The mayor of Salem asked tourists to stay away this Halloween due to COVID-19, The New York Post reported. The historic Massachusetts town, most famous for its witch hunt, is usually a popular Halloween destination for visitors. The Salem witch trials claimed 19 lives by hanging.
According to The New York Post, at least one historic haunt is closed for business this Halloween season. “Officials in ‘Witch City’ are begging revelers to stay away this spooky season,” the article said. “Normally, the North Shore city draws 50,000 to 60,000 tourists each weekend day leading up to the holiday […] but because of the coronavirus pandemic, the mayor is shooing visitors away on their broomsticks.”
The Salem witch trials are among the most famous—and eerie—court trials in American history. The hysteria surrounding them began in January 1692 and led to a grim and grisly year for the small Massachusetts town.
A Perfect Storm
By modern standards, the Salem witch trials are an unfathomable miscarriage of justice. Looking at them through the lens of the 17th century, they seem less outlandish—and yet, sadly enough, they still could have been avoided.
“Nothing about it was inevitable,” said Professor Douglas O. Linder, Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. “The Salem tragedy owed itself to a series of unfortunate events: to a Puritan understanding of an active and devious Devil, to an ongoing frontier war, to trying economic conditions, to congregational strife, to teenage rebellion and boredom, and to personal jealousies. There is no simple explanation.”
In January 1692, local minister Samuel Parris’s 9-year-old daughter Betty and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams began acting wildly and misbehaving. Soon, others joined their ranks. The locals’ belief in the Devil as a trickster in their midst—and that he targeted young girls—led them to conclude witchcraft was to blame. Their local physician, William Griggs, and another minister, John Hale, diagnosed the girls officially with witchcraft.
“By late February, 12-year-old Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard, the 16-year-old niece of Dr. Griggs, were also choking, shuddering, and contorting,” Professor Linder said. “Thomas Putnam pressed his daughter: ‘Who is to blame for your behavior?’ Ann supplied three names. And then it began.
“With the prominent Putnam family supporting the hunt for witches, officials had to pay attention.”
How to Make a Witch
If the reasons Professor Linder already mentioned weren’t enough to spin the town into hysteria, the three women named by Ann Putnam as witches did the trick. They were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and an Indian slave named Tituba who was working for Reverend Parris.
“Sarah Good, age 38, lived on the fringe of Salem society,” he said. “She was caustic, a beggar, a social misfit. Even her husband didn’t have anything positive to say about her—he called his wife ‘an enemy to all that is good.'”
Sarah Osborne, the second to be accused, wasn’t much better. Professor Linder said she was “old, quarrelsome, and had not attended church for over a year.” Furthermore, Justice of the Peace John Hathorne pressed Osborne with leading questions such as, “Why have you yielded so far to the Devil as to not go to church?”
Good and Osborne were then stripped naked and examined in private by the wife of a Salem innkeeper. Every mole and birthmark on their bodies was called a witch’s mark, a place where the Devil makes a sign that a human was under his command.
The third defendant, the Indian slave Tituba, feared she may become a scapegoat. While she denied any wrongdoing at first, she gave into her fears and wove tales she thought would lessen her punishment.
“Yes, Tituba declared, she was a witch,” Professor Linder said. “In fact, she and four other witches, including Good and Osborne, had flown through the air on their poles. But she was a reluctant witch: When Good and Osborne ordered her to kill Thomas Putnam’s son, she tried to run to Reverend Parris for counsel, but the Devil blocked her path. And when Tituba resisted Sarah Good’s demand that she torture girls in the Parris home, she was struck deaf.”
It worked. Tituba was later released, while Good was hanged and Osborne died in prison. Unfortunately, all this was only the beginning of the Salem witch trials.
Professor Douglas O. Linder, JD, contributed to this article. Professor Linder is the Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. He graduated summa cum laude from Gustavus Adolphus College and from Stanford Law School.