Salem Witches Executed
The 19th of August 1692 AD
The witch trials at the end of the 17th century in New England – the witch-craze swept more than just the town of Salem – claimed many victims: 19 died on the gallows; one who refused to plead was pressed to death as the authorities tried to force him to do so; and several more died in appalling conditions in gaol. However terrible the events, their upshot in America’s mindset has undoubtedly been positive: a natural inclination in that country towards due process and to religious tolerance, at least until recent times.
The Puritans who had bolstered the colonisation of New England since the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 were far from united in the detail of their beliefs. In a stifling atmosphere of Calvinist doctrine petty quarrels over religious matters were inevitable; in isolated communities family-feuds likewise. Salem in Massachusetts in 1692 descended into a hell of baseless accusations of witchcraft, where to speak against them was to invite personal disaster; and where many seized the moment to settle scores or win fame.
What precisely sparked the original accusations by young children is much debated: ergot poisoning (a fungus on rye); epilepsy; and simple childish fantasy but three possibilities. The consequences were horrific: trumped-up charges; ridiculous trials; and on June 10 1692 the first hanging, of Bridget Bishop. The taint of witchcraft spread to a constable who refused to have anything to do with the matter; of a disliked former Salem minister; of those who spoke against the madness.
On August 19 1692 five ‘witches’ were hanged in Salem: the former Salem churchman George Burroughs; Martha Carrier; 70 year old George Jacobs Sr; John Proctor; and John Willard. This was the second group of five such victims precisely a month after the first.
Reaction against the lunacy ended it in the autumn, with remaining prisoners released in January 1693.
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