Truth v. Myth: The Salem Witch Trials

Welcome to part one of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem Witch Trials and the whole witch scare that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. This is perhaps the most famous Puritan moment in American history, the one thing most people think of when they think of the New England Puritans. Usually, it is seen as shocking proof of the damage the Puritans’ hateful religion could do, and serves as a reminder that church and state must be kept separate if justice is to be done.

As a scholar of the Puritans, particularly the Massachusetts Bay Colony group, I spend a lot of time and ink explaining how they actually lived and governed themselves, and I have some sympathy for their experiences, goals, and achievements. The proto-democracy they established was a direct precursor to the full democracy of the United States. And they actually believed firmly in separation of church and state when it came to daily legislation. So I start by noting that the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no popular reaction in New England at the time. It was not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, or condemned as unjust. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself is set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions. This series does not make any claims to being the final word on what happened. But a good round-up of new theories, along with some satisfying myth-busting of old ones, will be good enough work for us.

Next: Setting the scene at Salem

10 thoughts on “Truth v. Myth: The Salem Witch Trials

    1. Have you ever even read the Constitution? I’m sorry to inform you my friend but yes it is in very clear print. I suggest you read the Constitution and come back to us ( ;


      1. The US Constitution states that the Congress (and only the Congress) cannot establish a national religion that the government could extract taxes to support, and the Congress (and only the US Congress) cannot restrict ANY religion. This authority is left up to the citizens of each state, who CAN restrict religion to the degree that their state constitutions allow (for instance, Idaho states in their Constitution that plural marriage is not allowed, no matter if it’s one’s religion).

        The words “wall of separation” were only found at the time of our founding/framing in a letter from a Baptist preacher to Jefferson asking him to get involved in a state matter. The state wanted to establish a religion, which was not Baptist, and the preacher was worried about his freedom of religion. Jefferson said he was unable to act, as there was a wall of separation between the federal government and any church. He could not officially say or do anything in regard to a state enacting a State official religion, which most states had early on.

        Therefore, JDP is correct that it is not in the Constitution. And, we are a constitutional republic, not a democracy, and therefore, JDP is once again correct. One could also call us a representative democracy, but that just means republic.


  1. If memory serves me well, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the witch trials happened due to male government, at the time, wanting sole discretion over the laws and boundaries, etc. -they feared female interference, thus witch trials.


    1. Hello Michael; thanks for writing. Men always had control of legislation and government in puritan New England (as well as everywhere else). Witch trials, as John Demos shows so convincingly in his deeply researched book Entertaining Satan, were usually the result of long-term difficulties between neighbors that finally (after many more odd incidents than you would think would be necessary for someone who believed in spirits) boiled over into accusations of witchcraft that people were willing to take to court rather than just spread around town. Men and women were accused of witchcraft. It’s a fascinating topic that repays study.


    1. I was told (on a tour of Salem, MA) that dead as a door nail, standing room only, turning the tables and
      tow head were all word phrases that were common in early colonial history. The docent gave Salem credit for most of them.
      Any comments?


      1. Hello Joan; thanks for writing. All of those phrases have multiple attributions, and “dead as a doornail” and “turn the tables” go back at least to the 1300s. The other two are less clear. We eagerly invite any linguist-historians to tell us the answers!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s