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Were Witches Burned at the Stake During the Salem Witch Trials?

Ouissal Harize Ouissal Harize
3rd October 2023
Were Witches Burned at the Stake During the Salem Witch Trials?
The accused were not burned at the stake during the Salem witch trials (Getty)

The harrowing chapters of the Salem witch trials were scripted in 1692 in the Puritan settlement of Salem, now part of Massachusetts. A complex interplay of religious zeal, economic strife, and internal discord marked this era, leading to unusual and unexplainable behaviors amongst several young girls in Salem Village. When conventional medical wisdom failed to diagnose, attributions promptly veered towards the paranormal, and allegations of witchcraft and sorcery engulfed numerous villagers.

The sinister tales from the Salem witch trials weave a complex narrative, deeply entwined with the sociopolitical and economic tensions of the era. This was a time when societal and familial animosities were seamlessly conflated with supernatural beliefs, resulting in a deadly concoction of fear, accusation, and persecution. Trapped within this tumultuous vortex, countless individuals, primarily women, faced horrendous accusations of engaging in witchcraft and subsequently, confronted brutal punishments, often culminating in death.

When recalling the Salem witch trials, people often envision the accused—who were allegedly involved in witchcraft—meeting their demise through fiery executions. With the Halloween season kicking off, social media users are actively posting about witches who were burned at the stake in Salem.

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This notion, more embedded in fiction than in factual historicity, remains pervasive due to widespread misconceptions perpetuated by popular culture

What Happened During the Salem Witch Trials?

Ever since medieval and early modern times, several societies were shrouded in the chilling tales of witches. Predominantly, Christianity, among other religions, propagated the belief that the devil could bestow individuals, primarily recognized as witches, with the power to inflict harm upon others in exchange for unwavering loyalty. This gave rise to a turbulent wave of “witchcraft hysteria,” which tormented Europe from the 1300s through the late 1600s. A staggering number of alleged witches, overwhelmingly women, faced ruthless execution. However, when the Salem trials unfolded, the European frenzy was on the brink of dissolution, with local factors contributing to their emergence.

In 1689, the commencement of a brutal conflict was witnessed as English rulers William and Mary ignited a war with France on the fertile grounds of the American colonies. To the settlers, it was recognized as King William’s War, which devastated areas such as upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. Consequently, this unleashed a flood of refugees into Essex County and, more notably, Salem Village, located within the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Notably, contemporary Danvers, Massachusetts was once Salem Village, while colonial Salem Town transformed into the modern-day Salem.

The influx of displaced individuals drastically strained Salem’s resources, fueling the existing rivalry between families associated with the prosperous port of Salem and those reliant on farming. Furthermore, the arrival of Reverend Samuel Parris as Salem Village’s inaugural ordained minister in 1689 introduced additional controversy. Known for his stringent practices and avaricious demeanor, Parris found himself amidst the villagers' belief that their disputes were manipulated by the devil's sinister hand.

In a chilling turn of events in January 1692, young Elizabeth Parris (often referred to as Betty), merely 9 years old, and her cousin Abigail Williams, 11, began exhibiting bewildering and terrifying "fits." The girls unleashed screams, hurled objects, produced bizarre noises, and twisted their bodies into unnatural shapes. A local physician attributed their disturbing condition to supernatural influences. Soon, 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr. displayed similar disturbing occurrences.

Fast forwarding to February 29 of the same year, the girls, now under the formidable pressure of magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne (officials adjudicating local cases), pointed their accusing fingers towards three women. The accused comprised Tituba, a Caribbean woman enslaved by the Parris family; Sarah Good, an impoverished beggar, and Sarah Osborne, a destitute elderly woman. They were proclaimed to be the source of the girls' dreadful afflictions.

What Happened to the Alleged Witches in Salem?

While over 200 souls were ensnared in accusations of engaging in witchcraft—allegedly a diabolic pact—20 met poignant fates. However, contrary to prevailing beliefs, none of them was burned at the stake. According to historical archives, 19 succumbed to execution by hanging, Giles Corey experienced a torturous death by pressing due to his refusal to plea, and several languished and perished in incarceration, pending trial.

