In January of 1692, two little girls, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, started exhibiting bizarre symptoms like contorting and screaming randomly. These strange behaviors spread to other girls in Salem. Local Doctor William Griggs diagnosed these children as victims of bewitchment. Reverend Samuel Parris pressured his daughter, niece, and their friends to identify these devil-worshippers who had cursed them. The girls accused Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba.
Witchcraft was a severe crime. By accusing these women of it, these girls and adults set off a deadly chain of events that came to be known as the Salem Witch Trials.
Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials was a roughly year-long period of mass hysteria. Incensed by the idea witches were among them, townsfolk turned on each other, killing 20 of their own neighbors.
Modern-day towns of Salem and Danvers had plenty to be fearful of in 1692. There was an ongoing smallpox epidemic, tensions with neighboring towns and Native American villages, and the aftermath of the Nine Years’ War between the British and the French to deal with. The townspeople were facing complicated, debilitating problems that weren't going to get solved any time soon.
Salem wanted a black-and-white problem to solve, which is partially why no one spoke out against the flimsy accusations against Good, Osborne, and Tituba. Also, people were primed to take the children's side. Because of outgroup bias, people tend to perceive those not in "our group" more negatively. These Salem women were certainly outsiders. Tituba had likely lived in the West Indies before she had been enslaved. Her race and culture were different from the town’s standard of normal. Sarah Osborne was a wealthy widow who remarried below her class. She was known to skip church sometimes due to her poor health and was involved in an ongoing legal dispute over land rights. Sarah Good was homeless, pregnant, and forced to beg to survive. All it took were a few important people to point their fingers, and everyone vocalized their personal biases and cemented the idea that these women were guilty.
Osborne died while imprisoned, Good was found guilty and hanged, but Tituba's life was spared. Unlike Good and Osborne, Tituba confessed to the act of witchcraft. During the trial, she played along with the children, declaring that Good, Osborne, and herself had signed a deal with the devil, and more witches were living in Salem. This bid likely saved her life, but did nothing to quell the brewing hysteria. Her confession led to more accusals, which led to more accusations, and so on.
For the 200 people accused, there was no good option. Pleading guilty lost you and your family all your property, so even if the court decided to spare your life, you were marked as a social outcast with no means to support yourself. Pleading innocent, no matter what evidence you produced, would likely get you found guilty and hanged anyway. If you were indecisive, you might die from torture or the terrible prison environment. Giles Corey, who refused to enter a plea, was pressed to death with stones - a common way of forcing the "witches" to out themselves.
Overall, 19 people were hanged. There wasn't one event that ended the Salem Witch Trials. Rather, support for them slowly died out. People began to point out the lack of concrete evidence in vigor and sympathize with victims, and the loss of public support meant fewer accusations. By 1693, people collectively agreed that the trials were faulty, and there was a day of fasting to commemorate the innocent people who were killed.
Throughout history, people have been suspicious of and subsequently hostile to those that don't "fit in." Personal biases like those in the Salem Witch Trials have led to many terrible accusations and deaths of innocent people simply because they lived outside the social norm. There were many other witch-hunts beyond Salem. Witch trials and subsequent deaths occurred in England, as well as in Poland, Sweden, Scotland, and even other areas of the United States.
While most people don't go around accusing others of witchcraft today, witch-hunts still happen. Think how many authorities have pointed to "those darn immigrants" as the root of social woes. They crashed the economy, ruined the job market, and corrupted the youth - doesn't sound too far off from "practitioners of devil magics," does it? We present flimsy stereotypes and biases as evidence and then ostracize and even kill people for fabricated wrongs.
Make sure to examine your personal biases. It's important to investigate why you think negatively of someone. Would you judge a fellow classmate as harshly over a well-meaning mistake if they had a nicer appearance? Are you too caught up in your feud with your teammate to notice that they're actually giving some good advice? There will always be people who have a different race, religion, political affiliation, or appearance from you. Look past your biases and give people a chance. It's possible they're only outcasts because you never let them in.