No Witches Were Burned at the Stake in Salem

About the true story behind the Salem witch trial and the supposed burnings at the stake.


No Witches Were Burned at the Stake in Salem.

The Salem witch trials of 1692 were protracted, grueling affairs, and by the time they were concluded in October of that year, 150 people had been arrested, of whom 31 were tried and 20 were put to death. But the present-day assumptions about the trials are fraught with misconceptions, and much of what is commonly believed to have transpired in that Massachusetts port town simply never happened. For one thing, there is no proof that bona fide witches and witchcraft even existed. Rather, what was attacked then as a rash of witchcraft would surely in a later time have been medically diagnosed as mass hysteria. It is true that children in Salem slaughtered pigs, that women made advances to their neighbors' husbands, and that ministers behaved with decidedly unministerial abandon, but these were the acts of sick people, not demons. And the splenetic rage against witches which caught up many professedly pious townspeople was part of this mass hysteria. Among the first of the Salem "witch bitches" were the young daughters of Rev. Samuel Parris and their friends, who fell under the devil's sway and behaved immorally after listening evening after evening to blasphemies and lurid stories of life in the West Indies told them by Tituba, the family slave. Soon several of the girls' impressionable young friends became similarly "possessed," and thus the epidemic spread.

Another misconception is that the convicted witches were burned at the stake. In Salem and elsewhere, hanging was the standard method of execution, although one victim was crushed to death under heavy stones. And witchcraft was not exclusively the work of women. Six of the 31 witches tried and condemned were men.

Some people believe that only in Salem were witches tried and punished. Not so. There are records of witch-hunts in nearby Andover, Mass., and in Maine. New England minister Cotton Mather had described the anguished writhings of "possessed" children in Boston four years earlier: "They would have their mouths opened so wide that their jaws went out of joint, and they would at once clap together again with a force like that of a strong spring-lock. The same would happen to their shoulder blades, and their elbows, and hand wrists, and several of their joints. They would at times lie in a benumbed condition and be drawn together like those who are tied neck and heels, and presently be stretched out, yea, drawn backwards to such an extent that it was feared the very skin of their bellies would have cracked."

While it is widely believed that during the height of the Salem witchcraft mania one could have one's enemies tried and hanged for witchery simply by innuendo, this was not always so. Many well-seated members of Salem society were accused of witchcraft and set free nonetheless. In fact the mother-in-law of Salem's Judge Jonathan Corwin was charged repeatedly with demonic acts, but never even appeared in court.

One final surprising note: The convictions of the Salem witches did not stick. On Oct. 17, 1711, an Order of Compensation reversed the attainders of 22 of the 31 convicted in Salem. The remaining nine, who had no surviving friends or relatives to plead their reinstatement, had to wait until 1957, when the state of Massachusetts finally reversed the convictions of all those not covered by the 1711 act.

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