Salem Witch Trials: A Deep Dive on What Really Happened + 10 Big Lessons

Why mass hysteria is hard-wired into our DNA

Salem witch trials: Stern Puritan men lead a young accused witch to be hanged. Her hands are bound and she looks sad.
Salem witch trials: Stern Puritan men lead a young accused witch to be hanged. Her hands are bound and she looks sad.
Thomas Satterwhite Noble , CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Over the last month, I’ve been absorbed in a podcast called Unobscured.

Created and narrated by Aaron Mahnke (best known for Lore), Season 1 of Unobscured is a deep and detailed exploration of the Salem witch trials.

In case you’re not familiar, or just need a refresher, here’s a quick summary of the trials:

I grew up in Danvers, which is the present-day name for Salem Village. And as I type this, I’m sitting just a few miles from where the trials took place.

I’m a local, so I thought I knew the story of the Salem witch trials.

Well, I was wrong.

Maybe it’s because I first learned about the witch trials as a schoolboy, too young to really understand it all.

Or maybe it’s because Unobscured told the story in more detail than I’d ever heard before.

Or maybe it’s because Chad Lawson’s hauntingly beautiful musical podcast score (which I’m listening to as I write this) brought the story to life.

Salem witch trials: a ghostly depiction of the courtroom with an accused witch appearing like an apparition
Salem witch trials: a ghostly depiction of the courtroom with an accused witch appearing like an apparition
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the reason, the Salem witch trials have gotten in my head, and I can’t stop thinking about what happened.

One thought in particular popped into my mind during episode one, and has echoed around since:

If you could travel back in time to the start of the Salem witch trials, knowing everything you know now, could you stop the whole thing from happening?

To be clear, this thought wasn’t born as a fun or light-hearted game. And I’m not writing in that spirit now. Even though it feels like a distant era, the Salem witch trials were a genuine tragedy. Men, women, and children were hunted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Families were ripped apart. It was a slow-motion horror that left deep scars on the history of humanity.

Instead, I became absorbed in the psychology behind the question. I pondered it as a thought exercise about human nature and the social dynamics of mass hysteria:

If you saw a disaster, driven by mass hysteria, unfolding in front of you in slow motion, and you knew exactly how it was going to play out, could you stop it?

After listening to Unobscured, the six bonus expert interviews, and reading dozens of articles on the Salem witch trials and mass hysteria, I do think there’s a way you could stop it all from happening.

Before I explain, we need to look deeper at what really happened in Salem Village over 300 years ago.

What Happened in Salem? The Devil is in the Details

Salem witch trials: an overfilled court room features an accused woman’s skin being inspection for marks of witchcraft
Salem witch trials: an overfilled court room features an accused woman’s skin being inspection for marks of witchcraft
Peabody Essex Museum , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Before Unobscured, I thought the people of Salem Village were simple, unintelligent, and scared of everything. They seemed like our distant, dim-witted ancestors from another era. I thought with a little preparation, I could travel back in time and shake some sense into them:

Guys, wake up. Stop the madness.

There are no witches riding broomsticks at night. Satan didn’t shapeshift into a goat to nap in your barn. Your stomach doesn’t hurt because a warlock cursed you.

I know life kinda sucks here in 1692, but don’t take it out on each other. I’m from the future where science can explain everything you’re scared of. Spoiler alert: it’s not supernatural forces.

Now ask me something you’re scared of and I’ll look it up on Wikipedia.

I saw the people of Salem Village as scared little children. If I could tuck them in and assure them there’s no boogie man, they’d sleep well and forget about witches.

Well, by episode four, a somber realization had set in:

The hysteria of the Salem witch trials was far deeper, far darker, and far more complex than I ever imagined.

There wasn’t just one simple cause. These people weren’t innocently confused. They weren’t just afraid of the dark. No, there were much larger forces at work.

To really understand the Salem witch trials, you have to look closely at the shocking details under the surface. Below I’ve summarized the broad strokes of what happened and included examples.

This isn’t meant to be a complete historical account (for that, listen to Unobscured). Instead, this is a highlight reel of horrors, created so you can understand just how bizarre and out of control the situation really was:

A range of accusers (mostly young girls) exhibited bizarre symptoms of invisible torment, which they attributed to witchcraft:

  • A handful of young girls claimed they were being bitten, pinched, hit, choked, whispered to, and generally tormented by witches.
  • The girls exhibited terrifying spasms, contorted positions, crying, screaming, unnatural movements, blank stares, and uncontrollable jumping. They cried in pain from being pinched and bitten, and displayed fresh marks on their skin as evidence.
  • At different times, the girls hid under furniture, reported fevers, barked like dogs, went speechless, and screamed in terror.
  • The girls described their invisible tormentors in disturbing detail, for example saying an accused witch sat on a roof beam suckling a yellow bird between her fingers.
  • Reverend John Hale described their torment: “These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of Epileptick fits, or natural disease to effect. Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move a heart of stone to sympathize with them.”
  • Tituba, an adult slave from Barbados, confirmed witchcraft as the cause and described fantastical and terrifying visions of “a hog, a great black dog, a red cat, a black cat, a yellow bird and a hairy creature that walked on two legs. Another animal had…wings and two legs and a head like a woman.” At one point during her questioning, she claimed the devil struck her blind.

