Few episodes from America’s colonial past are as well known or as notorious as the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. For many, the Salem trials have represented the defining moment in the history of Puritan conspiracy-minded intolerance and superstition; however, belief in magic and witchcraft was an inextricable part of the seventeenth-century worldview.

Witches were prosecuted in Europe and in all of the American colonies, not just in Puritan New England. While historians have produced competing explanations for colonial witchcraft belief, and though perhaps no ultimate explanation is possible, they have described many of the social, cultural, and religious conditions in which witches could be identified and witch-hunts could gain momentum.

Briefly stated, a witch was understood to be a person who had made a pact with Satan to harm neighbors, the community, or the state through supernatural means. A witch, in other words, was a devil-worshipper, someone whose actions constituted a criminal and heretical conspiracy to destroy orderly Christian society.

A World of Wonders

Colonial Americans lived in an enchanted universe, a “world of wonders,” as historian David D. Hall has phrased it. Their world was one where the supernatural infused the natural, where God and Satan were active agents in daily events, and where storms, disasters, illness, and crop failure were “special providences” demonstrating God’s will or displeasure.

Existence and livelihood were often precarious in early America, and from a rich fund of popular religious beliefs people chose the practices or rituals that might offer some sort of added protection from catastrophe. Magic and countermagic, spells, astrology, divination, palmistry, and witch lore were employed to predict the future, or heal the ill, to harm enemies, or to defend against occult attack.

In the seventeenth century, local folk magic practitioners called “cunning folk,” “conjurors,” “white witches,” or “wizards” were omnipresent—though often suspicious—members of English and American society to whom people could turn for assistance.

Witches were a malevolent part of this world of wonders. While the practice of magic was an accepted component of folk belief, witchcraft had more sinister connotations. A witch was someone who had acquired superhuman powers through a covenant with Satan; chief among these powers was the ability to perform maleficium, or to cause harm through supernatural means.

The types of maleficium varied. Witches were often accused of causing illness or death, or causing miscarriages, or spoiling beer or butter. They were believed to torment their enemies in other ways, by invisibly entering the rooms of sleeping people and choking them, or turning themselves into animals to carry out their evil deeds.

They were also said to be able to tempt others to join in their satanic pact by a look or glance, or by sending out their specters to haunt their enemies. People under this kind of satanic influence were believed to be “possessed,” a condition that often manifested itself in inexplicable physical contortions or illnesses.

And while belief in magic and witchcraft was characteristic of popular and elite layers of early American society, for clergymen especially the real or imagined presence of witches was profoundly troubling. In making a covenant with Satan, the witch was rejecting God and godly society.

This import of heresy had deep resonance among the Puritans, who believed themselves to be a covenant nation of God and a last bastion of Protestantism. Witches in New England represented nothing less than a satanic conspiracy against God’s “city on a hill.”

Identifying these witches was a social process, a means by which people controlled society and punished “antisocial” elements. Most accusations of witchcraft were of a face-to-face variety and reflected local tensions between neighbors.

What is often surprising about these cases is the apparent banality of their origins. Testimony in the 1651 trials against Mary and Hugh Parsons of Springfield, Massachusetts, shows that untidy business transactions lay at the root of the accusations.

Hugh Parsons, a brick maker, exchanged threatening words with neighbors who later argued that he had bewitched them: their children had fallen unaccountably ill, their cow’s milk had curdled—all evidence of “bewitchment.”

Other witchcraft trials have similar quotidian origins. Unexplained illness, crop failures, missing farm implements, or sudden deaths could easily be attributed to a suspicious neighbor’s demonic intervention.

Many of these cases never came to trial since the accused would often countersue for defamation. Yet the confluence of personal or communal misfortune and the need for explanation and retribution often meant that individuals who exhibited “antisocial” behavior or who existed on the margins of society were identified as witches.

Most of the individuals identified as witches in colonial America were women. Historians dispute the numbers and gender proportions of witchcraft accusations, but one scholar, Carol F. Karlsen, has argued that of the 344 known people accused of witchcraft in New England between 1620 and 1725, 267 (78 percent) were women.

Most of these were women who, purposefully or not, refused to accept their place in society. For example, most accused witches in New England were middle-aged or older women who were eligible for inheritances; they interfered with the traditional patriarchal patterns of succession.

Women accused of witchcraft in New England usually faced a familiar litany of sins that defined their deviance: excessive pride, sexual promiscuity, lying, discontent, or anger. They stuck out, in other words, in a society that prized them chiefly as submissive Christian wives.

If witchcraft was defined as a rebellion against God, rebellion against the gender norms and hierarchy of early American society was equally threatening to godly order. In times of trouble or misfortune, marginalized or deviant women were thus among the most vulnerable to be social scapegoats and accused of being “handmaidens of the devil”.

The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692

These patterns can be seen writ large in the Salem outbreaks, which lasted from late 1691 to May 1693. This was not the first major witch-hunt in colonial America; there had been a significant one in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1662–1665, during which at least three people were executed.

