Imagine being four years old. Your parents are unstable both financially and mentally, making your homelife chaotic, and your mother is pregnant again. You suffer housing insecurity and food insecurity in your small religiously conservative town of about 600 people where you encounter more judgment than compassion. The three of you are outcasts, judged for your poorness, and both your parents are forced to beg for work, food, and places to stay. The older children scorn you and tease you and make you a target for their own attention-seeking entertainment. You know nothing beyond the hunger and cold caused by your parents’ fates, but it’s about to get much worse for you.
On March first your mother is jailed for being a witch. On March twenty-fourth you are imprisoned with her for the same crime. They interrogate you about your mother relentlessly, using your forced testimony to justify sentencing her to die once her next baby is born. You are with your mother in jail when your baby sister is born. You are with her in jail when your baby sister dies. On July 19th you are left behind in your child-sized shackles when adults – supposedly intelligent, educated, well-regarded adults – lead your mother and others to the gallows.
You were never indicted but your father struggled to collect the $50 fee owed for the expense of your imprisonment, and you could not leave until he paid. Your birthday comes and goes, and at the age of five you are finally released from jail on December tenth, nine months after being arrested. You were released but your life is never recovered, and you are driven insane by the events of your childhood. You die at the young age of sixteen, still in the same small town where your childhood was destroyed, never able to escape any of the nightmare you suffered through.
200 people, over 30% of your community, were charged as witches during your incarceration. They were targeted with zero evidence, only hysterical performances by children encouraged by selfish adults. At least five people died from the conditions in the jail you were housed in. Nineteen of the accused, including your mother, were hanged. An eighty-one-year-old man was crushed to death under heavy stones for refusing to confess to being in league with the devil.
There was never true evidence of occult practices in Salem. Most of the accused were devoutly religious people, in line with the rest of their community. Out of an abundance of coincidence, the accused were involved in political or family disputes or were part of the fringe outcasts of society. The world knows about the Hatfields and McCoys, but the bitter dispute between the Putnums and the Porters was disguised as a holy war against the devil himself with the help of a Reverend, and their enemies paid the price. Some of the accused owed money to the accusers, some owned desirable land that couldn’t be pried away if they were living. Only after the governor’s wife was called a witch, did they decide it had gone too far and the trials and the hangings stopped in Salem.
Once the frenzy died down, the accusers went on to claim it was they themselves who had been taken over by the devil. It was easier to say “The devil made me do it” than it was to admit the witch hunt they’d participated in was a farse they could have prevented. Not one of them faced a trial of their own despite the number of deaths they caused. The town eventually issued an apology and made a poor attempt at pardons and reparations. Your father was paid $30 eighteen years after his wife’s murder, $20 less than he paid to get his daughter out of jail.
Now imagine, over three hundred years later, your life and deaths of the accused in Salem are nothing more than a lure to various tourist traps. The list of things to do in Salem is dotted with “witch tours”, and kitschy slogans cover everything from home decor to t-shirts. The accused remain stand-ins for occultism they never followed, and actual Pagan practitioners have their beliefs tied to times of religious persecution and mocked as a source of dark entertainment.
We still refer to the events as the “witch trials” instead of what they really were, a true witch hunt. A search for imaginary criminals guilty of imaginary crimes spurred on by greed and hate. Even the term “witch hunt” has lost its importance, and people throw it around in modern day without acknowledging the devastating origins. The witch hunts happened as part of a larger cultural shift to further silence women and it was successful in many ways. For 300 years around the globe the crime of being a witch was used against those who were different or in the way. Estimates range from as high as nine million people murdered down to 40,000, due to bad recordkeeping, but everyone agrees roughly 80 percent of the accused and murdered were women and girls.
There is an element of the imaginary when people talk about the witch hunts. We make jokes and cutesy signs linking witches to Salem, and linking Salem to fall festivities even though the events themselves did not occur near Halloween. Like so many other points in history where the truth is ugly, we sweep aside reality to make it palatable that real people were murdered in the guise of lawful execution, and they were murdered because they were different. In the early years of the witch hunts all it took was three neighbors to agree that the accused was a witch to convince those in charge. Three contrary neighbors could cost you your life.
While Salem was not the first nor the last time people used religion, mental health, or financial status to rid themselves of those they didn’t like, it is one we continue to make light of. The fictionalized account of witchcraft is overwhelming when it comes to Salem, erasing the reality of who the victims were and what was done to them and their families. To think about a town running out a few warty-nosed crones is much easier to profit from than the fact that a town had child-sized shackles made to imprison a toddler. So, next time you see a t-shirt for the “Salem Broom Company”, or a little witch knocks on your door for a treat, take a moment to remember little Dorothy Good, and the thousands of others who were murdered by people disguising themselves as the devil.