If you grew up in New England, chances are you know a thing or two about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 – or at least you think you do. The truth is, more than 300 years later, most of us still believe many of the popular myths that surround this dark phase in our history.
We can blame Arthur Miller’s famous play, The Crucible for a few of these. The rest can be chocked up to the folklore that develops when people try to bury their secrets in the pages of history.
Myth #1: The convicted witches were burned.
Before I researched this post I thought the “witches” of Salem were killed in multiple ways including burning, hanging, stoning and drowning. In truth, every person convicted of witchcraft in 1692 was put to death by hanging except for one. Giles Corey, an elderly farmer, was crushed beneath heavy stones for several days before he finally died. He had refused to plead guilty or innocent to the charges against him.
It turns out the reason for the method of execution is simply cultural. The French burned their witches, while the English hanged theirs.
Myth #2: The victims were all women.
Aside from the ocassional warlock tossed in for good measure, popular culture has taught us that witches are female. But it turns out the settlers of Salem weren’t quite so misogynistic. Of the 19 people hanged in Salem, four were men, including a Harvard-educated minister. The accused ranged from the wealthy elite to the poverty stricken. Even a 5-year-old girl faced accusations of witchcraft during New England’s “Satanic Panic.”
Myth #3: The panic took place in Salem.
While Salem village was the site of the initial rash of accusations, “witches” turned up all across the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 24 different communities. The accused sought to save themselves by condemning others – including strangers from other villages. One girl from Salem named 62 potential witches before she was through.
Despite Salem being the epicenter of the crisis, the residents of Andover were most severely affected. Nearly 1 in 10 of its residents were accused of witchcraft, often by their own family members.
Myth #4: Superstition was the driving force.
While superstition certainly played a role in the crisis, it was religious fervor that led to the Salem witch trials. Witches are mentioned in the Bible, in the very scripture that the settlers fled England to uphold. In addition, the most literate colonists in 1692 also happened to be the most literal interpreters of these biblical passages.
Myth #5: Ergot poisoning was to blame for the witch trials.
Behavioral scientist Linnda Caporael proposed the theory that a contaminated rye supply introduced ergot poisoning to Salem, causing convulsions and hallucinations in the accusing girls. Although many of the symptoms matched ergot poisoning, the hallucinating girls had matching visions as well as moments of clarity and normalcy, they did not deteriorate physically, and they shared meals with non-hallucinating family members. Other villagers had visions of winged beasts and goblins without ever experiencing convulsions. Over all, this option is just too simple to account for everything that occured in the Massachusetts colonies in 1692.
H/T to The Washington Post