Over about a three-month time span in 1692, nineteen men and women were hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, having been convicted of witchcraft. One man, who was over eighty years old, was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to enter a plea bargain, therefore necessitating a trial. Hundreds faced groundless accusations, while others waited in jail. Those accused included a four-year-old little girl and two dogs. The dogs were convicted.
How did this widespread panic begin? In February of 1692, young Betty Parris (daughter of the contentious and somewhat controversial Reverend Parris) became ill. Her symptoms were odd—she ran around the room, dove under furniture, and had severe pain and a high fever. No one knew what was wrong with her. Cotton Mather, another well-known Puritan, had recently published a book called Memorable Providences documenting the suspected witchcraft of a woman in Boston. It was possible that young Betty had been bewitched; death and fear were already in the minds of many in Salem as an Indian war was raging just seventy miles away. It was easy for the people of Salem to believe the devil was at their gates.
Talk of witchcraft increased when three other girls, playmates of Betty, began to suffer similar afflictions. Even the doctor, William Griggs, suggested something supernatural was afoot. Even more plausible evidence came from Betty’s own household. Betty Parris and her family came to Salem from Barbados after stopping in Boston. They had a housekeeper named Tituba, who they brought with them from Barbados. Suspicion fell on Tituba because she was known to thrill the young girls with stories of voodoo dolls, omens, and witchcraft from her own native folklore. Meanwhile, four more girls became afflicted by witchcraft when, in reality, the girls were caught up in their own version of make believe.
In reality, the “afflicted” girls, eight in total, went from being friends to becoming a destructive force in Salem. These young girls...