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Salem Witch Trials

One of the trials in Salem where a witch is being prosecuted.

The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, fourteen of them women, and all but one by hanging. Five others (including two infant children) died in prison. Once the witches were brought to the trial, they would cut off their hair completely as they believed that a witch gains incredible power from her hair.

Twelve other women had previously been executed in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 17th century. Despite being generally known as the Salem Witch Trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in several towns: Salem Village (now Danvers), Salem Town, Ipswich, and Andover. The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town.

It began in Salem Village, February 1692, with two girls by the name of Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece, respectively, of Reverend Samuel Parris, began to have fits described as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect" by John Hale, the minister of the nearby town of Beverly. The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions, according to the eyewitness account of Rev. Deodat Lawson, a former minister in Salem Village.

The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. A doctor, historically assumed to be William Griggs, could find no physical evidence of any ailment. Other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviors. When Lawson preached as a guest in the Salem Village meetinghouse, he was interrupted several times by outbursts of the afflicted. The village people quickly concluded that these girls were being tormented by the Devil and that he was summoned by a group of witches. And after this conclusion, the people of Salem began the Witch Hunt where they would track down the witches that were supposedly responsible for this crime and punish them severely.

The first three people accused and arrested for allegedly afflicting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard, were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Some historians believe that the accusation by Ann Putnam Jr. suggests that a family feud may have been a major cause of the witch trials. At the time, a vicious rivalry was underway between the Putnam and Porter families, one which deeply polarized the people of Salem. Citizens would often have heated debates, which escalated into full-fledged fighting, based solely on their opinion of the feud.

At the 300th anniversary events in 1992 to commemorate the victims of the trials, a park was dedicated in Salem and a memorial in Danvers. In November 2001, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act exonerating all of those convicted and listing them by name, including some persons left out of earlier actions. In January 2016, the University of Virginia announced its Gallows Hill Project team had determined the execution site in Salem, where the nineteen "witches" had been hanged. The city owns the site and is planning a memorial to the victims.

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