History repeats itself. Here’s how one town permitted murder in the name of the good — all because they believed a falsehood.

The Salem Witch Trials were a series of court hearings and prosecutions of ordinary people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. They took place between February of 1692 and the May of 1693. As a result, at least 200 hundred people were accused and 30 were found guilty. Nineteen of them were subsequently sentenced to death by hanging.

Why were they carried out?

Well, it all started off in the village of Salem, in colonial Massachusetts, in February 1692. Where 9-year-old Betty Harris and her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams lived. Betty and Harris began to suffer fits. These were described by some as ‘beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect’, insinuating there was something more to it, something sinister, maybe even supernatural. The girls continued to scream, throw things, uttered strange sounds and peculiar noises, crawled underneath furniture and contorted themselves into strange and mysterious positions. According to an eyewitness Reverend Lawson, the girls had complained of being pinched and pricked as if they were being pierced with pins.

A local doctor couldn’t find any evidence of aliment and when other girls across the village started to present similar behaviour, supernatural powers were thought to be the root of the problem. It is also noted that when Lawson held talks and preached in the Salem village meetinghouse, he was continually interrupted by the outbursts and noises of the affected. The explanation of these events and analogous ones were linked with the supernatural. This created a frenzy in Salem and across the world. Friends turning on friends, family condemning family, all purely down to the fear of the unexplained.

What happened in Salem?

In Salem, the trials lasted for 15 months, with more than 200 accused of the supernatural. The fear of the unknown grew as time went on and more and more people were pointed at with the finger of accusation as a result.

Abigail and Betty had appeared to be possessed by the devil. Because of this, people panicked. The girls then accused several local women of witchcraft. Hysteria crushed Salem and spread rapidly throughout Massachusetts. Because of this a special court was set up in the town to deal with matters of the supernatural and hear the cases. Bridget Bishop was the first convicted in this special court and was subsequently hanged in June for her wicked ‘crimes’. Another eighteen innocent people followed in Bridget’s footsteps and were lead up the Salem gallows to be hanged for their involvement in witchcraft.

Over the course of the next seven months at least 150 innocents were accused and tried. These accusations resulted from frenzied panic and were fuelled by suspicions of the inhabitants of Salem. Some neighbours resented each other and had a natural weariness for new people in the village. Others were distrustful of strangers and questioned their intentions. As the fear and inevitably the hysteria spread like wildfire, so did the numbers of the accused. Three of the’ witches’ were subsequently summoned to the magistrates in front of John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, with their accusers present in the courtroom and displaying a show of spasms, screaming and vigorous contortions of the body.

The three

The three witches present were Tituba, Good and Osborn. Both Good and Osborn denied their guilt whereas Tituba confessed to her ‘crimes’. She did this in order to try and act as an informer by saying that there were other witches lurking around Salem. Along with Tituba several other so-called witches confessed and named others.

The accusations led to the Salem justice system suddenly becoming overwhelmed and two other courts were set up to hear and decide on cases of the unexplained. The courts’ first innocent victim was Bridget Bishop (as mentioned before) hanged on Gallows Hill in Salem. After this, 18 more people suffered the same fate as Bridget; 7 of the accused died, rotting away in jail; and one person was stoned. After 15 months of blood, sweat, tears, misery and hysteria Salem moved forward, with people demanding evidence for witchcraft and that the same rigorous standards be upheld as for determining other convictions. Better that ten suspected witches escaped justice than let one innocent person suffer the brutality of death. Later on the two special courts ceased to exist.

Still, intense trials continued throughout Colonial Massachusetts until the early months of 1693 when William Phips exonerated and released all of the suspected witches held captive in jail. The trials were over and Salem’s reputation was in shreds. The damage to the community was obvious and continued to linger. The courts later admitted that the witch trials were ‘unlawful’. Senior figures apologised for their role in the destruction of innocent lives.

The after-effects and name change

In January 1697, The Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting in honour of the lives tragically taken away by the brutality of the cleansing of the supernatural. In 1711, the colony of Massachusetts forced through a bill that provided financial aid to the families of the fallen and committed to restoring their names.

Salem’s problems and embarrassment over its blood-stained past continued to linger though, and in 1752 the town was renamed Danvers, in homage to the settler Danvers Osborn.

With many of the town’s original jails, houses, courtrooms and more still on show to the general public, tourists come to Danvers to catch a glimpse of the horrendous history that had taken place over 300 hundred years ago.

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