Civil Liberties

The Witches Next Door

Hunting Satanists in Europe and America.


I have an article about the Salem witch hunts in The National Post today. Here's an excerpt:

The trials…weren't the first witch-finding expedition in New England, but they were both larger and more lethal than the others. If you set aside the Salem saga, 93 accusations of witchcraft are known to have hit the colonies' courts in the whole 17th century, of which 16 led to executions. In the Salem episode, by contrast, at least 144 people went on trial in a little more than a year, and many others were accused without landing in court. Fourteen women and six men were executed, mostly by hanging; even a couple of dogs were sent to the gallows. Another man and three women died in jail, as did several babies. The defendants came from a much wider spectrum of ages, occupations, and social ranks than the typical docket of witches. The trials cast an unusually wide geographic net, too: The accused hailed from more than 20 locations, not just Salem Village and the adjoining Salem Town.

By European standards, on the other hand, the trials were small potatoes. English America was less witch-obsessed than England, and England in turn was less witch-obsessed than Scotland or the Continent. From 1623 to 1631, the German bishopric of Würzburg burned an estimated 900 people for their ostensible dealings with demons. If that body count is accurate, one tiny principality killed more supposed Satanists in an eight-year period than were executed in all of New England in the entire 17th century. That didn't satisfy the authorities' appetite for blood: European witch hunts continued to erupt for decades after the Würzburg carnage. The trials of 1692, by contrast, disgusted so many people that they effectively ended witchcraft prosecutions in Massachusetts.

Read the rest here. The article is adapted from a longer discussion of Salem in my book The United States of Paranoia; it is the first of three excerpts from the book that the Post will be publishing this week.