June 10: Salem’s trials bewitch due process

Illustration of a scene in Henry Wardsworth Longfellow's play "Giles Corey of Salem Farms" as Mary Warren points to the ghost of a man Giles Corey is accused of killing.

Starting on June 10, 1692, the Puritan community of Salem, Massachusetts, ‘tried’ and executed 20 innocents for witchcraft.

The ‘prosecution’ based their case on the ‘fits and hallucinations’ caused by the defendants. Such a faultless argument resulted in 19 hangings.

The accusations originated with the inexplicably bizarre behavior of a group of young girls. Convulsive seizures, blasphemous screaming, and trance-like states afflicted them. Physicians had no answers so the belief that Satan was at work through others in their community took hold.

Giles Corey, one of the alleged sorcerers, refused to enter a plea in the judicial proceeding.

Faced with such defiance, the court condemned him to death by pressing. As the executioners were placing the crushingly heavy boulders on top of him, Corey called for more weight.

For his stubbornness and grit Giles Corey deserves our remembrance.


This episode in American history is said to be the most famous of the cases of mass hysteria that gripped the times. It resurfaces in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process.

It is not uniquely American, rather, a period in a much larger phenomenon of witch trials in the Early Modern period. Many note  its lasting impression to have significantly influenced subsequent American history.

“More than once it has been said, too, that the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.”
— George Lincoln Burr


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