Half a young girl’s face looks innocent while the other half looks evil. Half a young girl’s face looks innocent while the other half looks evil. Half a young girl’s face looks innocent while the other half looks evil.

Illustration by Allan Davey

U.S. History

Was She a Witch?

More than 300 years ago, girls in Salem, Massachusetts, blamed witches for their bizarre behavior. What really happened?

Jim McMahon/MapMan®

It was a bitterly cold day in January 1692. Howling winds whipped through Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But inside one home, something even more chilling was happening.

Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams crawled on the floor. Their bodies twisted like pretzels. They said invisible spirits were biting them.

A doctor determined that the girls were under a witch’s spell. Soon, other girls in Salem began having similar outbursts. Before long, innocent people were put on trial—and put to death—for practicing witchcraft.

But what really happened? More than three centuries later, no one knows for sure.

Living in Fear

To understand how the panic spread, it helps to know more about the people of Salem at the time. They were mostly settlers from England called Puritans. This religious group lived by strict rules. Many had lived through wars with American Indians whose land they had stolen. The Puritans feared more attacks. Disease and starvation were also constant worries.

Life was especially hard for women and girls. Their lives were almost completely controlled by men.

Perhaps most important, Puritans thought all their hardships were caused by forces of evil. So it made sense that witches were blamed for the girls’ strange behavior.

“Everyone believed in witchcraft,” says Mary Beth Norton, an expert on the events in Salem. “It was the explanation for all kinds of weird things.”

Courtroom Chaos

Betty and Abigail accused three women of cursing them. As news spread, hysteria broke out in Salem. Neighbors accused one another of witchcraft.

By the time the Salem witch trials began in May 1692, the town was gripped by fear. Even without evidence, about 150 people were accused of being witches. Twenty people were put to death. Others died in jail.

By 1693, the scare was over. The Puritans still believed in witchcraft. But they realized it was unjust to accuse people of things without any proof.

Today, we use the term “witch hunt.” It describes a situation in which fear leads people to wrongly accuse others—just like what happened in Salem.

Innocent Victims

We now know that the people of Salem weren’t witches. But something had caused the girls to act so strangely.

One theory is that food poisoning brought on the girls’ odd behavior. But most historians dismiss this idea. Some think that the girls faked the whole thing. However, Norton and some other experts blame the stresses of Puritan life. They believe that the girls were so tormented by fear that they became physically ill.

We may never know what really happened. The truth has been buried along with the innocent victims of the Salem witch hunt.

1. What is the purpose of the section "Living in Fear?"

2. What is hysteria? How did it affect the people of Salem?

3. How does the sidebar "Signs of a Salem Witch" help you better understand the article?

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