Witch-hunting, of one type or another, has always been a popular spectator sport. Gypsies, Jews, witches, Catholics, Recusant Catholics, Protestants, homosexuals – everybody has been through it during the centuries. What happened to ‘village scolds’ (women who talked too much) in rural Britain for at least eight centuries was less harmful than burning of course, but being ducked repeatedly in a pond full of refuse and the odd dead animal if the poor scold was unlucky, cannot have been good for either morale or health. What occurred in rural Massachusetts was so awful Arthur Miller wrote an exceedingly successful stage play about it, called The Crucible – not a play for the faint-hearted.
Mass hysteria broke out deep in the American countryside, when the word went round that witches were present among the tiny populations of equally tiny hamlets. These wicked dames were making spells and laying curses etc. on respectable townspeople, and a group of these decided to put a stop to it. The town authorities at Salem were powerless to stop the hunting once it had started in earnest. I cannot find evidence that there were warlocks as well in Salem, probably because Massachusetts is too macho to have male witches. John Updike wrote a funny book about a modern warlock (actually a demon) in modern America. It was filmed with Jack Nicholson (of course) as The Witches of Eastwick.
In the Salem district, young, impressionable girls were dragged before local kangaroo courts where they gave ‘evidence’ (which they had been taught) against unpopular women in the community. Mrs. Dodd had sworn at her neighbour last Wednesday: she must be a witch; arrest Mrs. Dodd. Mr. Snatch hated his mother-in-law, so he had a quiet talk with his sister and the mother-in-law was denounced and arrested. None of the evidence or testimony was supported by anything remotely legal, but nineteen women were killed by various means, strangulation, pickaxe, shooting or burning. It was a very bad time in Salem.
When the hysteria had died down and the innocent victims buried in unhallowed ground, Judge Sewell confessed that the witchcraft trials had been an error, and should not have happened. Puritans were blamed; the fact that authorities from Salem Town and Salem Village had not talked to each other for months was mentioned; provincial ignorance was responsible; many of the executed had died because of family rifts. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ (q.v.) in England had moved the American colonists to much unrest, as they were not sure would happen to them with a king deposed and a foreign one installed.
America saw another witch hunt in the post-war period, when Senators began finding communists under the bed, and citizens were forced to denounce relatives, colleagues or friends as members of the Communist Party. This time the proceedings were seen on television and the world was shocked. It was a witch hunt just as the ‘witches of Salem’ was, but there were no cameras or microphones in 1692.