31 October 2007

Crime & Punishment:
The Salem Witch Trials

By Penny Ash

Between February 1692 and May 1693, one of the most notorious events in American history occurred. A small group of girls began accusing their neighbors of being witches and sparked a level of hysteria that soon had 19 people hanged, 1 crushed to death, and 5 dying in jail. Over 150 people were accused and the court allowed what was then called Spectral evidence to be used. What we would call hearsay and perjury today. The targeted victims were the different, the people who did not always conform to Puritan social ideals, and people who spoke out against the accusers.

The girls may have started the hysteria but some of the adults were quick to see the possibilities and fanned the flames. Motivations were greed and hatred, ego and fear and superstition, a lot of the same factors that motivate people today. There are several scientists who have advanced the theory that Ergot poisoning was the cause of the symptoms the girls complained of but I personally don't think this explains the events which took place.

We get the term witch hunt from this era. And I find it interesting that a similar event took place some 258 years later America would be engaged in yet another witch hunt, the McCarthy Hearings, with much the same result. And on Halloween 2001 all those accused, tried and convicted of witchcraft were finally officially exonerated and proclaimed innocent 300 years after the events of 1692.