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Colonial Period

Salem Witchcraft Trials

Trials of the early colonial justice systems often dramatically reflected how different the world of the colonists was from American society in later centuries. The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 is perhaps the most infamous event to highlight these differences. Belief in magic and witchcraft was widespread in the 1600s. Witchcraft, which people believed represented direct human contact with the devil, was one of the most serious crimes in the early colonies. A series of misfortunes—fires, epidemics, costly battles with Indians—affected Massachusetts colonists in the 1670s, 1680s, and early 1690s. The settlers began looking for what was causing such misery.

When a number of persons began exhibiting odd behavior described as screaming, trances, and seizures, the people decided they were cursed or under the spell of witches. Settlers would also explain the sudden death of livestock to witch curses. They believed witches were responsible for bringing God's wrath upon their settlements. An effort to rid the region of these supposed witches led to 154 trials throughout Massachusetts beginning in the spring of 1692. Because of a large number of trials in the village of Salem, they became known as the Salem Witchcraft Trials.

Based on testimony by respected citizens who claimed to have been placed under spells and tortured by visions created by accused, a number of the men and women on trial for witchcraft were convicted. Nineteen of those convicted were executed, including thirteen women. Ten of the executions took place in Salem. Four others died in prison, and one person was crushed to death by rocks for refusing to respond during questioning.

After several months of trials citizens grew uncomfortable with what was unfolding in their communities. The special witchcraft trials were finally halted in late October. In addition, new laws were passed more precisely defining "witchcraft behavior" and what kinds of conduct were subject to arrest and prosecution. Although a few accusations continued, most were dismissed. Witchcraft trials disappeared in the early 1700s.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawColonial Period - European Settlement Of North America, Factors Influencing Early Colonial Law, Differences From The English Criminal Justice System