|The Rose Files
True Scary Stories from Life
| City of Witches!
~ Rose Titus ~
The Salem Witch Trials is a historical reality that, like the Lizzie Borden murder case, the mysterious
Crash at Roswell, the mystery of Jack the Ripper, and the Plague… needs no introduction! Just mention
Salem, Massachusetts, and many people immediately think “witches!”
But what really happened in Salem all those centuries ago? How did it happen? And most importantly,
why? Why did this terrible tragedy take place, and why were so many innocent people killed?
I decided to do some research and find out.
First, Salem, Massachusetts, was not the only Colonial settlement that claimed to have witches. All
over New England, innocent people, men and women both (but mostly women) were accused, put on trial,
and executed. It is not true that people in old New England were burnt at the stake; most of them were
hanged. The most notorious case of witchcraft hysteria, of course, was in Salem, which involved hundreds
of people, with accusations radiating outside of Salem Village itself and into many surrounding towns near
How did this start?
In late 1691, some young maidens (we would think of them as teenage girls), including a daughter and
a niece of local minister Samuel Parris began to have “fits,” which back then people understood to be
signs of possession. Strangely, this condition spread to others around the village. People began to talk of
sorcery. The local doctor stated his opinion that those suffering were under the “evil hand.” The girls were
pressured to name their tormentors, which they were reluctant to do, but under continued pressure the girls
named the (supposed) witches: Tituba, a slave woman of the Parris household, and also Sarah Good and
Sarah Osborne. Both Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne insisted that they were innocent, but Tituba, most
likely out of fear, confessed. After Tituba confessed to being a “witch,” the village authorities went
searching for other “witches.”
Next Martha Corey, who also claimed innocence. Then Sarah Good’s four year old daughter (four
years old!) Dorcas was accused – and she was put in prison. Seventy one year old Rebecca Nurse…
and then Elizabeth Proctor... Also being dragged into this disaster were relatives of the accused. John
Proctor, Elizabeth’s husband, was accused after defending his wife’s innocence. Sisters of Rebecca
Nurse: Mary Easty and Sarah Cloyce… Dorcas Hoar (of Beverly, not of Salem), Susanna Martin (of
Amesbury), and Bridget Bishop (of Salem)… children of Elizabeth Proctor were next on the list… her
sister in law as well… and then Martha Corey’s husband Giles. George Burroughs, a pastor of a church in
Salem Village, was also thought to be the “ring leader.”
It was as if a mass hysteria had taken a hold of these morally upright Puritans. The jailhouse was filled
to capacity. Even animals belonging to those accused were “executed” as familiars.
Even before trials began, hundred of people came forward to make accusations against these so-
called “witches.” Forty eight people claimed to be “possessed.” Often those who continued to insist they
were innocent were sent to the gallows, and those who confessed or named others were allowed to live.
The town was divided and tearing itself apart with vile accusations and superstitious fear of the
supernatural… Gossip, fear-mongering, finger-pointing, neighbor against neighbor! The good Puritans
seemed hard at work ruining the reputations of others to save their own selves. Innocent women, and
some men, were literally dragged off to jail to await their fate, and even if they were lucky enough to be
found innocent and released, the townspeople would alienate them, harass them, and in some cases,
physically assault them, even if they were elderly widows.
What may have caused the people to become “possessed,” and have fits, we might wonder? Many
modern historians and scientists now blame the condition known as ergotism. Ergot is a fungus that can
infect rye. If eaten, as when people eat rye bread, it can have an effect on people dangerously similar to
LSD, and can not only cause vomiting, diarrhea, painful muscle spasms, but also hallucinations and
delirium. Ergot has been frequently thought to be the cause of previous incidents of witch hysteria in
Europe. So, now we know why people suddenly had wild fits and saw witches flying all about town: They
were all high on ergot.
How did it finally stop? When upper class and wealthy people of the village were included among those
accused, then Governor Phips called for the trials to stop (especially since his own wife Lady Mary Phips
was now among the accused). In the beginning many of the accused were poor or lower class. Now even
people from the upper levels of society were involved – so the authorities finally saw fit to put a stop to this
foolishness. In the end, nineteen people were executed because of this superstitious nonsense, and
others died in jail awaiting trial.
