By probing the underlying causes of this protracted outbreak, they hope to gain deeper insight into broader tensions and conflicts that beset a maturing provincial society at the end of the seventeenth century.
Divining America Advisors and Staff In 1691, this notorious episode in the history of early New England began to unfold in a small rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Salem town, then the second-largest seaport in Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Several adolescent girls in Salem Village began to exhibit strange and alarming symptoms that some of their parents quickly came to interpret as the result of witchcraft.
When urged by those adults to identify who had bewitched them, the girls first named several of their neighbors in Salem Village and then gradually widened the circle of those accused to include hundreds of people in Salem town and other Massachusetts Bay communities.
By the spring of 1692 the jails were crowded with suspects, and before the hysteria at last subsided at the end of that year, twenty people had been executed for witchcraft—which was treated as a capital crime in seventeenth-century New England, as it was elsewhere in early modern Europe.
This is only the briefest outline of the Salem tragedy.
For a full narrative of events, you can consult either the opening chapter of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s .[See Works Cited link at end of essay.] After reading either of these sources, you'll understand why so many historians have been drawn to this riveting topic.Indeed, the witchcraft outbreak in Salem Village is probably the single most intensively studied event in colonial North American history.What commands so much notice is, in part, the peculiarity of what happened at Salem Village within the broader context of British North American experience.While similar witch crazes had wracked many early modern European communities and often resulted in mass trials and executions, most cases of witchcraft in colonial communities (nearly all of them in New England) typically involved only one suspect, and relatively few prosecutions ended in the execution of the accused witch.(For a thorough overview of such cases, all of which occurred before the Salem outbreak, see John Demos’s .) Viewed in this light, what happened in Salem Village is, as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison aptly noted, only “a small episode in the history of a great superstition.” Historians Debate Yet it is precisely the uniqueness of Salem Village hysteria in colonial experience that has fascinated so many scholars.