The witchcraft hysteria spread far and fast:

  • It started in Salem Village, but the frenzy quickly spread to nearby towns of Gloucester, Andover, Ipswich, Topsfield, Beverly, and Wenham.
  • The authorities sent witch finders (young girls who were tormented by witches) into new towns to find more witches.
  • Strangely, 50 people confessed to being a witch, and some provided richly detailed stories of their devilish activities.
  • Confessors shared vivid accounts of flying on broomsticks, attending giant dinners in the woods with the devil, signing the devil’s book, and seeing visions of hairy creatures, a bird with a woman’s head, a mysterious tall man, and much more.
  • Once a shocking confession spread through the communities, other accused witches would confess and confirm the details from the story they heard.
Salem witch trials: A man stand defiantly on trial as a woman sitting next to him points into the stunned crowd
Salem witch trials: A man stand defiantly on trial as a woman sitting next to him points into the stunned crowd
“Giles Corey of the Salem Farms” by John W. Ehninger

Anyone could be accused, jailed, tried, and executed:

  • Nearly 200 people were accused of witchcraft and 25 innocent people died: 19 died by hanging, one was pressed to death, and five died in jail.
  • 80% of witch suspects were women.
  • A mother and her four-year-old daughter were accused and arrested.
  • A respected minister was accused, arrested, tried, and hanged.
  • Two dogs were accused of witchcraft and executed because children claimed the dogs sent them into convulsions.
  • When an accuser would name a new witch, others would quickly jump on board and start claiming attacks from that person.
  • People believed you could be a witch without even realizing it (this led some people to confess).
  • A Harvard minister (George Burroughs) was accused and convicted largely because he was so physically strong, which suggested supernatural powers.
  • Even mentioning the devil could get you accused (one guy cursed out his neighbor for grazing a horse on his land, yelling, “The devil take you!” and he was accused.)
  • One guy asked about someone possibly being a witch and that promptly got him accused of witchcraft just for bringing it up.
  • Any type of disrespect, such as speaking out of turn, using the wrong tone, or muttering under your breath could get you accused of being a witch.

Early in the witch delusion, people accused their enemies. Later, they accused their friends and family:

  • Salem Villagers initially targeted people they didn’t like, such as beggars, outsiders, abrasive people, neighbors they had quarrels with, a man who beat his wives, people with disabilities, etc.
  • At first, the accusers were all young girls, but adults quickly joined in and accused more witches.
  • Some arrested witches named others to try and save themselves.
  • When the hysteria spread to Andover, people named their friends and family. At one point, five sisters and their mother all named each other as witches.

Anything bad, scary, or unusual was assumed to be the work of the devil (or his witch minions), who was targeting the Puritans because they were God’s chosen people:

  • People thought the devil was 100% real and creeping around town in a variety of human and animal forms.
  • A spooky black cat could be the devil. A goat could be the devil. The devil in the form of a wolf was reported to follow a young girl through the woods.
  • If your livestock died, it could be a witch. If you felt sick, it could be a witch. If your milk curdled or your cider turned sour, it could be a witch. Even a bad dream could be a witch attack.
  • The town doctor who evaluated the afflicted girls and declared them victims of witchcraft had no formal medical training and may have been illiterate.
  • Villagers believed the devil retaliated for the witch trials by blowing the roof off their meetinghouse and sending a tsunami to destroy parts of Jamaica.
  • Native Americans were considered heathen and agents of the devil.
  • At one point, the villagers believed they had captured the “King and Queen of Hell.”
Salem witch trials: A spooky depiction of two “soul-killing witches that deform the body”
Salem witch trials: A spooky depiction of two “soul-killing witches that deform the body”
Robert Calef, author/editor, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A handful of influential people in powerful positions drove the trials forward:

  • A handful of powerful judges, ministers, and sheriffs aggressively drove the panic and some basically had to be dragged away at the end.
  • Two powerful families (the Porters and the Putnams), fueled by years of disagreement, used the witch trials as an opportunity to attack each other and further their agendas.
  • As the situation spiraled and outsiders became concerned, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed any negative writing about the trials. However, an influential minister was allowed to publish books supporting the trials.
Salem witch trials: accused witches look fearful as their accusers frantically point and cry
Salem witch trials: accused witches look fearful as their accusers frantically point and cry
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The court trials were an absolute circus that made a mockery of justice:

