• The Salem Witch Trials

    Have you ever gossiped with friends about someone? One person tells a story about someone and that story seems to grow, whether or not it’s true. Sometimes people are treated unkindly because others believe a story about them.

    In 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, young girls suddenly developed odd symptoms. They had seizures, hid under chairs, talked in gibberish, and ran fevers. They accused several women in their town of being witches. Soon, others were accused and the courtrooms filled with people believed to be witches. Almost 150 people were accused of being witches and 20 were killed.

    Image of The Salem Witch Trials
    Image of The Salem Witch Trials

    Fun Facts

    • The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony followed their religion strictly. Children were not allowed to play games or tell stories. People believed that misfortune was punishment from God for being bad. They also believed the devil was out to get them.
    • These ideas seem strange to us, but remember, the Puritans’ settlement was on the edge of a wild, forested wilderness. There were no street lights so night was very long and very dark. People often died from terrible diseases like smallpox. They were sometimes attacked by Indians. They were often hungry and cold. In other words, they lived in a scary time. Can you understand how they might be superstitious?
    • Betty Parris, daughter of a minister, her cousin, Abigail Williams, and other girls, enjoyed listening to scary stories told by Tituba, Reverend Parris’s Caribbean slave. These stories were prohibited, but the girls listened anyway.
    • In January, the girls began behaving strangely. They had fits, rolling on the floor and screaming. The town doctor said their illness was caused by witches and the devil. In church one evening, one of the girls fell to the ground screaming. Another girl barked like a dog. One flapped her arms like a bird. The people in the village were scared. They asked the girls to tell them who had done this to them. The girls felt pressured, but finally gave the names of three women, including Tituba. Tituba confessed to being a witch and claimed others were working with her.
    • Mass hysteria seized the town. Throughout the summer and fall, the girls accused more people of being witches. Most of the people were outsiders – those who seemed different. But nobody was safe. A four-year-old girl spent months in prison. Even the governor’s wife was accused.
    • Finally, people started doubting the girls’ accusations. The governor stepped in and ordered the trials to stop. Unfortunately, 20 people had already been killed. Four died in prison. The remaining prisoners were released from prison, but their reputations had been destroyed.

    Vocabulary

    1. Gibberish: nonsense words
    2. Forested: covered with forests
    3. Superstitious: one prone to believing in superstitions, which are ideas or stories that are illogical, irrational and ungrounded

    Questions and Answers

    Question: Why would the girls make up such awful stories?

    Answer: Researchers aren’t sure exactly why the Salem Witch Trials occurred. They wonder if the girls were merely bored or felt pressure to make up stories. One theory says that a fungus developed in the wheat that was harvested that year. This fungus, ergot, can cause seizures, odd behavior, or delusions (seeing and hearing things that aren’t there). Eating contaminated bread might have caused the girls’ symptoms, but we don’t know for sure.

    Researchers think that peoples’ fears, strict religious beliefs, and difficult lives made them superstitious and quick to believe the girls’ accusations. At the time, many people in the village were fighting. Farmers fought with town people over money. New settlers didn’t share the original colonists’ religious views. These bad feelings probably also made people quick to believe gossip about their neighbors.

    Learn More

    Visit Discovery Education to learn more about the Salem Witch Trials.

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