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Witchcraft or Paranoia? Unraveling the Curious Case of the Salem Witch Trials

Sep 22, 2016 04:00 AM EDT

The Salem witch trials remain one of the darkest examples of paranoia and injustice throughout history. Now, 325 years after this tragic period, here's a look back at what happened and the political, religious and environmental factors that created a perfect storm for the accusations and death that followed.

The stage was set for a tragedy

According to a report from Smithsonian, the belief of witches stemmed from a practicing Christians and other religions who said that the Devil bestowed powers on people who profess their loyalty to him. This spurred on a "witchcraft craze" swept through Europe from the 1300s to the 1600s, when tens of thousands of people were executed for supposedly practicing witchcraft.

America's time came later; in 1689, English rulers William and Mary began a war with France in American colonies, which destroyed land and sent refugees to Salem Village in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The influx increased tension among the families in Salem Village and Puritans believed all the conflict was due to the Devil.

First accusations

In January 1692, the village's first ordained minister Reverend Samuel Parris' daughter Elizabeth, 9, his niece Abigail Williams, 11, and another local girl Ann Putnam, also 11, began having "fits" and a local doctor deemed it supernatural. Under pressure from magistrates, the young girls named three women as the cause: Tituba, the Parris' Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.

All three were interrogated and while Osborne and Good professed innocence, Tituba said the Devil came to her. The slave added that there were other witches around, and she was jailed with the two other accused.

Death on Gallows Hill

This event spurred on a line of accusations and questioning that dragged on for months. It was on May 1692 that Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for gossip and promiscuity, was brought into the special court, found guilty and became the first person hanged on Gallows Hill.

The court ignored pleas from respected citizens including minister Cotton Mather, and his father and Harvard president Increase Mather. Eventually, Governor William Phipps, whose own wife was questioned, prohibited arrests and released the accused. In May 1693, all were pardoned.

The aftermath

At the time of pardon, 19 have already been hanged to death on Gallows Hill and a number have also died in jail and outside. Many of those involved pubicly admitted their error and guilt, and in 1711 a bill was passed that restored the rights and good names of the accused with £600 restitution for heirs. Over two and a half centuries after the trials, Massachusetts formally apologized in 1957.

Symptoms of bad rye, not witchcraft

In a study by psychologist Linnda Caporael in 1976, she offered an explanation for the abnormal behavior of the accused: fungus ergot in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses.

According to a report from Yahoo, ergot is a hallucinogenic LSD and Caporeal pointed out that the girls who accused the witches might have been under the effects of this fungus. After all, this was a fungus so common that people actually thought it was part of the plant. Furthermore, the summer of 1961 was rainy and wet, an ideal season for fungus to grow.

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