Eighty-four years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the United States of America was still the United Colonies of America, a series of hearings occurred that came to be known as the Salem Witch Trials. By the time the trials were over, 19 people had been hanged, 5 died in prison (including an infant), and 1 was pressed to death. All of the accused were innocent.
In 1692, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy, a form of government in which a deity is considered the supreme civil ruler, with the deity’s laws being interpreted by the religious authorities. The official religion practiced in the colony was a very strict, repressive form of Christianity known as Puritanism. Believing in and practicing anything other than Puritanism was considered a capital offense, punishable by death. Among other things, the Puritans believed that active demonic forces existed, just waiting to possess them, and that witches were in league with those demons.
At this time, there was a lot of tension between the two parts of Salem – Salem Town (the coastal area known today as Salem) and Salem Village (known today as Danvers). There was an intense rivalry between the two leading families and their supporters; the Porters were connected to the wealthy port of Salem Town, while the Putnams were farmers of Salem Village. Grazing rights, property lines, and church privileges were always being disputed. In addition, England’s recent war with France had brought refugees to Salem Village, straining the community’s resources. Finally, Salem Village’s very first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, had become a controversial figure due to his extreme rigidity. He regularly punished his parishioners publicly for the smallest infractions. The villagers believed that all of this conflict and bickering was the work of the Devil.
The incident that started it all happened in January of 1692. Reverend Parris’ 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and his 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, began acting strangely. They would scream, throw things around the room, make odd noises, crawl under furniture, and contort their bodies, insisting that they were being pinched and poked with pins. The girls would have these “fits” wherever they happened to be, including the obligatory 3-hour sermons every Wednesday and Sunday. The family doctor, William Griggs, couldn’t find evidence of any physical illness, and suggested witchcraft as a possible cause. Soon after, Dr. Griggs’ own grandniece and adopted daughter, Elizabeth Hubbard (age 17), began to exhibit the same symptoms. Twelve-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., followed suit a few weeks later. What happened next would not only change Salem forever, but America as well.