  • Because the Massachusetts Bay Colony had its charter revoked, the courts were in a weird situation without a formal law system.
  • The trials were based on spectral evidence, so if someone claimed they were attacked by your ghost or spell or whatever, you could be found guilty.
  • Ridiculous tests were central to the trials, including looking for moles or blemishes on the accused person’s skin, a “touch test” where the accused witch had to touch their alleged victim, a test where the accused had to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and more.
  • Hearsay and gossip were welcomed as part of the trial.
  • Accused witches couldn’t get legal counsel, call their own witnesses, or request an appeal.
  • During the trials, the afflicted girls would prowl around the courtroom and suddenly go into fits of torment, spasming and writhing, claiming they were under attack by a witch.
  • Some accused witches presented petitions affirming their good character, with as many as 40 supporting signatures from the community. It didn’t seem to matter.
  • One respected woman (Rebecca Nurse) received a “not guilty” verdict, but then the judge asked her one more question, which she didn’t respond to, probably because she was nearly deaf and/or the question was phrased in a confusing way. The jury was sent back and the verdict was immediately changed to “guilty.” She was sentenced to death.
  • Rebecca Nurse’s family presented her case to the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he gave her a reprieve from execution. It was soon revoked and she was hanged.
Salem witch trials: accused witch Rebecca Nurse is held in chains before the court
Salem witch trials: accused witch Rebecca Nurse is held in chains before the court
Freeland A. Carter, artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • It was believed a witch couldn’t correctly recite the Lord’s Prayer. Harvard Minister George Burroughs recited the prayer perfectly and with moving conviction as he stood at the gallows, awaiting his execution. The crowd moved towards him to stop the execution, but they were pushed back and he was hanged anyways.
  • One woman recited the Lord’s Prayer but someone claimed she said “hollowed be thy name” rather than “hallowed be thy name.” She was found guilty.
  • One man was crushed to death with stones for refusing to answer the court’s questions. When his tongue hung out of his mouth, the Sheriff stuffed it back in with the end of his cane.
Salem witch trials: Giles Corey is crushed to death with large stones for refusing to answer the court’s questions
Salem witch trials: Giles Corey is crushed to death with large stones for refusing to answer the court’s questions
Henrietta D. Kimball, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The law enforcement system was corrupt and inhumane:

  • Personal assets were seized when a person was accused, not convicted.
  • High Sheriff George Corwin, who arrested suspects and executed the condemned, collected their personal property (but not land) to either keep or sell for profit. He even arrested a man and then rode to the man’s house to take the wedding ring off his wife’s hand.
  • The Salem jail was called “a suburb of hell” and the Boston jail (where the overflow of the accused witches were kept) was called “a grave for the living.”
  • Some of the accused were chained with shackles that only a blacksmith could remove so they couldn’t harm their victims. Jailers even put a little girl into leg irons.
  • The jails had horrid conditions, were freezing cold, and were infested with bugs.
  • Accused witches had to pay for their own food in jail.
  • It’s believed a jailer in Boston was repeatedly bribed to let accused witches go free.
  • Wealthy accused witches were allowed to leave jail during the day and go about their business as long as they were accompanied by a guard.
  • Accused witches who were found not guilty had to pay a bond fee to get out of jail.
  • One woman died in jail, but the jailers wouldn’t release her body until her family paid for it.
  • Two teenage boys were forced to confess by using a military torture technique in the back of a tavern.

Wow. What a mess.

By the time I finished Unobscured, the reality was clear:

The Salem witch trials weren’t just a few frightened townsfolk accusing each other of witchcraft.

The trials were a self-sustaining hysteria machine, fueled by government corruption, feeding on public fear, and clawing into every corner of the community.

How did all this happen?

How did the Puritan’s beloved “city upon a hill” devolve into hell on earth?

What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?

Salem witch trials: a girl lays on the ground as a courtroom full of people point and gesture.
Salem witch trials: a girl lays on the ground as a courtroom full of people point and gesture.
unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many theories as to what caused the Salem witch trials. Over the years, historians, researchers, and scholars have uncovered a wide range of plausible forces.

Here’s a brief summary of the theories for what caused the Salem witch trials:

The girls acted out because they were some mix of bored, spooked, attention-seeking, rebellious, and/or jealous:

  • Some historians think the girls were frightened by a fortune-telling game, during which an egg cracked into a glass took the shape of a coffin. This planted the seeds of witchcraft in their mind.
  • Author John Putnam theorized that the young girls were engaging in teenage rebellion against a generation of repressive adults in their community.
  • One theory suggests the young, unmarried girls accused older, married and widowed women because they were jealous of their social status.
  • Some think the girls were simply bored and enjoyed the influence and attention that came from their fits.

