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Six women, two men hanged for witchcraft

This Day in World History

September 22, 1692

Six women, two men hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, for witchcraft

In the fatal climax of months of turmoil, six women and two men were hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, after having been found guilty of witchcraft. The eight were the last victims of a witchcraft hysteria that gripped Salem and other towns in Massachusetts in 1692.

This anonymous seventeenth-century American woodcut shows one method for trying someone for witchcraft: swim if innocent, or sink if guilty.

The tumult began in February 1692, when several young girls began to behave strangely and complained of physical torments. Soon, the girls were accusing women in the village of being witches. Witchcraft was a capital offense at the time, and colonial leaders set up a court to investigate.  In all, about 140 people—86% of whom were women—were accused of witchcraft in Salem. Forty-seven confessed and were forgiven. Twenty who maintained their innocence were found guilty and executed. (One more died in prison awaiting trial.) Salem resident Giles Corey protested his innocence despite being pressed—that is, being placed under a wooden panel that was then weighted down with rocks. After two days of this attempt at squeezing out a confession, Corey died.

Witchcraft hysteria was a phenomenon that was not confined to Salem in this period.   Witch panics are recorded in Bermuda in 1651 and in Hartford, Connecticut in 1652-1655. And in Europe between 1450 and 1750 approximately 100,000 people—the overwhelming majority of whom were women—were tried for witchcraft; about half were executed.

Historians offer several explanations for the witch panics of the early modern period.    Climate played at least an indirect role—the entire Northern Hemisphere entered a cooling period between 1500 and 1750 known as the “Little Ice Age” in which agriculture became more precarious and the always precarious life of the peasantry became even more difficult—many of the witchcraft persecutions occurred in places where subsistence agriculture had fallen on hard times.   This was also a period of great anxiety, when religious tensions were high. Ancient beliefs in natural magic—astrology and alchemy– remained prevalent, and many people also believed in demonic magic.   Women, especially midwives or those trained as healers, were particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, because the intention behind their practices was often unclear and held in suspicion.  In the case of the Salem witch hunt of 1692, the case erupted into hysteria when people charged Tituba, an African slave from Barbados who worked in the household of a Salem family, of practicing voodoo, an African-American religion which holds that evil can be removed from one person and transferred to another.   So, the witchcraft hysteria of Salem can also be seen as a clash of two worlds.

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