The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Despite being generally known as the Salem witch trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in a variety of towns.
A number of young women initiated a community-wide panic revolving around the supposed presence in the village of witches. Various people in Salem Village – mostly women, but also some men – were ultimately charged with witchcraft and after trials, many paid for this accusation with their lives.
A local doctor suggested that the girls were under an “evil hand." The girls had relented under pressure to name their tormenters and identified three women who well fit the usual profile of accused witches: Sarah Good (who was poor and contentious), Sarah Osborne (long widowed and involved in a property dispute), and Tituba, an Indian slave from the Caribbean Basin.
A little ice age around the time of the 1692 Salem witch trials led to crop failures and shortages of fish. It put everyone in a mood to find a scapegoat, says a newly resurfaced 2004 Harvard thesis by economist Emily Oster.
"When crops failed, 'people would have searched for a scapegoat in the face of deadly changes in weather patterns,' Oster wrote. Thus, desperate people traced their troubles to unpopular neighbors and outcasts allied to the devil."
Tituba did herself no favors in debunking the witch accusations leveled at her. She entertained a reverand's children by telling stories of witchcraft and demons. She also told their fortunes.
During the time period of the Salem Witch Trials, many people believed it possible to make deals with the Devil. This was considered a great sin.
The ordeal originated in the home of Salem's Reverend Samuel Parris. Parris had a slave from the Caribbean named Tituba and several of the town's teenage girls began to gather in the kitchen with Tituba early in 1692.
Several of the girls would dance, fall to the floor and scream hysterically. Soon this behavior began to spread across Salem. Ministers from nearby communities came to Salem to lend their advice.
The accused were not saints. The men who were executed were suspected wife beaters. Some of the women practiced folk magic, but their accusers did as well.
A person could become a witch through a pact with the devil. Becoming a witch was also possible if folk methods of magic were possible, such as countermagic and fortune telling.