The girls suffered from PTSD as a result of first-hand exposure to the Native American wars:

  • Historian Emerson Baker theorized that many of the tormented girls were war refugees who survived the Native American wars in Maine.
  • Some of the girls even saw family members killed or were taken captive during the war.

Because the Massachusetts Bay Colony was struggling and life was so awful, people’s stress and anxiety spilled over:

  • There’s evidence that extremely cold weather is correlated with witch hunt hysteria, both in Salem Village and in Europe.
  • There was a “Little Ice Age” from the 1500’s — 1800’s, during which temperatures were lower than average. The period from 1680 to 1730, part of the Maunder Minimum, saw the most extreme stretches of cold weather.
  • Cold weather was not only unpleasant, but it led to hunger as crops failed, livestock died, and fish didn’t migrate as far north.
  • Native American Wars and attacks raged uncomfortably close to the town and made people feel the devil was closing in.
  • Many residents of Salem, including young children, had witnessed the brutality of war first hand. Some of them had literally limped from their destroyed communities in Maine into Salem Village.
  • People suffered high taxes (and uneven tax rates) to help support the cost of defending the colony from the Native American Wars.
  • In 1684, Massachusetts had its charter revoked by England, leading to tension and uncertainty around the future of the colony’s governance. The charter was replaced in 1691 with a new charter that reduced the colony’s independence.
  • At the time, everyone believed the devil was a real, physical being that was stalking their God-chosen colony and trying to steal their souls to hell. The only answer was devotion to intense religious practice.
Salem witch trials: A young girl points at a Puritan man and accused him of witchcraft
Salem witch trials: A young girl points at a Puritan man and accused him of witchcraft
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Personal disputes over land, property, and religious ideology spilled over into witchcraft accusations:

  • There were ongoing rivalries between prominent families (Porters vs Putnams) over property lines, religious practices, church policies, minister appointments, and more.
  • At one point, some town members withheld firewood delivery and salary from the town’s Reverend.
  • Some historians believe these personal and religious politics spilled over into accusations of witchcraft.

A few important power players drove the witchcraft mania for their own benefit:

The accusers (and eventually others) were participants in a mass hysteria:

  • A mass psychogenic illness “arises from long-term anxiety and features motor agitation. Common symptoms include twitching, shaking, trouble walking, uncontrollable laughing and weeping, communication difficulties and trance states. Symptoms appear slowly over weeks or months under exposure to long-standing stress, and typically take weeks or months to subside, after the stress has been reduced or eliminated.”

The accusers (and eventually others) were hallucinating due to medical conditions:

  • Historians have posed a range of theories that suggest underlying medical issues caused the strange hallucinations and subsequent hysteric behavior.
  • Medical theories include: ergot poisoning from fungus in grains led to hallucinatory effects, an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica from insects and birds caused brain inflammation, and lyme disease or arctic hysteria drove the strange behavior.
  • For a variety of reasons, most historians feel the medical theories about the Salem witch trials are not credible.

There are so many theories behind what caused the Salem witch trials. Because everything happened over 300 years ago and so many documents have been lost or destroyed, it’s hard to know exactly what happened.

That said, I’ve arrived at my own meta theory.

After going deep on the Salem witch trials, I believe three major forces led to the strange and horrific events of 1692.

Three Forces Aligned to Cause the Salem Witch Trials

Salem witch trials: an accused witch channels powers from the sky as court members look on in fear
Salem witch trials: an accused witch channels powers from the sky as court members look on in fear
Baker, Joseph E., ca. 1837–1914, artist., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My overarching theory draws from the incredible research, insights, and explanations of Salem witch trials historians, and I give them full credit.

After listening to Unobscured, the six bonus expert interviews, and reading dozens of articles on the Salem witch trials, it’s clear that there were many causes behind the witchcraft hysteria.

As Emerson Baker put it, The Salem witch trials were a “perfect storm.”

Put simply, I believe three major forces aligned to cause a mass hysteria that spread like wildfire:

(1) The original accusers provided a spark, (2) powerful people stepped in and fanned the flames, and (3) the community was a forest of dry brush that caught fire.

