Why the Salem witch trials happened

Why the Salem witch trials happened

When enough people accept something, it becomes the truth. In the case of late 17th-century Salem, the truth was a terrifying one. Imagine believing that the people who live around you could be communicating with Satan and dictating your life. Just like the news today can spread knowledge and concern effectively throughout society, the worrying topic du jour in 1692 was witchcraft.

Herbalists and healers were an obvious scapegoat. As people who understood elements of medical science and worked to help others recover from sickness, at the time people were amazed by their skill. While the response should have been one of gratitude, those who didn’t believe these medical miracles were possible needed answers. Unfortunately magic was the only available answer for those who didn’t understand, and healers were seen as sorcerers.

There was no precise vision of what these witches were. All that was known at the time was that they were dangerous and powerful. The majority of those who were convicted of witchcraft were female. Of the 19 people killed by hanging in Salem, only five were men. Another man was tortured to death with heavy stones as the villagers tried to get him to confess. 

Although some were forced to plead guilty, it wasn’t necessary; the word of the accuser was often enough. The mere idea that witchcraft could be real often struck such fear into a jury that the accused was convicted, in their minds, before the trial had even begun. But how could such loose evidence be used to determine a person’s fate within a courtroom, designed to allow fair decisions to be made? One reason was that different courts were established specifically to test witchcraft, separating these cases from regular crimes. With new rules and procedures fabricated for the new witch courts, the accused individual would be put through a series of tests that lacked evidence and legitimacy. These could vary dramatically between each hearing, but they often tested unrelated skills or were open to being staged purely in order to convict the innocent.

As people in Salem got used to witchery being an answer to any misfortune in their lives, cases spiralled out of control. With no need for real proof of witchcraft, a rising number of people were being convicted, all because the communities needed a scapegoat for their troubles: a recent smallpox epidemic had caused widespread suffering, while tensions and rivalry grew with the neighbouring town. Not knowing when Salem would be under attack, or when a loved one would suffer, witch hunting could have served as a means of regaining power- seeking out the surrounding danger before it found them.

Published at Fri, 07 May 2021 10:49:23 +0000

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