Salem Witch Trials: The Biggest Myths


Salem has a moment. Last July, Massachusetts passed a lot that officially exonerated Elizabeth Johnson, Jr., the last person accused of being a witch. On October 7, an exhibit opened at the New-York Historical Society, offering details of the true history of the Salem Witch Trials.

And then, of course, there is Hocus Pocus 2. The sequel to the 1993 cult classic was that of Disney+ biggest movie premiere yet when it was released on September 30. For the uninitiated, it stars Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker reprising their roles as 17th-century witches who find themselves in today’s Salem.

All of this speaks to a wider public fascination with the Salem witch trials. According to Emerson Baker, author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, 156 people were officially accused of witchcraft, mostly women. Between June and September 1692, 19 people were hanged to death for the crime, and one was pressed to death by a rock. Five more died in prison between May 1692 and May 1693. Additionally, at least 120 were imprisoned for a year or more.

The 1700 cut words of Joseph Glanvill ‘Saducismus Triumphatus’ aim to portray a refutation of any skepticism about the existence of witchcraft.

Joseph Glanvill/New York Historical Society

Read more: The Witch Trials America Forgot

But this story is often misunderstood, just as women accused of being witches have been misunderstood. Although people aren’t being judged for being witches in 2022, Baker sees the shadows of the witch hunt in some of our modern paranoias — “Salem moments,” as he calls them. “Extremism, scapegoating, racism, hatred, bigotry – as long as we have that, we will have a version of the witch hunt,” he says.

Below, Baker outlines three of the biggest myths about the Salem witch trials.

Myth: Condemned witches have been burned at the stake in the United States

“That was certainly true in parts of Europe,” Baker says. Joan of Arc is perhaps the most famous example of someone being burned at the stake for witchcraft. But witchcraft in the American colonies was treated as a crime and tried in court.

The people on trial were usually unconventional people and somehow stood out in the crowd. “Witchcraft is really about finding scapegoats,” says Baker. “It took this perfect storm of factors to create the greatest epidemic of witchcraft in American history.” These victims included people who spoke a little differently – such as with an accent – were conflicted or suffered from mental or physical problems. All of these victims were blamed for what was seen as a decline in religiosity in Puritan New England society.

Read more: Yes, witches are real. I know because I am a

Myth: Only women were accused of witchcraft.

While around 75% of those accused of witchcraft were women, at least a quarter were men, according to Baker. Male friends and family of a woman accused of witchcraft would also be accused of witchcraft, and witchcraft was believed to be passed down in families, to grandchildren for example. Moreover, any man who defended a woman accused of witchcraft could be accused of witchcraft.

Myth: The witch hunt took place in Salem.

Trials and executions took place in Salem, but those accused of being witches were mostly from the surrounding area. Seventeenth-century Salem incorporated the area of ​​about six or seven different towns today, including the rural farming community of Danvers. “People are being charged from as far away as Boston, and there were actually more people charged in nearby Andover than anywhere else,” Baker says.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.




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