Let’s look at these three steps in detail and consider the supporting evidence:

Salem witch trials: Tituba dances and scares young girls
Salem witch trials: Tituba dances and scares young girls
A Popular History of the United States” by William Cullen Bryant

Step 1 (The Spark): The girls who started making accusations were under tremendous stress from a wide range of sources and experienced a mass psychogenic illness:

  • It began with conversion disorder, a well-documented condition, usually seen in teenage girls, in which psychological stress manifests into physical symptoms.
  • This spread into a mass psychogenic illness, which involves the “rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms affecting members of a cohesive group…whereby physical complaints that are exhibited unconsciously have no corresponding organic aetiology.”
  • Mass psychogenic illness is known to affect mostly young women in a close community, beginning with women of higher social or age status and spreading downwards.
  • The original accusers lived in extremely strict religious households, which is a common thread across witch accusers from Salem and other places that suffered mass witch hysteria.
  • These girls were told on a regular basis that God is angry, the devil is everywhere, we’re part of God’s special chosen people, everyone else is wrong, and if you misbehave you’re going to hell.
  • The girls were taught by their respected elders that the devil was in a physical form, creeping around town, trying to steal their souls.
  • The community lived in fear of Native American raids. Terrifying tales circled through the town, featuring Native Americans roasting holy Puritans over a fire pit or scalping them alive.
  • Many of the girls suffered the pain of the Native American Wars first hand, seeing their friends, families, and neighbors killed. Some of the girls were captured.
  • It was extremely cold and food sources were limited. Even firewood wasn’t a sure thing, as Reverend Parris had his firewood withheld by the town, putting his household under stress.
  • In 1692, women had far fewer rights than men. Young girls in particular were low on the social hierarchy. They were to be “seen and not heard.”
  • Bottom Line: Life was stressful for these young girls. They were under extreme religious pressure at home, lived in terror of a war raging at their doorstep, were given little social respect, feared the devil at every turn, and were cold and hungry. This tremendous stress manifested as a conversion disorder and spread in the form of a mass psychogenic illness, with a focus on witchcraft.
Salem witch trials: a group of stern Puritans arrest an old women accused of witchcraft. They’re showing her a warrant.
Salem witch trials: a group of stern Puritans arrest an old women accused of witchcraft. They’re showing her a warrant.
Howard Pyle , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Step 2 (Powerful People Fanned the Flames): A small group of powerful and influential people encouraged the girls’ strange behavior and whipped everyone into a frenzy to further their own agendas:

  • Reverend Samuel Parris, Judge William Stoughton, Minister Cotton Mather, and High Sheriff George Corwin encouraged and fueled the witchcraft frenzy.
  • These powerful Puritans were an elite group who believed they were the leaders of God’s chosen people and Salem Village was a utopian “city upon a hill.” This town was their source of pride and respect, and their reputation was at stake as the devil himself was coming to destroy their community.
  • While they may have truly believed they were under attack from the devil, these men spread the hysteria to promote their own interests, agendas, and reputations.
  • Reverend Parris may have beaten Titubu and encouraged her to confess, which she did in riveting detail, sparking a wave of accusations. She also claimed she saw nine names in the devil’s book, setting in motion a hunt for more witches.
  • Historians described Reverend Parris as a difficult and stubborn man, and a fire-and-brimstone preacher with something to prove after a long string of failures.
  • Judge William Stoughton set the tone on the court, and the other ministers looked to him for direction. Historians described him as a self-loathing man who was obsessed with getting as many witchcraft convictions as possible.
  • Many of the judges were Harvard graduates who had failed to become ministers and may have felt they had something to prove.
  • Minister Cotton Mather wanted attention for his sensational, fear-based religious writing. After the witch trials ended, he later wrote that they were ultimately a good thing because they drove people towards religion and “filled the pews.”
  • High Sheriff George Corwin enthusiastically rounded up and executed accused witches. He collected their personal property for his own profit.
  • If an accused witch confessed, they wouldn’t be executed right away so they could help name others. These men therefore created an obvious incentive for people to falsely confess and name others, simultaneously justifying and spreading the witchcraft proceedings.
  • Bottom Line: It’s possible these guys believed they were doing the right thing. But they became hell-bent on prolonging and expanding the witch trials in ways that ultimately served their own interests.
Salem witch trials: pandemonium in a the courtroom as people faint and point and writhe
Salem witch trials: pandemonium in a the courtroom as people faint and point and writhe
Peabody Essex Museum , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Step 3 (The Community Caught Fire): A community of scared and vulnerable people used the growing witch panic as a free opportunity to punish people they didn’t like, vent their frustrations, and improve their lives:

