the government of the accused’s land or home. Land was a precious thing that had a lot of value for an individual or a family, and the threat of losing the land or their family’s house was a dire one. As we saw with Giles Corey (see number 14 of this list), some were willing to die excruciating deaths to ensure that the government would not obtain what was rightfully theirs even after their own passing. Land and home left to family, even if it meant dying, was better than the government taking it.
2. Spectral Evidence
As we know, no real evidence was needed to accuse a person of being a witch or for them to ultimately die because of said accusation. According to the Salem Witch Museum website, “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. It was accepted in the courts during the Salem Witch Trials. The evidence was accepted on the basis that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits, or specters, to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray. In spectral evidence, the admission of victims’ conjectures is governed only by the limits of their fears and imaginations, whether or not objectively proven facts are forthcoming to justify them.”
In the end, the Salem Witch Trials were more about heresy than witchcraft. In a time of such heightened fear, panic, paranoia, and hysteria regarding smallpox, witches, and the devil, it’s almost no wonder that in fact, at its root, heresy was to blame. Naturally then, the way to rid their town of evil was to persecute and kill those who practiced black magic or who just did not practice their Christian religion. It is best summed up by saying that the Christian Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600s believed in the existence of Satan, and they believed that Satan was directly responsible for every bad occurrence in life. For the people of Salem, and really, in most of Europe as well, it was easy to liken the worship of the devil to not believing in God. It was really a case of people thinking that if others were not for God, they were against Him and thus for Satan. With everything else happening (smallpox, possibly ergotism, the Indian Wars, the mass fear of the devil), the fact that the Salem Witch Trials happened is very sad, but not very surprising.