6 Facts You Didn’t Know About the Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials were a brutal and misunderstood event in the history of the United States, where mass hysteria harmed the lives of many people, including men and children.

Sep 3, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
salem witch trials facts
The Witch No. 1 by Joseph E. Baker, 1892, via Middle Tennessee State University


Today, we are familiar with the term “witch hunt.” It is a common refrain used by politicians, celebrities, and news outlets. However, this phrase was not introduced into the English lexicon until 1692, during a seven-month ordeal known as the Salem Witch Trials. Sorcery was seen as a real threat by the colonists of Massachusetts, as was consorting with Satan, effectively selling one’s soul. For the Church of Puritan New England, this was a threat to the power of God, which, as can be imagined, was not taken lightly.


Between February of 1692 and May of 1693, over 150 people were accused, and 25 were killed. Everyone tends to get the gist of the story: mass hysteria caused people to wildly accuse one another, eventually condemning the city’s women. However, there are misconceptions regarding the Salem Witch Trials and parts of the story that are not often told. This article will delve into some lesser-known facts about the Salem Witch Trials.


1. Witches Tests Could Not be Passed

Examination of a Witch by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, 1853, via Wikimedia Commons


Witch Tests were a relic of the witch trials in Europe, which peaked during the medieval era, but continued when Massachusetts accused its witches. Clergymen conceived the tests, and the accused witches would be tested until they failed, proving their practice of witchcraft. There was no way around the tests, and no one could pass every test.


One of the most famous tests of the Salem witch trials was the swimming test. The idea was centered around the purity of water. If the accused floated, they were guilty, as the water was thought to reject evil. If they sank, they were deemed innocent but often drowned.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

While the swimming test is quite well-known, more obscure and fantastical witch tests were often used against those accused in Salem. This included the witch cake test, the touch test, the incantation test, and the weight test.


Woodcut of the swimming test, via The Stamford Advocate


The witch cake test was likely the strangest given to Salem’s accused witches. It was, in most cases, impossible to pass this test, as any creature would likely suffer adverse effects by being force-fed a cake laced with bodily fluid. Essentially, the witch was told to bake a cake with their victim’s urine and feed said cake to a dog. Dogs were considered faithful to witches as familiars, so if the dog suffered adverse effects and the effects of the afflicted continued, it proved the accused guilty of witchcraft.


The touch test was simple. The accused witch was ordered to touch their victim, and if the victim felt pain, the accused was considered guilty. Likewise, the incantation test dictated that if an accused witch asked the devil to remove the afflictions of their alleged victims, and the victims were cured, the accused was guilty. It is easy in hindsight to see how the alleged victims used these tests to their advantage. They could lie with abandon, and the witch would still appear guilty.


Finally, the least foolproof was the weight test. Witches were thought to be impossibly light, and the courts would weigh the accused against the Bible. They were a witch if they were more lightweight than the Bible (which they never were). If they weighed more than the book (which they always did), the courts simply moved on to another test, citing the malicious power of the devil for maligning the weight test.


2. No One Was Burned at the Stake

Drawing of the hanging of accused witch Bridget Bishop during the Salem witch trials, via History


When one thinks of the Salem witch trials, it is easy to imagine that the witches were all burned at the stake. This is actually a trope from the European witch trials. Being burned at the stake was an age-old punishment reserved for heretics. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, as were several thousand others accused of heresy during the Middle Ages. The tradition continued throughout Europe for several hundred years into the 18th century. This style of execution is commonly thought of in conjunction with witch trials because, out of the tens of thousands of witch executions in Europe, many were burned at the stake.


However, in Salem, no execution was carried out by burning the accused alive. The majority were executed by hanging, and one, a man named Giles Corey, was crushed under rocks until he died. Many more accused witches either died in prison or were pardoned. As many of the women accused were pregnant, they were often given a stay of execution or acquitted. Two babies, Sarah Good’s daughter and Elizabeth Proctor’s son, were born while their mothers were imprisoned. However, Mercy, Good’s daughter, died sometime before her mother’s execution.