  • The people in these communities were under extreme stress from many sources: a nearby war, the threat of Native American raids, the arrival in town of war refugees from a failed expansion to Maine, extreme cold, food shortages, a struggling economy, religious pressure, a revoked colony charter, unfairly high taxes, disagreements over church policy, hungry wolves, high infant mortality (25% of children under one died), and fear of the devil.
  • Stifling religious pressure was a part of everyday life, and “Puritans lived in a constant state of spiritual anxiety, searching for signs of God’s favor or anger.”
  • Historians describe how their day-to-day life was scary. Without electricity, there was darkness everywhere. Something as simple as a black cat emerging from your basement’s shadows could be the devil.
  • The accused witches tended to be outsiders, people who were different, or difficult people who were disliked. Villagers accused people who they had quarrels with, or didn’t fit in, or weren’t religious enough, or were mentally disabled. Some accusers were effectively purging their community of people they felt didn’t belong.
  • Some pious villagers felt a church policy called the Half-Way Covenant let people into the church who didn’t deserve to be there. This, and other disagreements on religious policy and leadership, may have led to devout church members accusing their less-holy neighbors.
  • Property disputes may have fueled accusations. One researcher showed that the women accused of witchcraft had an unusually high connection to property holdings.
  • Villagers who had recently suffered misfortune, such as illness, livestock deaths, or loss of a loved one, found the trials provided a simple explanation for their bad luck and an easy scapegoat for their frustrations.
  • Several men were accused who had a violent history. One man had beaten a disabled servant to death (paying only a fine as penalty) and another had a reputation for hitting his wives. Women in the community may have accused those men of witchcraft as a form of payback.
  • Bottom Line: Life was hard, people were extremely stressed and vulnerable, and everyone was looking for someone to blame. When the girls displayed their bizarre and frightening behavior and community leaders enthusiastically declared it the work of the devil, it became open season on witches. Townspeople took their frustrations out on people they didn’t like.

All three of these steps were necessary for the Salem witch trials to become what they did.

So if you could stop one, you just might be able to avoid the entire tragedy.

Could You Stop the Salem Witch Trials?

Salem witch trials: Pandemonium in the courtroom as people point and faint
Salem witch trials: Pandemonium in the courtroom as people point and faint
Scan by NYPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now that we’ve got a solid understand of what happened, let’s revisit the original question:

If you could travel back in time to the start of the Salem witch trials, knowing everything you know now, could you stop the whole thing from happening?

OK, first let’s put in place a few basic rules. Assume that you can:

  • Present yourself in any way you choose (for example, clothing that’s modern or time-appropriate, a speaking style from the era or another era, etc.)
  • Spend one day researching the people and situation before you arrive so you’re well oriented.
  • Bring with you one suitcase (airplane carry-on size) filled with anything you like.
  • Arrive any time and place you like, as long as it’s in Salem Village in 1692.

And let’s rule out extreme solutions or solutions that stop the girls before they even begin their fits. So for example, you can’t just blow up the town or poison the girls before they start making accusations. And, for simplicity sake, let’s ignore the downstream future implications of changing the past.

Here’s the challenge: You have to find a way to swoop in and stop the mass hysteria in its tracks. And you have to do it without getting yourself killed.

Don’t underestimate the danger of getting executed. During the witch hysteria, if you said the wrong word, asked the wrong question, criticized the proceedings, or even muttered under your breath, you could find yourself headed for Gallows Hill.

Think about it. What would you do?

As I formulated my answer, I ran through a few important insights in my mind:

There are a few things from history that didn’t work to stop the madness:

  • Secular logic: It seems like most appeals to logic and common sense fell on deaf ears.
  • Religious logic: Religion-based logic didn’t seem to work either. Questions such as, “Why would the devil let his minions point out his other witches?” or “How can I be a witch when I can recite the Lord’s Prayer?” or “Couldn’t the devil pretend to be good people to disguise himself and get them in trouble?” were raised, but casually brushed aside.
  • Legal appeals: Several people both inside and outside the trials criticized the process as unjust and unprecedented. The use of “spectral evidence” was questioned. Judges resigned. This didn’t seem to help.
  • Petitions: Several people gathered petitions from neighbors to attest to their good character (Rebecca Nurse’s petition had 40+ signatures). This didn’t seem to work as they were convicted anyways.
  • Takeaways: Appeals to reason, religion, justice, and ethics fell on deaf ears. Even public resistance was overcome.

There are a few things from history that did seem to help stop the madness:

  • Influential players in Boston wrote books, letters, and pamphlets questioning the situation and urging caution. Increase Mather and Thomas Brattle, two powerful Bostonians, published criticisms that seemed to help turn the tide of public opinion.
  • One Boston man was accused of being a witch so he promptly sued the young woman making the claim for defamation and she dropped her accusations.
  • When the wives of Governor Phips and Increase Mather (top minister in the colony) were accused of witchcraft, the Governor stepped in and effectively ended the trials.
  • Takeaways: Powerful people were able to turn the tide and ultimately end the trials.

