What really happened during the Salem Witch Trials - Brian A. Pavlac
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Salem was just one small, brief persecution at the end of the period from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century when Christians actively hunted witches. In Europe and the American colonies during this time, tens of thousands of people suffered from a panic-stricken pursuit of alleged devil-worshipping witches. Unfortunately, no decent historical evidence exists for magic and the supernatural, whether for harm or for good. The history of Salem shows the grim consequences of family, neighbors, church, and government mistakenly persecuting people for a crime they could not possibly have committed.
Instead of actual proof, fearful authorities in Salem relied on unsubstantiated accusations, rumor, innuendo, torture, and, most tragically, “spectral evidence.” The last allowed a gaggle of girls in open court to make up ghostly attacks, which they blamed on the accused. As a result, jurors and judges condemned nineteen men and women to be hanged by strangulation (there were no executions by burning at Salem), one man to be pressed to death for refusing to plead guilty or not guilty, and two dogs to be shot. Imprisonment also led to deaths and illnesses for many others. A few years after this panic collapsed, the embarrassed government actually paid compensation to survivors and families of the dead.
Of course, issues of witchcraft are not just events from the past. Many people today still believe in witches, demons, and the Devil, although their beliefs rarely align with those at Salem or from the time of the witch hunts. In some places in the world today, people continue to be accused and persecuted as witches, although these actions are not usually defined as “hunts” since the government is not involved. That distinction, however, is surely of little consolation for the victims.
A brief overview of witch hunting based on a German incident is available with this TED-Ed video, “Ugly History: Witch Hunts” . More information about how historians are trying to understand the general problem of the witch
hunts can be found at this website. It also offers links to many online sources on Salem.
For a short, readable book on the Witch Hunts, try Brian A. Pavlac, Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Witch Trials (Greenwood 2009 or
Bison Books 2010).
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