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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > February 2016 > The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials

Group hysteria gave rise to a horror that bedazzled the world, writes Nige Tassell
PARANOIA RULES Two girls are tried for witchcraft – some 200 were accused of practicing the dark arts in the American village of Salem between 1692 and 1693
ART ARCHIVE X1, TOPFOTO X1

The heat is stiffing on this July day in 1692, as five dishevelled and bound women are paraded on a wooden cart through the streets of Salem village in the colony of Massachusetts Bay. As the cart bumps its way towards a hill on the outskirts, the five contemplate their mortality. Within minutes they’re led, hoods drawn over their heads, towards a rudimentary set of gallows, and their imminent executions.

These five women – Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Wildes – were the among the first to be tried and found guilty of witchcraft during a bleak nine-month period of New England history simply recalled as the Salem Witch Trials. As the innocent women approached the gallows, in the last moments of their lives, they continued to protest their innocence. Rev Nicholas Noyes, one of the local clergymen who had vigorously pursued the prosecutions, was the particular focus of Sarah Good’s anger: “You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard. And if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”

Good had been among the first local women to be arrested, after several young girls from the village had experienced mysterious afflictions the previous February. One bitterly cold evening, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams – the daughter and niece of the local Puritan minister Samuel Parris – began displaying disturbing behaviour described as being “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect”. They screamed, made unearthly sounds, suffered convulsions and violently threw objects, and themselves, around their homes. When asked who it was that had afflicted them, they named Good – a homeless woman who had fallen destitute after denying the inheritance of her wealthy father’s estate – as one of the three culprits. The girls’ accusation was that Good had performed witchcraft on them.

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