And the Salem trials, during which nineteen people (fourteen women and five men) were hung as “witches” and hundreds were imprisoned, were dwarfed in scale by the massive witch-hunts that had swept Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which reputedly led to the executions of tens of thousands of women.

Salem in the 1680s was a troubled town. Flooded with refugees from frontier wars with the Native American tribes allied with France, facing a failing economy, and split by deep class and factional fissures, the town was a tinderbox of the kinds of social antagonisms where witchcraft accusations could thrive.

The outbreak itself began in late 1691. Several young women began to experiment with magic and spells, and some of them, including the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, a local clergyman, began to exhibit the signs of “possession.”

When consulted, physicians and clergy could only conclude that the fits and trances that afflicted these women were evidence that they were under the influence of an “Evil Hand.” When interrogated, the girls at first would not name their “tormenters” but eventually gave out three names, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba.

These “witches” were arrested and presumed guilty. Good and Osborne denied the charges, but Tituba, a Carib Indian woman who was also Parris’s slave, confessed. She implicated Good and Osborne as accomplices and claimed that there were many other witches at large and conspiring against the community.

This confession initiated a cycle of accusations and trials that extended far outside of Salem; even the wife of Governor William Phips in Boston was accused. Some people quickly came to the conclusion that the scale and reach of the accusations meant that the outbreak was all a delusion, if perhaps a satanically inspired one.

Others were not so moderate in their opinions. Samuel Parris, for one, argued that Salem witchcraft was nothing less than a “War the Devil has raised amongst us.” Judicial moderation was not an option, according to Parris, for “If ever there were Witches, Men & Women in Covenant with the Devil, here are Multitudes in New-England”. Other members of the clergy were more ambiguous in their assessment of the situation.

When the judges in Salem asked New England’s clergy for advice, Boston pastor Cotton Mather prepared on behalf of his colleagues a document entitled “Return of Several Ministers” (15 June 1692) that gave mixed directives. On the one hand, the document declared, the judges must be scrupulous and exacting as they weighed the evidence.

On the other hand, if witchcraft was afoot, the prosecution against it must be speedy and vigorous. The hunt raged on until Governor Phips suspended the proceedings in late 1692; in the spring of 1693 he pardoned everyone still in custody.

From Magic to Metaphor

The Salem trials were not the last witch prosecutions in the American colonies; a case emerged in Colchester, Connecticut, in 1724. In general, however, witchcraft was no longer treated as a crime.

Many scholars have argued that the growth of scientific rationalism, beginning with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, made belief in magic and the supernatural increasingly ludicrous. While this explanation has some credence, many people continued to believe in witchcraft after 1692, and still do.

The aftermath of the trials brought no immediate resolution and healing to Salem or New England, and the witch-hunt remained a source of controversy as people looked for scapegoats. Among those most visibly selected for censure were the Puritan ministers, especially Samuel Parris and Cotton Mather, whose actions many believed were catalysts for the trials.

In Mather’s case, these accusations were largely unfair, since other than his published account of the trials, Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), his dealings with the trials were relatively indirect.

Nevertheless, in 1700 a Boston merchant named Robert Calef published a book, More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), which claimed that the Puritan clergy, and Cotton Mather in particular, had conspired to encourage the witch hysteria in order to eliminate heterodox belief and to bolster their sagging religious and cultural authority in New England.

The book was immediately labeled libelous by the Puritan authorities, and Increase and Cotton Mather were so angered by Calef’s accusations that they had copies of the book publicly burned in Harvard’s college yard.

Whatever the immediate effect of the suppression of Calef’s book, the long-term consequences to Cotton Mather’s reputation were catastrophic. No single figure is as closely identified with the trials as Mather, and his memory remains as the archetypal intolerant Puritan and superstitious witch-hunter.

In the twentieth century witchcraft and witch-hunting remained alive as a powerful metaphor for repression of many kinds: state-sponsored religious or political persecution, or for the oppression of women in a patriarchal society.

Many contemporary believers in witchcraft or paganism, called Wicca, style themselves as the religious descendents of the victims of the Salem trials, and state a continuity of purpose between their own struggles for freedom of religious expression and the lives of those who died in 1692. Probably the most famous use of the witchcraft metaphor came with the production of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1952).

Declaring that the “witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom,” Miller used the Salem trials as an analogy for the political repression of McCarthy-era America.

In his view, the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee represented a conspiracy against liberty of conscience akin to the Puritan backlash against witchcraft.

Radical feminists in the 1960s, meanwhile, also employed the witchcraft metaphor. In 1968, the “action wing” of New York Radical Women was formed, and they chose the name WITCH, an acronym for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

The group attacked institutions that were seen as emblems of patriarchal power; they hexed the Chase Manhattan bank, for example, and disrupted a bride fair at Madison Square Gardens dressed as witches (Purkiss, 8–9). For these women, a witch was an emblem of female empowerment, not patriarchal victimization.