From June 1692 until October 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts a special court, called the The Court of Oyer and Terminer, was set up to try people charged with witchcraft. Previously in New England witch trials had been rare occurrences, but that year over one hundred and fifty people had been arrested and twenty were put to death by the court. The trials were later ended by the governor of the colony as it become apparent that injustices had been carried out.
Most people, or at least most Americans, know something about the trials and there is no shortage of theories about why they began and why they ended. They have often been explained as being the result of tainted food causing hallucinations or of a particular Puritan obsession with sin and the devil. However, these explanations fail to satisfy. There is no particular reason to suspect that ergot was responsible for the outbreak of accusations and this theory, a favorite of armchair historians, is generally not acceptable by serious historians as being a major contributor, or even a minor one, to the events that year in Salem. As for the nature of Puritanism itself, unlike other religions, it was not especially mystical or obsessed with fantastical religious occurrences and experiences. There are no reports of religious visitations by saints or gods as is common in other faiths, such as Catholicism. If anything, Puritans tended to be more grounded in the physical world and were concerned about ways to make it better.
That is essentially what makes the witch trials so odd. The Puritans had in a previous generation overthrown the superstitious myth of the divine right of kings, abolished the secret trials of the Star Chamber, outlawed torture in all cases, and had established some level of religious tolerance previously unknown in recent memory in Britain. And while modern Americans and Britons would certainly not feel comfortable living under their Puritan regime, these were not wild-eyed religious zealots, but rather thoughtful men who actually believed in the concepts of justice and law.
The very idea of witch trials would seem absurd to use in the west in the 21st century, but that was not the case in 17th century America. These were men of the pre-enlightenment. They were men of their times. They did not invent the concept of witchcraft. Witchcraft is the world's oldest religion, if one can call it that, and its use to do harm was condemned by all of antiquity. Judaism expressly forbade the use of any divination or witchcraft, whether for good or evil, on the pain of death. Witch trials and persecutions were not unique to the Puritans and were carried out on a much greater scale in Europe, mainly by Catholics and Lutherans. Puritans in New England did not have a history of actively seeking out alleged witches, but only took action when there was an alleged victim.
Prior to the outbreak of the witch trials in Salem, prosecutions were very rare. First, one normally had to have a complaining victim. Although the mere act of forming a Satanic covenant or conjuring spirits was illegal as it had been since the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which was passed under the reign of James I who had a particular obsession with witches (previous laws under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I required a victim or some harm), the authorities did not do stings in order to uncover people practicing witchcraft in the privacy of their homes. Such intrusions into the personal lives of citizens at the time would have been viewed as absurd and tyrannical. And even if a victim did come forward, convictions were hard to obtain. It had been the established rule in English law that in order to convict the court would need the testimony of two witnesses to an act or acts of witchcraft or the confession of the alleged witch, not under duress, along with some other evidence. Acquittals for witchcraft were more common than convictions.
It would be a mistake to argue that there was or is no such thing as witchcraft. The historical record is clear that there were some people who engaged in everything from holistic medicine, divination, the use of of charms, and the cursing of others which often would produce psychosomatic illness in the person if he or she believed in the power of such things. As I argued in my book, Justice at Salem, there were undoubtedly people who were happy to gain a reputation as a suspected witch in order to gain some power over others. Again since convictions, or even charges, were rare, no one in New England would have much to fear from others thinking that he or she might be a witch.
Unfortunately, the Puritans of 1692 weren't much different than us. Circumstances had changed, fears had taken hold, and in their war against evil, the law and justice became victims. I do not think that one can ignore the role that the "early New England 9/11" (as I call it) of the Candlemas Massacre played in the start of the witch trials. During King William's War in January 1692 in the small town of York, Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts, came under attack from native tribes. One hundred or so villagers were murdered, the town was burned to the ground, and the survivor were taken off in bondage, although later freed. These traumatic events, and the other conflicts with the Indians (and French), were well known to the people of Salem. It didn't matter that even more serious crimes against the Indians had been committed by European and British settlers. The Indian lives mattered less to them. The attack against York would not have been seen in any context, but rather just as a Satanic act of terror. They believed that the Indians worshiped the Devil, so when accusations of witchcraft were later made against an Indian slave in Salem and she apparently freely confessed and offered lurid details of her actions, the worst fears of the people appeared to be coming true.
And it is worth noting that by all accounts the average people in Salem were strong supporters of the witch trials and were not troubled by the dropping of the legal standard of two witnesses in order to get convictions. Neither were they bothered by the use of torture, or what the Bush regime would call enhanced interrogation, in order to get convictions from suspected witches. They knew the witches were guilty so all of this was justified. Spectral evidence, previously insufficient to even bring charges, was happily used by judges and jurors to send innocent people to their deaths. In their defense, there was a real fear that the very existence of their community was in threat, from a combination of witches and Indians aligned with the devil. There is no doubt that the external threat from Indians and others was real and was serious. The fact that Tituba, the Indian slave, had confessed and the fact that there appeared to be a strong case against the Reverend George Burroughs, who may have had some Indian blood in him or at least was dark skinned, certainly left little doubt in the minds of most that this was a serious threat.
What is forgotten by many is that most of the Puritan religious leaders were skeptical that there was a serious outbreak of witchcraft and urged moderation. One of the reasons for the ending of the trials, it is speculated, was the publication of a book by the Reverend Mr. Increase Mather called Cases of Conscience concerning evil spirits personating men, Witchcrafts, infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are accused with that Crime where he argued that "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be Condemned." Mather expressly rejected the idea of convicting people on mere spectral evidence, the testimony that one's image was tormenting others, and instead argued for the return of the previous standard which required actual evidence.
The Puritans took only a few mere months to wake up and to reject the idea that it was better to sacrifice justice and the law in order to achieve security. Even in the midst of threatening times they realized that the witch trials had been a serious mistake. Most of the people involved, including one judge and all of the jurors, later expressed regret and remorse for their actions. Many of the accusers also later asked for forgiveness as well. The people of early New England were not monsters, but rather decent people who acted out of fear, instead of rationality. But it did not take long for them to realize that their civilization was not worth defending if it had to resort to torture, the use of questionable evidence, and abolishment of their legal traditions. One wonders when we will do the same.