Since early medieval times there had been persecution of women deemed to be witches throughout Europe, but the period from 1450 until 1750 perhaps saw the greatest number of people identified as witches being killed.

With the fear of witchcraft beginning about 1450, many countries started enacting laws against witches. These involved targeting older women who uttered curses, lived with black cats, or embarked on “strange” practices.

The persecution took place all over Europe, both in heavily Roman Catholic areas such as Spain and southern Germany, and in Protestant England and Denmark. As witches were deemed to be heretics, their penalty was to be burned at the stake, usually after confessions had been extracted under torture.

If the women confessed their sins, in some places they were garroted before their body was burned. In most cases the women suffocated from the smoke long before being burned. In 1577, it was recorded that 400 witches were burned in the French city of Toulouse alone.

In 1487, two Dominican monks, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, wrote the Malleus maleficarum or The Witches’ Hammer, which was initially submitted to the Faculty of Theology at the University of Cologne. This book was an attempt to have a “scientific” method of identifying witches, as the authors both were inquisitors.

The book went through 29 editions until the printing of the Lyon edition of 1669, with the Spanish Inquisition, in 1538, cautioning people that not everything in the book was true. King James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England) also became interested in witches after a visit to Denmark.

In 1597, he wrote about them in his book Daemonologie. He saw all witches as equally guilty of a crime against God. As late as 1687, another ruler, King Louis XIV of France, also published an edict against witches. However by that time interest in “witch hunting” had declined, and the last witch to be executed in western Europe was killed in 1775 at Kempten in Germany.

Colonial America

Witchcraft in colonial New England has captured the American imagination for centuries and remains open to interpretation. Although New England was not the only place in early America where people were accused of familiarity with the devil, it was here that religion, gender, and politics resulted in hysterical outbreaks and the execution of 35 people.

In 1542, England’s parliament first declared witchcraft a capital offense, and in 1626 a Virginia woman named Wright was accused of being a witch. Although witchcraft could mean heresy, most colonists who leveled such charges alleged “maleficium”: doing someone else harm by supernatural means.

When the Puritans settled New England in the 1630s, they took these ideas with them. Intent on establishing the New Israel in America, they were perennially on the watch for any signs that the devil might be threatening their mission. To these early New Englanders, the devil could possess a Native American, a black cat, or a fellow colonist at will.

The first accusation of witchcraft in New England was leveled in 1638 at Jane Hawkins, a midwife and associate of Anne Hutchinson. Hawkins’s radical religious beliefs and connection with Hutchinson probably contributed to her accusation, as did suspicions about her midwifery.

“It was credibly reported that, when she gave medicines,” wrote Governor John Winthrop, “she would ask the party, if she did believe, she could help her.” The first New Englander to be executed for witchcraft was Alice Young of Windsor, Connecticut, in 1647.

Over the next century, nearly 350 people were accused of maleficium, about 35 of these being hanged for their crimes. Although prosecutions ended with the 17th century, as late as 1724, Sarah Spenser of Colchester, Connecticut, was accused of being a witch.

Four of every five New Englanders accused of witchcraft were women, a statistic that reveals how intimately maleficium and gender were linked in the minds of the Puritans. They believed women to be weaker creatures than men and thus more susceptible to satanic temptation. Among women, those who were over 40 and lived alone were most likely to be accused, especially if they owned property.

In terms of timing, more than half of all accusations and two-thirds of executions took place during three outbreaks. In 1662, eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly of Hartford, Connecticut, suffered possession during which she cried out the name of a neighbor, Goodwife Ayers.

Although Ayers was tried, the incident soon snowballed and over the next year, 12 more were accused and four executed. A similar outbreak occurred in Fairfield, Connecticut, in the 1690s, but these outbreaks pale in comparison to what transpired in Salem.

By 1692, the Puritans’ goal of creating a New Israel seemed to be lost. Everywhere the devil seemed to be winning: the Crown had revoked Massachusetts’s charter, Indians were raiding towns on the Maine frontier, and young people appeared uninterested in religion.

Economic change was also unsettling the region, with coastal settlements like Salem town becoming wealthy and attracting non-Puritans, much to the dismay of poorer agricultural settlements on the interior, like Salem village.

In this climate, witchcraft found popular acceptance. In February 1692, Betty Parris, the nine-year-old daughter of Salem village minister Samuel Parris, began experiencing fits along with her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams.

An investigation revealed that the girls had been engaging in occult practices to determine who their future husbands would be. The girls blamed Parris’s Caribbean Indian slave Tituba for instructing them and accused Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne of tormenting them.

In late February, local magistrates investigated the situation and jailed Tituba, Good, and Osborne, but this did not solve the problem. Over the next few months, other young women began to experience fits and by May more than two dozen people had been accused.

At this point, Governor Sir William Phips appointed a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the cases. Headed by Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, the court quickly became a spectacle with accusers screaming when they confronted the defendants and the accused being submitted to bodily searches to see whether they possessed a teat for suckling Satan’s offspring.

Flouting many of the conventions of English and Massachusetts law, the court allowed the admission of “spectral evidence”: testimony about maleficium from a demonic creature in the form of an accused witch.

By June 1692, the outbreak had spread to nearby towns of Andover, Haverhill, Topsfield, and Gloucester, and by October the list of the accused included the wives of Governor Phips and several leading ministers. In late 1692, Phips finally put a halt to the proceedings, and in May 1693, he ordered the last of those imprisoned to be freed. By this point, however, 185 people had been accused and 19 executed.