History of the Salem Witch Trials
With halloween fast approaching I thought we would look at one of the most famous Halloween costumes there is. The Witch. We are still fascinated all these years after the History of the Salem Witch trials ended. What makes us so fixated on this time period?
Is there even such a thing as a witch? Is it a completely made up demon to persecute or are there people out there deserving of this punishment? Is it all just a big misunderstanding?
Does Witchcraft Exist?
First off is the most important question. It is certainly a tricky one. Does witchcraft exist? Yes and no.
There are practitioners of a religion called Wicca. They have a modern interpretation of ancient pagan beliefs. Many call them witches. They certainly practice a craft in the form of religious rituals and ceremonies. There are also tales dating back to the Odyssey of characters such as Circe who practice foretelling and other magical powers. However they are not the witches we often think of when looking at the trials or Halloween.
For the costumes we dress up as and the images that come to our mind. We picture a different sort of witch. Typically one with a tall pointy hat and riding on a broom. One that has a black cat as a familiar and who cast spells and incantations over a cauldron.
This version of a witch is a combination of various misunderstandings. For starters the hat and broom. In the early days of beer brewing it was done from the home usually by women. They would sell their wares in the street and at festivals. Wearing a tall hat to stand out above the crowd. They would hang a broom or other implement outside their home with herbs and ingredients on it to identify themselves to a populace that did not know how to read.
The cauldron was a tool of their trade. They often brewed their beer in a large batch and needed a pot to make it all in. The black cat, well rats were prevalent in this time period. I am sure when brewing beer with so many grains, one would need something to keep rats and mice at bay.
So while women with tall hats, brooms and cauldrons certainly existed they weren’t necessarily witches. This look makes for a great Halloween costume though.
History of Witch Trials
A lot of people automatically think Salem Witch Trial when they think of witches. Which is something I have never fully understood. Witch trials began way before Salem. In fact the American Colonies were a bit behind the times in terms of persecuting witches. Most other countries were winding down their trials by the time the Americans in Salem got started.
The Salem trials happened from February 1692 to May 1693.
The peak of witch hunting in Europe was during the wars of religion climaxing from 1580 to 1630. These trials declined in early 18th century and ended with the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.
The Salem trials caused the accusation of 200 people. We saw the guilty verdict of 19 people. 14 women and 5 men. All executed by hanging. One man was executed by being pressed to death under stone for not entering a plea. 5 People died during their jail time.
Compared to the vast numbers of people that were killed in Europe this is a small outcome. Not enough to make it so famous in people’s minds. In Europe there were between 40 and 60 Thousand deaths. All killed by various means such as:
- Burning at the Stake
This number does not include the number of individuals killed by lynch mobs before they could even stand trial. It was not a good time to be in Europe. Especially in areas where there was religious division and no central judicial court.
The Salem trials did not even all take place in Salem. Despite the name some of the preliminary hearings took place in:
- Salem Village now known as Danver
- Salem Town
While Americans see the Salem witch trials as the most famous case of mass hysteria in the United States, there are other more famous trials worldwide. Such as:
The Best Known Cases
- Scottish North Berwick Trials
- Swedish Torsaker Witch Trials
Largest and Most Notable
- Trier Witch Trials 1581-1593
- Fulda Witch Trials 1603-1606
- Wurzburg Witch Trials 1626-1631
- Bamberg Witch trials 1626-1631
All of which could easily outshine the Salem trials for infamy. So why the obsession with the Salem cases? 12 Women had been executed prior to the Salem cases in Massachusetts and Connecticut. No mention of them in most minds. No mass hysteria formed during these trials. So what was it that made Salem so special?
Most modern pop culture and literature make reference to the Salem trials. It has become a notorious case of mass hysteria. Modern literature uses it as a vivid cautionary tale. Warning of things like isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process.
These things happened elsewhere in the world as well. Perhaps it is the American tendency to remember their own historical events and forget that the rest of the world has encountered these things as well? Salem was certainly not unique. It was merely a Colonial American example of a broader issue affecting people across Europe. An issue that began with an announcement from Pope Innocent VIII. When the Catholic church recognized the existence of Witches and gave full papal approval for the inquisition to move against witches.
No matter what view of witchcraft you take you will find some very interesting information. Next time you dress up in a witch costume with it’s pointy hat and black dress. Remember the beer brewers and their simple tools of the trade. As you make your rounds trick or treating or at a costume party think of all the history behind the witch costume. It may not be the latest movie or comic book character but it has endured for generations.
Why are witches so popular to dress up as? Why does the American culture focus so much on the Salem Witch trials versus trials around the rest of the world? What are your thoughts? Please comment below.