My Plan to Stop the Salem Witch Trials

Salem witch trials: Puritans carry an accused witch past public stocks where two other accused witches are locked up
Salem witch trials: Puritans carry an accused witch past public stocks where two other accused witches are locked up
Baker, Joseph E., ca. 1837–1914, artist., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I considered the full situation, I came up with one solid way to stop the trials before they spin out of control. I’m sure there are other creative solutions (if you have ideas, I’d love to hear them!), but here’s where I landed:

If I had one shot to go back and stop the Salem witch trials, I’d shame the power players with the truth of what’s about to happen and convince them to stop the madness themselves.

Let me walk you through exactly what I’d do:

I arrive in the beginning, soon after the girls have their fits but before anyone is executed. The fits began in February of 1692 and Tituba was questioned on March 1st, which was a key flashpoint that launched the trials. Since the goal is to arrive before the power players ramp up their witch hunt, I target a date in late February.

I appear outside the meetinghouse on a Sunday, in hopes that many of the major players are already gathered inside for religious services. It’s probably uncomfortably cold, so I’m wearing modern-day winter clothes for the weather. The brighter the colors, the better.

Standing outside the meetinghouse, I pull from my bag three items:

First, a small megaphone with built-in siren noises.

Second, a small, battery-powered, multi-color, disco-ball strobe lamp. I set it up at my feet and turn it on so it starts flashing and spinning, flinging a rainbow of exotic colors in every direction.

Third, a small, fully-automatic submachine gun (I’m wearing a belt with several extra clips).

A megaphone, a strobe light, and an Uzi submachine gun
A megaphone, a strobe light, and an Uzi submachine gun
Amazon, Amazon, & Wikipedia

I fire three rounds from the gun into the air and sound the siren on my megaphone. This will definitely get their attention.

As the townspeople emerge from the meetinghouse, they see a man dressed in unfamiliar bright clothes, surrounded by strange, dancing colorful lights, holding what appears to be some type of large pistol.

As they approach, I try to engage them in conversation using a calm and peaceful tone. If they seem aggressive or are carrying pistols or rifles, I fire an extended burst into a nearby tree. I ask them to drop any weapons they’re holding using the megaphone.

The first machine gun won’t be invented for another 200 years, so the speed and power of this weapon should be overwhelming. As much as I don’t want to start things off on an aggressive foot, I need their complete attention and respect. The gun is also my insurance against getting arrested and hanged.

Between the submachine gun, the deafening megaphone, and the spinning disco light, I should achieve my goal of total shock and awe.

I say through the megaphone, “I have been sent here by the highest powers to speak to the following men immediately: Samuel Parris, William Stoughton, Cotton Mather, and George Corwin.”

Depending on who from my list is present, I may ask for riders to retrieve the others. I also ask if Governor Phips and Increase Mather can be quickly gathered.

Either way, I wait inside with whoever is present until I have at least Parris, Stoughton, Corwin, and one of the Mathers. I carry in my gun and ask one of the men to bring my bag, where I’ve stored away my megaphone and disco ball.

Once the gentlemen have arrived, I ask them to be seated. I stand at the pulpit and speak slowly:

On a table in front of the men, I set up a large-screen iPad and play for them The Crucible, Salem Witch Trials, and Witches of Salem. I stream the sound through a wireless bluetooth speaker so they can all hear clearly and be impressed by my powers.

Image for post
Image for post
The Crucible: Gary Tooze via DVDBeaver

Once the films are over, I stand and speak again:

After answering any questions, I wrap up my sermon:

And with that, I exit the meetinghouse, walk down the road, and depart from 1692.

Would My Plan to Stop the Salem Witch Trials Really Work?

Salem witch trials: Stern Puritan men lead a young accused witch to be hanged. Her hands are bound and she looks sad.
Salem witch trials: Stern Puritan men lead a young accused witch to be hanged. Her hands are bound and she looks sad.
Thomas Satterwhite Noble , CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, would it work?

Here’s why I think my plan would successfully stop the Salem witch trials before they could begin:

On some level, I think the people of Salem knew what they were doing was wrong. The whole mess lasted about one year, meaning people realized fairly quickly they were mistaken. This realization didn’t require colossal, multi-generational changes to their belief systems. With the proper nudge, I think they would snap back to reality.

These power players had a lot of pride. They thought they were the enlightened leaders of the most godly people on the most important mission in history.

Seeing themselves depicted as infamous villains would be hard for them to stomach. These men, as well as their successors and descendants, later destroyed many documents to cover up their role in the trials. All the records from the main oyer and terminer court trials were destroyed. One Boston minister’s compendium of sermons is missing all the 1692 summer sermons. A variety of letters, records, and documents from that year have disappeared.

