Witch Hunting

This essay was published in Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America in 2006.
Learning for Justice Staff
Grade Level

            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.

Copyright © Teaching Tolerance.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Restate it using your own words.
    The Salem witch trials showed that it only takes a small trigger to set off a seemingly unstoppable series of events when a group of people is untrusting and prejudiced against others who are different from the majority.
  2. Question
    Answer the Five W’s regarding the Salem Witch Trials—who, what, where, when, why.
    Who: those considered by others to be possessed by the devil or participating in witchcraft
    What: “Civil authorities, with the support of Puritan ministers, appointed three judges to a special court for trying the accused witches.”
    Where: Salem Village, Massachusetts
    When: 1692
    Why: The Puritans were intolerant of those who acted in “wild and unpredictable ways,” according to their standards.
  3. Question
    What do the words “episode” and “evident” mean in this sentence?
    In this context, “episode” means event, happening, occurrence, etc. “Evident” means apparent or easily seen.
  4. Question
    What does “prominence” mean? Why did people believe McCarthy?
    “Prominence” means the importance of; he was an important man who held an important position, so people believed he knew what he was talking about.
  5. Question
    How are the two “witch hunts” described in this essay similar?
    They both rely on people and environments where distrust and intolerance are prevalent and easily able to sway people’s opinions.
Reveal Answers
Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More