20 October 2010

Portrait of a witch, 1692

"We all rose in the air on broomsticks,"
illustration by F.A. Carter,
in The Witch of Salem by John R. Musick (1893)
Generally, we think of witches as old hags, widows who lived on the outskirts of their community, often bad mannered and physically offensive. Some were known for healing powers, such as an herbalist or midwife, or one who brewed noxious remedies to inflict pain and suffering on others.

Yes, there were widows accused as witches in 1692, but so were young mothers and little girls. Men and boys were not exempt either. It’s difficult to create a profile of a witch because the accused ran the gamut from beggar to rich merchant, law-breaker to minister—and everything in between.

In the 17th century, many people believed in witches and witchcraft. Their ancestors lived through witch-hunts in the old country, where thousands of witches were burned at the stake. They learned from church sermons that the Devil was using witches to undermine the Puritan church. And they heard rumors of witches wreaking havoc in New England.

Accusations went flying. The accused lived in Salem Village (now Danvers), Salem Town, throughout Essex county, and even in Maine. Some were very well known in the neighborhood, others weren’t known or even recognized by their accusers.

Since not all the Salem court documents still exist, it’s difficult to even account for how many people were accused; about 150 were imprisoned, 19 hanged, one crushed to death, and at least five died in prison.

To learn more, check out the Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project (University of Virginia) or the Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692 (by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law). Both sites include 17th-century court records and historic maps.

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