Though the Salem witch trials were far from the only persecutions over witchcraft in 17th-century colonial America, they loom the largest in public consciousness and popular culture today. Over the course of several months in 1692, a total of between 144 and 185 women, children and men were accused of witchcraft, and 19 were executed after local courts found them guilty.
As the witch panic spread throughout the region that year, increasing numbers of people became involved with the trials—as accusers, the accused, local government officials, clergymen, and members of the courts.
What was happening in late 17th-century Massachusetts that prompted widespread community participation, and set the stage for the trials? Here are five factors behind how accusations of witchcraft escalated to the point of mass hysteria, resulting in the Salem witch trials.
1. Idea of Witchcraft as a Threat Was Brought From England
By the time the Salem witch trials began in 1692, the legal tradition of trying people suspected of practicing witchcraft had been well-established in Europe, where the persecution of witches took place from roughly the 15th through 17th centuries.
“Salem came at the tail end of a period of witch persecutions in Europe, just as the Enlightenment took hold,” says Lucile Scott, journalist and author of An American Covenant: A Story of Women, Mysticism and the Making of Modern America. “The English colonists imported these ideas of a witch to America with them, and prior to the events in Salem, [many] people had been indicted for witchcraft in [other parts of] New England.”
The accusations in Salem began in early 1692, when two girls, ages nine and 11, came down with a mysterious illness. “They were sick for about a month before their parents brought in a doctor, who concluded that it looked like witchcraft,” says Rachel Christ-Doane, the director of education at the Salem Witch Museum.
Looking back from the 21st century, it may seem unthinkable that a doctor would point to witchcraft as the cause of a patient’s illness, but Scott says that it was considered a legitimate diagnosis at the time.
“It’s hard for us to understand how real the devil and witches and the threat they posed were to the Puritans—or how important,” she explains. “Witchcraft was the second capital crime listed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s criminal code.”
2. Puritan Worldview Was Mainstream
When the Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, the first governor, John Winthrop, delivered a sermon famously proclaiming the colony “a Citty [sic] upon a Hill”—in this case, meaning a model Christian society with no separation of church and state. But as growing numbers of Quakers and Christians of other denominations arrived in Massachusetts, it became more religiously diverse.
“By the 1690s, God-fearing Puritans represented a smaller proportion of the population of New England than at any point in the 17th century,” says Kathleen M. Brown, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. “Even though percentage-wise, the Puritan influence was weaker than it had been earlier in the century, it was still leaving a big imprint on society.”
This included mainstream acceptance of Providence: the Puritans’ belief that the events of everyday life on Earth happened in accordance with God’s will.
“This was particularly true when they were talking about the fate of colonial settlements in the land grab, or disease epidemics that would sweep through and kill people, or a terrible storm,” Brown explains. “Providence, along with the notion that there was evil at work through Satan—[including] through the activities of witches who might turn to the devil to exert supernatural power—informed the way Puritans understood the natural world and the spiritual world.”
Similarly, despite their waning power, the Puritans’ societal structure remained firmly in place when the Salem witch trials began. “The Puritan colony was a very patriarchal and hierarchical place,” Scott says, noting that this included the view that people, particularly women, who stepped outside of their prescribed roles in society were looked upon with suspicion.
3. Accusations Didn’t Follow the Usual Patterns
Though accusations of witchcraft themselves weren’t out of the ordinary in colonial New England, those made in Salem in 1692 stood out, likely contributing to the panic that spread throughout the community.
“Witchcraft accusations normally happened quite sporadically and in some isolation,” Brown explains. “They rarely snowballed into a mass accusation with increasing numbers of people accusing and being accused.”
“If you look at the larger history of witchcraft, not just in North America, but in England and Scotland, usually men are the accusers of witches, especially in an outbreak,” says Brown, whose latest book Undoing Slavery: Bodies, Race, and Rights in the Age of Abolition was published in February 2023. “You don't really ever get girls and young women doing the accusations: that's actually anomalous for Salem.”
