Puritan intolerance reached a frenzied extreme in 1692. In May of that year, the daughters of a Puritan minister in Salem Village, Mass., began behaving in wild and unpredictable ways. One of them tried to burn herself in the fireplace. The Rev. Samuel Parris soon learned that his household slave, a West Indian woman named Tituba, had been telling the girls stories of voodoo and witchcraft from her native islands.
First the Parris sisters claimed that they themselves were possessed by the Devil. Then they accused Tituba and three other Salem Village women of witchcraft. The charges caused a sensation, and within a few months a kind of “witch fever” had spread across eastern Massachusetts.
Civil authorities, with the support of Puritan ministers, appointed three judges to a special court for trying the accused witches. Witnesses were permitted to offer “spectral evidence,” or descriptions of foul deeds they had seen performed by spirits. The list of suspects at one point included the wife of Gov. William Phips. As a result of the witch trials, 13 women and six men were hanged. One man was sentenced to death by “pressing” with heavy weights. Three women died in jail, along with an unnamed infant belonging to one of the women who was executed.
The suffering brought on by the witch hysteria eventually turned public opinion against the trials. Families of the victims called for the colonial legislature to restore their loved ones’ reputations and to withdraw the orders that had denied their civil rights. Such a bill, also authorizing damage payments, was passed in 1711.
The Salem witch trials demonstrated that in an environment of widespread suspicion and intolerance, it takes only a spark to cause a wildfire.
The memory of that episode is evident today in the phrase “witch hunt,” which has come to mean any investigation that plays on a community’s fear of unpopular ideas.
The most famous modern “witch hunt” was the crusade launched by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in 1950 to rid the government of individuals he considered to be traitors. McCarthy offered no evidence for his claim that he had identified 205 communists in the State Department. But the prominence of McCarthy’s own office caused many Americans to believe him.
McCarthy’s unfounded accusations of treason ruined hundreds of careers and made him, for a time, one of the most powerful figures in government. None of the charges was ever proved.
His targets also included any individuals in civil service suspected of being gay.
In 1954, after McCarthy was unable to get one of his assistants excused from the draft, he retaliated by “investigating” the military. Television broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings exposed the senator’s cruel and unethical tactics to the public. Later that year, the Senate formally condemned McCarthy’s conduct.