10 Strangest Mass Hysterias

Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693)
George Jacobs was one of the hundreds of people accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s. MPI/Getty Images

It all began when young Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began screaming uncontrollably and flailing about. A doctor declared the two residents of Massachusetts' rural Salem Village bewitched. Soon several other young girls came down with similar symptoms, putting the blame on three villagers, all women, as the ones who had bewitched them.

The women were brought to trial. Two denied the accusations, but one — a Caribbean slave named Tituba — confessed to bewitching the girls and offered to name other witches, likely a ploy to save herself from execution (it worked) [sources: History, University of Virginia].

As more people were swept up in the accusations, some confessed and pointed the finger at even more people. Hysteria flooded the village and spilled over into the rest of Massachusetts. Five months after Parris and Williams first suffered fits, the courts were clogged with witchcraft cases.

The mayhem finally died down about a year later, after several respected citizens began pushing for solid evidence to be presented in the witchcraft trials, as opposed to relying on dreams and visions. By the time the trials were stopped, 19 people had been hanged, seven died in jail awaiting execution and one man had been pressed to death by stones. In all, 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft [sources: History, Blumberg]