Though theories abound, there is still no consensus as to why girls and young women became the central accusers, she notes.
When a rare witchcraft outbreak did occur, Brown says that it broadened the scope of who might qualify as a potential witch. “More people would fall into the category of ‘accused witch,’ and more people jumped on the bandwagon of accusation,” she notes.
As the trials wore on, no one was exempt from suspicion. “At a certain point, accusations in Salem flew so freely, anyone, no matter their Puritan purity, might find themselves facing the gallows,” Scott says.
4. Decades of Ongoing Violence Had Taken a Toll
When the Salem witch trials began in 1692, King Philip’s War, also known as Metacom’s Rebellion, was still fresh in the minds of the colonial settlers. The Native Americans’ last-ditch attempt to stop English colonization of their land officially concluded in 1676, but the violent conflict and bloodshed had never ended on the northern border of the Massachusetts colony.
“The colonial settlers were still encroaching on land that had been in the hands of Native Americans for thousands of years, and Native peoples were hitting back,” Brown explains. “It wasn’t hard for Massachusetts Puritans to think about the devil embodied in what the Native Americans were doing, because they're not Christian, they’re in a mortal combat with Puritan Christianity and the whole colonial settler enterprise, and the Massachusetts Puritans really believed in their own divine mission.”
Along the same lines, when the colony’s leaders reflected on the poor job they had done defending its northern boundary, Brown says that it’s not much of a stretch to think that they understood it all to mean that God was trying to tell them something, and “doesn't seem to be very happy.”
5. Accusations Came at Time of Political Uncertainty
It would have been one thing for the Puritans to view the contagion of both the mysterious illness spreading amongst the young women of Salem, and the subsequent accusations of witchcraft, as a sign that God is angry and the devil is at work. However, as Brown points out, in order for those accusations to gain the kind of traction they had in Salem—making it to trial, and, eventually, imprisoning and executing people—there had to be widespread buy-in from public officials.
“You need ministers saying, ‘Yes, these are signs of the devil in our midst,’” Brown explains. “You need magistrates doing interrogations and deciding to lock people up in jail and put them on trial. You need judges who are willing to believe the spectral evidence. You need all of the official apparatus of government and of justice to be on board with it to produce the kind of outcome you get at Salem.”
According to some scholars, most notably, historian Mary Beth Norton, local leaders in Salem were so receptive to the accusations of witchcraft, and on board with implementing draconian laws and policies in part because of the precariousness of the Massachusetts colonial settlement at that time.
High-ranking Puritans were concerned about their church’s dwindling numbers. “By the time [the Salem witch trials] take place, the Puritans are less dominant politically, religiously [and] culturally,” Brown explains.
The final decades of the 17th century were a time of political uncertainty in Salem as well. In 1684, King Charles II of England revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter. Seven years later, the new ruling monarchs, King William III and Queen Mary II, issued a new charter establishing the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and, at the urging of influential Puritan clergyman Increase Mather, appointed Maine-born William Phips governor of the colony.
By the time Mather and Phips returned to Massachusetts with the new charter in May 1692, Salem’s jails were already filled with people accused of practicing witchcraft.
“You can make the argument that the legal system [in place prior to May 1692] made it possible for the witch trials to happen,” says Christ-Doane. “They [didn’t] have a charter, and their courts were dysfunctional, and that allows them to make unusual procedural decisions that lead to so many people being convicted of witchcraft.”
This included relying heavily, and sometimes exclusively, on spectral evidence—or, testimony from witnesses claiming that the accused person appeared to them and caused them harm in a vision or dream—even though it was widely considered unacceptable in legal practice at the time.
According to Brown, the legal situation didn’t improve when Phips took over. “Phipps, as governor, was a gatekeeper for certain judicial processes,” she explains. This included establishing the Court of Oyer and Terminer on May 27, 1692, specifically to try people accused of witchcraft. “That was the beginning of the convictions and the executions,” Brown adds.