In 1692 a group of adolescent girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, became subject to strange fits after hearing tales told by a West Indian slave. When they were questioned, they accused several women of being witches who were tormenting them. The townspeople were appalled but not surprised: belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout 17th-century America and Europe.
What happened next -- although an isolated event in American history -- provides a vivid window into the social and psychological world of Puritan New England. Town officials convened a court to hear the charges of witchcraft, and swiftly convicted and executed a tavernkeeper, Bridget Bishop. Within a month, five other women had been convicted and hanged.
Nevertheless, the hysteria grew, in large measure because the court permitted witnesses to testify that they had seen the accused as spirits or in visions. By its very nature, such "spectral evidence" was especially dangerous, because it could be neither verified nor subject to objective examination. By the fall of 1692, more than 20 victims, including several men, had been executed, and more than 100 others were in jail -- among them some of the town's most prominent citizens. But now the hysteria threatened to spread beyond Salem, and ministers throughout the colony called for an end to the trials. The governor of the colony agreed and dismissed the court. Those still in jail were later acquitted or given reprieves.
The Salem witch trials have long fascinated Americans. On a psychological level, most historians agree that Salem Village in 1692 was seized by a kind of public hysteria, fueled by a genuine belief in the existence of witchcraft. They point out that, while some of the girls may have been acting, many responsible adults became caught up in the frenzy as well.
But even more revealing is a closer analysis of the identities of the accused and the accusers. Salem Village, like much of colonial New England at that time, was undergoing an economic and political transition from a largely agrarian, Puritan-dominated community to a more commercial, secular society. Many of the accusers were representatives of a traditional way of life tied to farming and the church, whereas a number of the accused witches were members of the rising commercial class of small shopkeepers and tradesmen. Salem's obscure struggle for social and political power between older traditional groups and a newer commercial class was one repeated in communities throughout American history . But it took a bizarre and deadly detour when its citizens were swept up by the conviction that the devil was loose in their homes.
The Salem witch trials also serve as a dramatic parable of the deadly consequences of making sensational, but false, charges. Indeed, a frequent term in political debate for making false accusations against a large number of people is "witch hunt."