Closer Readings Commentary

Witch-Hunting in Salem Village

Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day

 —Emily Dickinson (poem 1583)

October is here. As the days begin to shorten and late afternoon shadows grown long, we prepare for Halloween. Our fascination with the supernatural in all its frightening aspects seems to peak this time of year.

“American Supernatural” broadcast by Backstory with the American History Guys explores this fear factor by investigating Americans’ relationship with witches and other supernatural forces throughout our nation’s history. They consider: Why were colonists so fearful of New England “witches”? And, what is it about the witch hunt that’s deeply American? 

The concept of “witch hunt” in America is synonymous with the strange occurrences that went on in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, and its later manifestation during the 1950’s McCarthy hearings’ investigation into “Un-American Activities.”

Uncover the context and causes of the Salem Witch Trials and find activities to teach them in the classroom using primary and secondary sources from EDSITEment-reviewed documentary archive Witchcraft in a Salem Village.

Social context

Uneasiness and discontent surrounded Salem in the late 1600s. Colonists were faced with a number of serious challenges that strained their resources and set the stage for the witch-hunting hysteria that followed.

In 1684, King Charles II had revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s royal charter because the colonists had violated several rules, including basing laws on religious beliefs and discriminating against Anglicans. In 1691, a newer, anti-religious charter combined several colonies into one. The Puritan colonists feared they were under attack and were losing control.

Then in 1689, King William's War ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, sending refugees down into Essex County—specifically, Salem Village. The displaced people created a strain and aggravated a pre-existing rivalry between wealthy families and farming families in the community. That same year, the villagers won the right to establish their own church, selecting a former merchant, Reverend Samuel Parris, to lead their congregation; however, Parris’s rigid ways and greed only exacerbated the colonists’ friction.

The hysteria                                                                       

Fits and delirium started February 1692, as Betty Parris, Reverend Parris's daughter, and her friends Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam, became ill with symptoms that doctors could not diagnose. Dr. Griggs, who attended to the "afflicted" girls, suggested that they might be bewitched. Three additional girls stepped forward and also claimed affliction.

Prodded by Parris and others, the girls began naming their tormentors: Sarah Good, a poor woman; Sarah Osbourn, an elderly woman; and Tituba, a slave who had told them stories involving Voodoo beliefs. These three women were tried for witchcraft—Good and Osbourn claimed innocence, and Tituba confessed.

Tituba's detailed confession included a claim that there were several undiscovered witches who wanted to destroy the community. A witch-hunting frenzy ensued and before it was over 20 people had been put to death—19 were tried and hanged and one defiant victim, who refused to enter a plea, was pressed to death by the weight of heavy stones over a three day period. Over 150 innocent colonists were imprisoned during the witch-hunting madness.

Sanity began to return to Salem in October 1692 when Governor Phipps ordered that spectral evidence (testimony that an accused person's spirit appeared to the witness as in a dream at the time the accused person's physical body was in another location) would no longer be admitted in witchcraft trials. Later that month, Phipps ceased the arrests and many of the accused were released. As years passed, apologies and restitution were offered to the victims' families, though it took the State of Massachusetts until 2001 to officially exonerate the last victims by name.

Classroom investigation

EDSITEment lesson, Understanding the Salem Witch Trials, guides students through an exploration of life in Puritan New England and analyzes possible explanations for the causes that led to the witch trials in Salem.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions)

Lesson Assessment, option 1, has students draw on their analysis of transcripts from the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive to consider the following questions: 

  • What kind of evidence was used during these trials?
  • Were the accused innocent until proven guilty?
  • Think about the vocabulary used in these court cases. Who makes reference to the Bible? The accused? The judges? The accusers? Everyone? When do they reference the Bible? Why do you think they make these references?
  • What were the punishments for witchcraft? Were they appropriate punishments?
  • Who were the witnesses, if any? What did they add to the court proceedings? Was their testimony useful? Does it seem to have been taken into account by the judge? To which witnesses, or which testimonies, is more attention paid?
  • What pressures did the accusers face? The judges?
  • What kinds of things were the “witches” accused of causing to happen?

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.3: Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.)

Lesson Assessment, option 2, creative writing activity, has students draw on the evidence from their research to compose a story, letter, or diary entry from the perspective of one of the afflicted. The resulting entry will include some or all of the following: personal feelings of the historical figure; description of “fits” and other sensations experienced by the “afflicted”; an accusation; a court trial or recollections from a court trial; remorse. If students prefer, they may write their narrative from the perspective of one of the accused, or from a judge or other court official.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.)

Learn more about the American witch-hunting phenomenon as it played out in Salem through Dramatizing History in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and its modern day parallel—Anticommunism in Postwar America, 1945–1954: Witch Hunt or Red Menace?