3. The Youngest Accused Witch was Four Years Old

Young women being accused of witchcraft, via History


While most of the accused witches were adults, even elderly adults, one exception is Dorothy Good. Dorothy was four or five when she was charged and arrested for witchcraft. Her mother, Sarah Good, was an accused witch who would be one of the women executed by hanging for her supposed devil worship. Dorothy was said to be animalistic and deranged, traits she acquired from consorting with the devil.


Despite probably having no idea what was happening, little Dorothy confessed to her supposed crimes when questioned by the Magistrates. Her testimony that she had seen her mother with Satan also served as a confession, which allowed the court to detain her. Dorothy spent seven months in prison and was released on bond after admission. Her mother was hanged while Dorothy was in jail.


4. Courts Allowed Spectral Testimonies

Martha Corey by John Ehninger, 1902, via Middle Tennessee State University


The evidence used against the accused witches was wholly circumstantial. No one could actually produce Satan to appear in court, and the supposed victims had no proof beyond their word. This meant that spectral evidence was admissible in the Salem witch trials. Spectral evidence relied on a victim’s testimony that they had seen the accused in the form of their spirit or their shape and that they had harmed the victims in this astral manner, as the accused could provide no alibi for their spirit.


Thus, most of the evidence used against the accused witches was spectral. Victims claimed the witch’s spirit attacked them, and the courts admitted these attacks as evidence. Many ministers at the time, such as the father and son duo Increase and Cotton Mather, disagreed over the use of spectral evidence. Increase Mather denounced its use, not because it wasn’t possible, but because the devil could use anyone’s spirit to do harm. Cotton Mather, his son, believed that spectral evidence was helpful because Satan could only inhabit the spirits of his cohorts. However, he extolled the use of supporting evidence in addition to spectral evidence.


Eventually, spectral evidence was outlawed in the Salem courts, which overturned many convictions, allowed several accused witches to go free, and hastened the end of the trials.


5. Most of the Accusers were Children 

“Tituba and the Children” from A Popular History of the United States, 1878, via Wikimedia Commons


While many accused witches turned on one another, those who were “afflicted” or victimized by the supposed witches were relatively young. The first accusers were Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, aged 9 and 11. The girls were the daughter and niece of Puritan minister Reverend Samuel Parris, and when they fell ill, they blamed their symptoms on an enslaved woman in Parris’s household named Tituba.


Many other young women followed suit, the oldest being 20. They accused supposed witches of afflicting them with all manner of symptoms. In reality, if the accusers were sick, it was due to contaminated drinking water rather than sorcery. Their reasons for accusing their neighbors were possible neighborly spats or illnesses they could not understand. Many accused also turned on their neighbors, believing they may have been spared if they diverted the magistrates’ attention to others.


6. The Trials Only Stopped when the Governor’s Wife was Accused

Governor William Phips, via Britannica


The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time of the Salem witch trials was William Phips. His close relationship with a few ministers and wealthy community members made his entanglement in the trials unavoidable. Still, it seems that Phips mostly washed his hands of the hysteria and distanced himself from those in charge; however, he did not disallow his officials from continuing their inquest.


One such official was Phips’s Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, also named Chief Justice of the investigation into Salem’s accused witches. Stoughton was known for speedy trials and quick executions, bucking the traditions of the time. Stoughton was encouraged by the church to be cautious yet swift in his convictions, which he took to heart. Stoughton was not only bloodthirsty but powerful. He took over most of Phips’s executive powers while the governor assisted in the fortification of Maine and the colony’s defense against French and Native American incursion.


When Phips returned from Maine, he found his Lieutenant Governor had made quite a mess of things, executing 20 people and condemning eight more during the week that Phips returned. Stoughton had ordered the digging of graves for eight newly accused witches. These accusations increased well beyond eight, and higher profile colonists were being accused of witchcraft, including Phips’s wife. When Phips learned of the allegations against his wife, he finally decreed that spectral evidence would not be permitted in the Salem witch trials. The eight witches Stoughton had planned to convict were cleared, and the Lieutenant Governor abandoned his post. Soon after, in February 1693, all accused witches were pardoned and released from prison by May.

Author Image

By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.