And what is happening in Salem, Massachusetts today?
If you look at the advertising brochures they put out for tourists, they say, “Discover the Magic of Salem!
America’s Bewitching Seaport.” There is even a “Haunted Happenings” magazine to go with that. The
brochure let’s you know there is a trolley to take you around to see the spooky town if you get tired of
walking. This town’s whole economy seems to revolve around witches and the tourists who want to see
witches, learn about witches, or have fun pretending to be witches.
So… you can visit the “Witch House – the 17th Century Home of Witch Trial Judge Corwin.” Also there is
a Witch History Museum, a Dungeon Museum (witches again) and a generically named “Witch Museum.”
For more terrifying fun you can visit “Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery” or the “Gallows Hill Theater.”
And speaking of theater, you can watch the play “Cry Innocent: The People vs Bridget Bishop,”
presented by History Alive, Inc.
For recreational activity, there is a Witch Walk (call for reservations), and a narrated “Tales &
Tombstones.” There are plenty of “ghost tours” you can join, which naturally are at night.
And if you get bored with all the witches, there is a pirate museum.
But what is this town like, really?
Well, I’ve visited several times so I will tell you all about it…
First, Salem, Massachusetts is actually a very beautiful town. Visit Salem and you will see absolutely
beautiful historic buildings, many of which you can go into. There are great museums, such as the
Peabody Essex Museum, which actually has nothing to do with witches, and many other museums, many
of which do portray a lot of “witch history.”
And if you love history, you must (absolutely must!) go into the House of Seven Gables, which has an
honest to sweet baby Jesus secret passageway, that your tour guide will take you through if you are brave
enough! You will learn about Nathanial Hawthorne, who was ashamed to know that one of his own family
was involved in the witch trials.
Then there are the great restaurants and shops… oh, now, the shops! Many shops in Salem cater to
people who love the paranormal or are interested in Witches. Need an Ouija board? Or a magic wand?
A few books about witchcraft or spells? A new vampire cape? How about a new vampire cape in purple!
Magic amulets? Tarot cards? You can get them in Salem. Don’t know how to use Tarot cards? You can
buy the instruction book on Tarot cards while you’re there…! New Age crystals? Creepy looking
antiques? Go shopping in Salem!
You cannot walk down the street in this town without seeing a shop that caters to witches or some form
of horror or paranormal. I saw a man dressed like Frankenstein shuffling down the street once while
visiting Salem, and a lady was hanging around outside a tourist shop in full witch costume, black pointy hat
and all. Downtown Salem is like a horror theme park.
Want your fortune told? You can do that, too, in Salem, but it will cost you. When I was there, the cost
was $30.00. (I don’t recommend spending more for this service, by the way.) This particular fortune teller
was eerily accurate. “I see you travelling… Canada?” My trip to Vancouver was already booked.
Seriously, no kidding…!
At a recent gathering to dedicate a memorial to the victims of the witch trials, the Reverend Jeffrey Barz-
Snell said, “We should not be here today… It did not need to happen, it should not have happened, and
yet it did … And so we are here to remember … so that the evils perpetrated against these people may
never happen again.” And Salem City Councilor David Epply said, “The only way I know that Salem and
its political leaders can atone for such heinous acts is to continue to serve as a story of warning for the rest
of the world, on what could ultimately happen when you turn your neighbor into the ‘other.’” He continued,
“Salem cannot escape its past, nor should it … It spite of that past … our city of peace can also be a city
With those words, we can imagine those who lived and died in those dark days can now finally be at
If you want to learn more about the Salem Witch Trials, here are some great sources of information:
1. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Karlsen, Carol F., W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.
2. Caporael, Linda R., “Ergotism – The Satan Loose in Salem,” Science, April, 1976.
3. “Salem Honors Victims of Witch Trials, Vows to Remember Past,” Cole, Kiana, The Boston
Globe, July 20, 2017.
4. “Sold on Salem,” Edmondson, Catie, The Boston Globe, August 21, 2017.
(Please do not try ergot at home. If you try it, you most likely will not achieve magical powers… instead
you’ll probably just become quite ill and experience nausea, vomiting, severe diarrhea... and possibly
gangrene, and then you might even die.)