The term witch hunt has been defined as: a searching out for persecution of persons accused of witchcraft. In today's society, we no longer see that term being used for witchcraft but more so politically in a reasoning for harassment.
The most well-known "witch hunt" that took place in the United States was during the spring of 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts. A group of young women claimed that they had been possessed by the Devil and women in their village were practicing witchcraft. This accusation rippled into mass panic throughout the village, leading up to the events we know now as the Salem Witch Trials.
These trials took place during February of 1692 to May of 1693 - resulting in the death of 20 women while over 200 women were accused of practicing witchcraft. While these trials are in the past, we are still being faced with "witch-hunts" to this very day in our modern society.
In 1689, William III and Mary II, English rulers of the time, started a war with France in the American colonies. This was known as King William's War to colonists and it devastated areas around upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. This sent refugees into the country of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Since people from these damaged lands were trying to find a haven, it also resulted in a major decrease in sources for Salem Village. Due to the high amounts of stress created through the village, townsfolk began to grow aggravated with each other. One thing lead to another and soon the Puritan villagers began to believe that this was the work of the Devil.
Since townsfolk were already on edge with one another, it became easier for those to believe that others in town were practicing witchcraft, blaming the accused for anything wrong that came their way - and it didn't stop there. By January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Salem Village's minister, Samuel Parris, were growing sick, and accusations flew through the roof. Parris' daughter, Elizabeth – otherwise known as Betty, and Abigail, began having fits that included violent contortions and screaming outbursts.
A local doctor, William Griggs, diagnosed both girls with bewitchment, along with other young girls in the community showed similar symptoms. These young girls were Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, and Marry Warrant. In late February, arrest warrants were issued for the Parris' Caribbean slave, Tituba, along with two other women–the homeless beggar Sarah Good and the poor, elderly Sarah Osborn–whom the girls accused of bewitching them. The three women that were accused of practicing witchcraft were brought to civilian officers, Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, for questioning.
While Good and Osborn denied that they were witches, Tituba confessed. Tituba described in detail images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds, and a "black man" who wanted her to sign his book. Tituba admitted that she signed the book and said there were several other witches looking to destroy the Puritans. All three women were put in jail.
The thing that truly made the Salem Witch Trials so gut-wrenching were the tests done to the accused. The most well-known tests done were the swimming test, prayer test, and the witch's mark. All tests were done to prove whether or not the accused were really a witch or not, and the tests were usually extremely unfair. When it came to the swimming test, the accused were tied to a chair and thrown into the lake.
It was believed that if you were a witch, you would float, but if you were innocent, you would sink. The majority of the time, it ended with the accused sinking to the bottom of the lake, many not surviving despite the rope tied around their waist. When it came to the prayer test, if the accused slipped even in the slightest way possible, they were deemed a witch and burned to death.
The witch's mark was a flaw on the body that only a "witch" could have, or so the townsfolk thought. If the accused had a mole, scar, extra nipple, or even a birthmark, they were sentenced to death as a witch. As you can see, these tests were extremely unfair and led to far too many deaths that were not needed whatsoever.
The newly appointed governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer (hear and determine) witch cases on May 27th of 1692. This determined the fate of accused witches in Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties. The court consisted of eight judges; Jonathan Corwin, Bartholomew Gedney, John Hathorne, John Richards, William Stoughton (Chief Magistrate), Samuel Sewall, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Peter Sergeant, and Waitstill Winthrop.
The first case this special court had to judge was that of Bridget Bishop, an older woman in town. Bishop was later found guilty and on June 10, the first hanging occurred in what later would be known as Gallows Hill. Five days later, minister Cotton Mather wrote a letter that pleaded the court to not accept testimonies that related around dreams and visions.
The court would not listen and five people were sentenced and hanged in July, five more in August and eight in September. On October 3, following in his son's footsteps, Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, denounced the use of spectral evidence. In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was later found to be unlawful when it came to trials.
While the witch hunt did finally come to an end, the painful memory of those killed lasted forever. Fortunately, the heirs of townsfolk would not have to live the way they had to – suffering to find food and deal with constant accusations over religion and witchcraft. The town never did return to how it originally started, the damage of the trials being too overwhelming for others to ignore but in the end, Salem Village survived the mass hysteria.
We are no longer burning accused "witches" at the stake, yet witch hunts are still a very common thing to this day. In politics, people can become very nasty with one another – targeting anyone that disagrees with their ideas. It is cruel and shows how little we have moved forward in history. We see witch hunts between white officers and innocent black community members, cis-gender men and women targeting transgender men and women, and most of all – our very own president.
Many bystanders could say that these "witch hunts" are nowhere near as cruel as they were back in Salem, but those who are being accused, much like the witches of Salem, are fearing for their lives just like the accused were in the 1600s. History will never die, but it is our job to make sure that we do not repeat the same mistakes from our past.