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Were witches really burned at the stake in Salem?


So-called witches weren't burned at the stake in Salem, but their end was still pretty gruesome.
So-called witches weren't burned at the stake in Salem, but their end was still pretty gruesome.
© Matthias Bein/dpa/Corbis

From the realistically frightful scenes of "The Blair Witch Project" to the decidedly wholesome Glinda the Good Witch in the "Wizard of Oz," magical mavens are at the center of some of our most enduring -- and endearing -- stories. There are also modern-day practitioners of witchcraft, a term used to describe several different groups -- including Wiccans -- most of whom focus on positivity and using magic for good.

There was a time, however, when being considered a witch was a veritable death sentence. Take Salem Village, Massachusetts, in 1692. A town doctor diagnosed a group of girls as being afflicted by "black magic." Prone to seizures and screams, the girls were accused of witchcraft -- a notion that didn't sit too well in the Puritan settlement.

Contrary to legend, however, these so-called witches were not burned at the stake. In fact, none of the men, women or children accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem were killed that way. Most likely, the recounting of the Salem witch trials became intertwined with stories of actual executions by fire in Europe.

During European witch trials between the 15th and 18th centuries, people accused of witchcraft were commonly burned at the stake. Occasionally, they were hanged before being burned. The punishment was in accordance with the Holy Roman Empire's "Constitutio Criminalis Carolina" law, which contended that the punishment for witchcraft was death by fire. Church and civic leaders led the charge, executing as many as 50,000 people across Europe in what is now France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and Scotland [sources: History].

So what actually happened to the people accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials? Nineteen of the accused died by hanging, their bodies swaying on the infamous Gallows Hill. One elderly man died when he was stoned with heavy rocks, and others died in jail while waiting for their day in court.

Bridget Bishop was the first to be hanged, although her exact misdeeds seemed to amount to no more than rumor and speculation. Her case became a template for those that followed. Bishop was accused by the girls "afflicted" with black magic, and she denied their claims. Then a witness supported the accusers, followed by more townspeople who described previous acts of witchcraft performed by Bishop. Bishop's trial, and those of many others accused of witchcraft, ended with a guilty verdict -- no matter how improbable the evidence.

During the Salem witch trials, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, which was a lot of finger pointing during a relatively short time. The entire event lasted little more than a year before the local government deemed the trials a mistake and attempted to compensate the families of those they had convicted and killed [sources: Baker, Walsh].


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