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