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Martha Corey (c1627-1692) was one of the accused at the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Found guilty, she was executed by hanging (Getty)

People commonly believe witches were burned during the witch trials because of misleading details from European witch trials, where burning was a usual punishment. This belief has been strengthened by historical errors and overly simplified accounts in literature. However, unlike the European witch trials, execution by fire was not used in Salem.

Popular culture has been pivotal in reshaping societal recollections of the Salem witch trials. The infusion of inaccurate representations in movies, television series, novels, and plays has deeply ingrained erroneous narratives, especially the fictitious depiction of witch burnings in Salem, into societal memory.

For example, while “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller is a literary masterpiece, it inadvertently amplified misinformation through its amalgamation of historical elements and dramatic exaggerations. The recurrent theme of witch burning in horror genres and Halloween portrayals further etches this incorrect portrayal into collective consciousness.

These distortions culminate in dual repercussions. They not only veil the authentic understanding of the historical events but also diminish the actual agony and injustices endured by the accused, transforming their tribulations into sensationalized and distorted imagery.

The European Witch Hunts

In order to paint a comprehensive picture of witch trials, it is important to venture beyond Salem and delve into the extensive European witch hunts that unfolded between the 15th and 18th centuries. These hunts were spurred by a pervasive fear of witchcraft, believed to be a manifestation of heresy and a tangible pact with the Devil. Widespread paranoia, coupled with religious and social upheavals, fueled the frenzied pursuit of alleged witches across Europe.

Execution methods varied across different regions, but burning was prevalent, symbolizing the purification of the malevolent presence. These witch hunts were characterized by intense interrogations, brutal torture methods to extract confessions, and subsequent public executions. The European witch hunts epitomize the rampant hysteria and deep-seated superstitions of the time, resulting in the persecution and death of thousands, predominantly women.

Joan of Arc, an emblematic figure in history, provides a poignant illustration of the horrifying fate of supposed witches in medieval times. Born in 1412 in Domrémy, France, Joan played a crucial role during the Hundred Years’ War, claiming divine guidance in her support for Charles VII. However, her extraordinary journey met a tragic end as she was captured, tried for a myriad of charges including witchcraft, and ultimately, burned at the stake in 1431. Joan’s execution underscores the grim realities of the era and serves as a somber reminder of the profound consequences of societal prejudices and religious extremities.

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CIRCA 1800: Joan of Arc 1412 1431 aka Jeanne d Arc or Jeanne la Pucelle French heroine (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

“Malleus Maleficarum”: The Hammer of Witches and Its Influences

The “Malleus Maleficarum,” also known as “The Hammer of Witches,” played a pivotal role in shaping perceptions and protocols related to witchcraft during the European witch hunts. Authored in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, this manual received endorsement from the Catholic Church and served as a guide for identifying, interrogating, and prosecuting suspected witches.

The text posited witchcraft as a grave heresy and emphasized the purported dangers of witches, especially focusing on their alleged abilities to cause harm and form pacts with the Devil. The “Malleus Maleficarum” legitimized the belief in witchcraft and further propagated the fear and persecution of those accused of practicing it, intensifying the widespread witch hunts across Europe. This text illustrates how profoundly written works can influence societal norms, legal practices, and individual fates by instigating and perpetuating harmful beliefs and methodologies.

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Joseph Glanvill's 1700 wordcuts 'Saducismus Triumphatus' aim to depict a rebuttal to any skepticism about the existence of witchcraft (Joseph Glanvill/New-York Historical Society)

The Salem witch trials have permeated our collective memory, often mirroring back at us through the distorted lens crafted by centuries of myth, misinformation, and cinematic embellishment. The tales of witches being burned at the stake in Salem persist in popular discourse, even as the historical record clearly attests to a different, albeit still tragic, reality. A reality in which no witch was burned in Salem, where the condemned met their demise through hanging, pressing, or the languishing stagnation of imprisonment. 

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