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Few corners of American history have been as exhaustively or insistently explored as the nine months during which the Massachusetts Bay Colony grappled with our deadliest witchcraft epidemic. Early inseveral young girls began to writhe and roar. They contorted violently; they complained of bites and pinches. After some hesitation, after much discussion, they were declared to be bewitched.

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The most horrific part? In fact, witches are the most popular adult Halloween costume year after year.

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But those frivolous and fanciful witches we know today—cackling in black garb and pointy hats with broomstick in hand—have evolved a great deal over the past several centuries. More than years ago, it was a felony to practice witchcraft in the American colonies, defined by English law as acting with magical powers bestowed by the Devil.

During the Salem Witch Trials ofmore than people were accused of practicing witchcraft.

Salem, massachusetts

Twenty of those people were executed, most by hanging. One man was pressed to death under heavy stones, the only such state-sanctioned execution of its kind. Dozens suffered under inhumane conditions as they waited in jail for months without trials; many of the imprisoned were also tortured, and at least one died in jail before the hysteria abated in So much of the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials comes down to the failure of the court and the laws during that time: Laws that made such things as visions, dreams, and even the testimony of spirits permissible evidence.

Sheer vindictiveness is now considered a plausible explanation as well. The girls blamed their odd behavior on three women considered social outcasts, including Tituba, a slave, whose confession may have been coerced.

Soon a wave of witchcraft allegations throughout the year swept up more than accused witches, including at least one child.

Unraveling the many mysteries of tituba, the star witness of the salem witch trials

Local magistrates questioned the accused and determined whether any charges were to be brought against them. As paranoia spread, residents of Salem soon found themselves facing accusations from friends, neighbors, and families. The Puritans believed physical realities had spiritual causes.

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For example, if the crops failed, the Devil may have played a role. With this worldview, it was not a stretch for them to accept 'spectral evidence' of spirits and visions—which was the primary evidence used as proof of guilt during the Salem Witch Trials.

The so-called Witchcraft Act of served as the primary English law for witchcraft, deeming it a felony. A witch convicted of a minor offense could be imprisoned for a year; a witch found guilty twice was sentenced to death.

Inthe General Court, the legislative body of the colony of the Massachusetts Bay, wrote the Body of Libertiesthe first legal code established in New England.

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This collection of civil and criminal laws and rights included witchcraft among its capital offenses. Exod, In the English tradition, clear and convincing proof of a crime was needed for a conviction. Confessions, especially with other evidence and testimony of at least two trustworthy people, constituted the best proof.

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Though the Salem Witch Trials predated the U. During the epidemic of witchcraft accusations in Salem, the legal process changed. The trials followed the temporary suspension of the Colony Charter due to political and religious tension between the colony and England. A new governor and a new charter from England arrived inbut the General Court did not have enough time to create any laws.

The Puritans believed that physical realities had spiritual causes. For example, if the crop failed, the Devil may have played a role—and Satan could not take the form of an unwilling person.

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So if anyone claimed to have seen a ghost or spirit in the form of the accused, that person must be a witch. With this worldview, it was not a stretch for Puritans to believe in spectral evidence, which was the primary evidence used as proof of guilt. In Januarythe newly created Superior Court of Judicature began hearing the remaining witch trials.

The judges could not accept spectral evidence and most of the remaining trials ended in acquittal.

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Phips pardoned the rest. Today, the Salem Witch Trials continue to capture popular imagination. Less than 20 miles from Boston, Salem has turned its dark history into a thriving tourism industry, with witchcraft-themed shops, eateries, tours, and several museums. The town commemorates the tragedy of that era with the Salem Witch Trial Memorial and has preserved many buildings and other historic sites associated with the trials, so future generations—and jurists—can learn how mass hysteria can lead to mass injustice.

Chronology prior to salem trials

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