In January 1692, a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts became consumed by disturbing “fits” accompanied by seizures, violent contortions and bloodcurdling screams. A doctor diagnosed the children as being victims of black magic, and over the next several months, allegations of witchcraft spread like a virus through the small Puritan settlement. Twenty people were eventually executed as witches, but contrary to popular belief, none of the condemned was burned at the stake.
In accordance with English law, 19 of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials were instead taken to the infamous Gallows Hill to die by hanging. The elderly Giles Corey, meanwhile, was pressed to death with heavy stones after he refused to enter an innocent or guilty plea. Still more accused sorcerers died in jail while awaiting trial.
The myth of burnings at the stake in Salem is most likely inspired by European witch trials, where execution by fire was a disturbingly common practice. Medieval law codes such as the Holy Roman Empire’s “Constitutio Criminalis Carolina” stipulated that malevolent witchcraft should be punished by fire, and church leaders and local governments oversaw the burning of witches across parts of modern day Germany, Italy, Scotland, France and Scandinavia.
Historians have since estimated that the witch-hunt hysteria that peaked between the 15th and 18th centuries saw some 50,000 people executed as witches in Europe. Many of these victims were hanged or beheaded first, but their bodies were typically incinerated afterwards to protect against postmortem sorcery. Other condemned witches were still alive when they faced the flames, and were left to endure an excruciating death by burning and inhalation of toxic fumes.