1692, in Salem (now Danvers), Massachusetts, fourteen women and six men were executed on charges of witchcraft because of the antics of a group of girls and young women.
The girls, who were most likely acting and seeking attention, had been screaming hysterically, thrashing about, uttering strange sounds, and were generally acting in very aberrant ways. Owing to the already tense atmosphere of the village, people suspected witchcraft and, upon hearing the testimonies from these "possessed" girls, they were willing to follow whatever the girls said. The Puritans, as humorless and superstitious as always, were convinced that God had abandoned them.
By October of that year, nineteen people were hanged, one man was pressed to death under a board weighted with rocks, and hundreds had been jailed. It was only when the girls began accusing ministers, men, children, the wealthy... and the governor's wife of witchcraft that the authorities finally intervened and stopped the trials.
The Salem Witch Trials would probably not have gone very far had the girls named very respectable people first, but they first named outcasts, people who were already suspect by the community, such as Sarah Good (an irritable beggar) and Sarah Osborne (a bedridden old woman who rarely went to church). But soon the accused included highly unlikely people: the arrests of Rebecca Nurse (a pious, elderly matriarch, highly respected by the community) and Martha Corey (pious and respected, but skeptical about the credibility of the girls) shocked Salem; it meant that anybody could be a witch.
The youngest accused: four-year-old Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, who probably confessed to be with her mother in jail. While spared, Dorothy lost her mother and was traumatized for the rest of her life.
Now the Salem Witch Trials are invoked to recall Joseph McCarthy's legacy or any other irrational panic that leads to scapegoats.
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