A new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in the US about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-’93 in Massachusetts serves as a timely reminder that the victimisation of vulnerable groups sparked by a sense of fear and mass hysteria is not such a recent phenomenon after all.

Focussing on dramatic events that occured more than three centuries ago in Salem, the exhibition features rare images and documents to cast new light on witch trials that involved around 200 people and “led to the deaths of 25 innocents – men, women and children – between June 1692 and March 1693”, the museum says on its website.

“The panic grew from a society threatened by nearby war and a malfunctioning judicial system in a setting rife with religious conflict and blatant intolerance,” the museum site says. “For more than 300 years since, the complex drama of the witch trials and its themes of injustice and the frailties of human nature has fascinated us.”

It all began in the late winter of 1692, when two young girls showed strange symptoms that medical practitioners of the time found hard to diagnose. They rolled and writhed on the floor, screamed and threw things around, prompting doctors to consider them “bewitched”. Soon other young girls were reporting the same symptoms.

As History.com details, suspicion fell on Tituba, a “female slave” of Caribbean origin, the “local beggar woman” Sarah Good and the “invalid widow” Sarah Osbourne.

A special court was set up to hear and decide these cases. In June 1692, a widow named Bridget Bishop, who had been “identified” as a witch a decade ago, was executed on Gallows Hill – one of Salem’s top tourist attractions today.

The trial of George Jacobs Sr by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, 1855. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Historians and contemporary writers have established that the witch-hunts came about through a series of interconnected episodes – a recent battle between Britain and France in the new American colonies, fear of recurring smallpox epidemics and the presence of Native American groups nearby.

There were other enmeshed threats and rivalries, such as religious differences among the residents, differences between Salem village (the present-day Danvers town in Massachusetts) and the more prosperous Salem town, and the very real fear and belief in witches in that period.

From the 15th century onward, writings on witchcraft were popular and widely read. The artefacts at the Peabody Essex Museum include a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century text on how to identify and execute witches.

Some insights into the mass hysteria that leads the dominant community to claim victimhood are available from the Peabody Essex Museum’s interactive interface Evolving Perceptions. The exhibit depicts patterns of behaviour that can spark and set off witch-hunts. It even offers a formula to show that while fears and triggers change over time, there are always innocent victims. See it here.

The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, 1677. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Witches had been tried before in Europe and the new colonist settlements in America. However, Salem acquired infamy between February 1692 and May 1693 for conducting over 200 trials.

Sarah Good, one of the first to be accused, was executed soon after, along with three others, including Rebecca Nurse, a “churchgoing grandmother”. Nurse was accused of being a “spectre” and riding on a broomstick, causing immense harm to others.

Examination of a Witch, 1853. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Some of the victims included men and women from the neighbouring towns of Andover and Amesbury. In all cases, those singled out were usually poor and vulnerable, and some had a reputation for being argumentative.

Martha Cory was executed as a witch after protesting the manner in which the trials were conducted. Her husband Giles, who had testified against her, was later “pressed to death” on charges of afflicting people.

Judge Jonathan Corwin House (The Witch House), Salem. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

By May 1693, the hysteria had waned. In 1695, the Quaker activist Thomas Maule criticised the trials. In January 1697, there was a day of fasting when several prominent people apologised and asked forgiveness for the trials. But it was not until a decade and more that petitions were filed with the Massachusetts government to reverse convictions and grant pardons.

Some of the very last exonerations took place as late as 1957. The 300th year of the incidents in 1992 was commemorated by several events, including the unveiling of a memorial to the victims by the playwright Arthur Miller and the 1986 Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, which revisited the Salem trials, also served as an allegory about the persecution of Communists in America in the 1940s and 1950s.

As Wiesel said in his speech:

  “…in times of inhumanity, humanity is still possible.. If I cannot fight the hatred all over the world at least I can fight hatred somewhere, in one person, in me. The key word, I have found, that is part of the vocabulary of the drama of tragedy, is fanaticism. It is because people were fanatic that Salem was possible.. fanaticism is the greatest evil that faces us today. For today, too, there are Salems.”    

Examination of Martha Cory, March 21, 1692. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

A substitution of words, the replacement of a key event with another, one set of rumours exchanged for another – these devices enunciate the persistence and enduring prevalence of the word witch-hunt. Rumours and fears, very often abetted by those in power, enable the targetting of a few as scapegoats.

In India, amidst the arrests of artists and activists in the Bhima Koregaon case and Delhi riots case, the hysteria that led to the Salem witch trials seems all too familar.

The online version of the exhibition can be viewed here.

Salem Village Witch Trials Victims' Memorial at Danvers. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.