If you could convince these prideful men that they would be forever shamed, I believe they would quickly change their behavior.

If pride and legacy weren’t enough, eternal damnation should get their attention. These Puritan leaders think I was sent by the #1 most powerful guy in the universe: God Almighty.

Honestly, I felt kind of bad being so hard on them, but I needed to speak the language they understood best: fear and reckoning.

Since they should be adequately discouraged from pursuing any witch hunting, the next step is to help them understand the girls’ terrifying afflictions. I gave them a clear medical explanation, which should remove any fear that the devil is at work.

More importantly, I gave them a viable treatment plan to heal the girls from their conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness. Assuming the villagers followed my instructions, the girls should begin to feel better within a short time.

I wrestled with a few other ideas that may or may not work, but at the end of the day, I think this is the plan with the best chance of success. Once the power players got geared up and whipped the community into a frenzy, it would be tough to stop the hysteria.

But if you started early, scared the bejeezus out of them, and offered a simple solution to improve their difficult lives, I believe they would voluntarily take another path.

And the Salem witch trials would disappear from history.

Mass Hysteria Is Hard-Wired Into Our DNA

Salem witch trials: an accused witch uses her magic to throw books at the judges
Salem witch trials: an accused witch uses her magic to throw books at the judges
Baker, Joseph E., ca. 1837–1914, artist., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to look back and judge the Puritans of Massachusetts for their foolish fear of witches.

It turns out that’s the common, first-blush, amateur perspective on the trials, as historian Marilynne K. Roach explained in episode 12 of Unobscured:

Put simply, we’re not so different from the people of Salem Village. Even though we’ve radically changed as a society, the potential for mass delusion is still with us.

In fact, that was a common thread from Unobscured’s six bonus interviews:

The Salem witch trials weren’t an inexplicable, one-time thing from the past. The underlying mechanics of mass hysteria are hard-wired into us.

The historians cited examples such as the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the second red scare of the 1950’s, the “Satanic Panic” of the 1990s, fear of terrorism, and more.

There are endless examples of modern-day mass hysteria. But perhaps the most appropriate is a recent mass psychogenic illness in none other than Danvers, Massachusetts, the town previously known as Salem Village:

In 2011, a similar case occurred in Le Roy, New York, where 18 school children (mostly girls) began showing, “myriad perplexing medical symptoms including verbal outbursts, tics, seizure activity and speech difficulty.”

Mass hysteria is not a thing of the past. It seems to be persistently hard-wired into our DNA. Humans are adept at working together to identify and overcome threats. It’s that very skill that helped us rise to the top of the food chain. In some sense, perhaps mass hysteria is actually an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation. Better to all simultaneously overreact to a non-existent fear than ignore a real impending threat.

That adaptation is the spark that started the fire in Salem Village.

The Salem witch trials stay with us because they were a “perfect storm:” a mass psychogenic illness, encouraged by a group of powerful and influential leaders, and spread by a large sample of stressed-out, vulnerable people primed to partake.

Aaron Mahnke summarized it best in the closing episode of Unobscured:

10 Lessons From the Salem Witch Trials

Salem witch trials: an accused witch pleads with a judge for mercy while her accuser recoils
Salem witch trials: an accused witch pleads with a judge for mercy while her accuser recoils
John Whetton Ehninger , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what are the big takeaway lessons from our deep dive into the Salem witch trials?

I came away with 10 major lessons (although I’m sure there are more):

  1. Fear makes us crazy. When we become intensely afraid, people have a tendency to abandon reason and resort to extreme measures to feel safe.
  2. Nothing escalates human fear faster than a threat to children. Many past and recent mass hysterias center on children that appear to be in danger.
  3. Beware of mass-panic thinking. When you see frantic thinking and behavior, take a step back and sanity check the logic.
  4. The mechanics of mass hysteria are hard-wired into us. We should learn to recognize when we’re participating in a chain reaction of fear.
  5. In a mass hysteria event, look for people who are fanning the flames. If you can get them to stop, it should help stop the spread of fear.
  6. Mass hysteria is often short lived. Once the panic reaches a peak, outside forces often intervene and help restore logic and calm.
  7. When mass panic takes over, sometime it’s best to just walk away from the situation. If you can’t stop the madness, save yourself and vote with your feet until the storm passes.
  8. When people are under extreme stress, it tends to come out in strange ways. There are real physical and social consequences to long-term stress.
  9. People in power sometimes use their position and influence to promote their own agenda, often at the harm of others. Be skeptical of fanatical leaders who stir emotions.
  10. We need a fair and objective justice system. Without one, it’s all too easy to wrongly persecute vulnerable people. And we need to not abandon that system when we get scared.

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