You've been accused of a crime you did not commit.
It's impossible to prove your innocence.
If you insist that you're innocent anyway, you'll likely be found guilty and executed.
But if you confess, apologize, and implicate others for good measure, you'll go free.
Do you give a false confession—or risk a public hanging?
This was the choice facing those accused of witchcraft, in the village of Salem, Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693.
They were the victims of paranoia about the supernatural, misdirected religious fervor, and a justice system that valued repentance over truth.
Salem was settled in 1626 by Puritans, a group of English protestants.
Life was strict and isolated for the people of Salem.
Battles with their Native American neighbors and groups of French settlers were commonplace.
People feared starvation and disease, and relations between villagers were strained.
00:01:10,108 --> 00:01:15,792 To make matters worse, 1692 brought 1 of the coldest winters on record.
That winter, 2 cousins, 9-year-old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams, started behaving very strangely.
A physician found nothing physically wrong, but diagnosed the girls as under “an evil hand.”
Puritans believed that the Devil wreaked havoc in the world through human agents, or witches, who blighted nature, conjured fiendish apparitions, and tormented children.
As news swept through the village, the symptoms appeared to spread.
Accounts describe 12 so-called “afflicted” girls contorting their bodies, having fits, and complaining of prickling skin.
Four of the girls soon accused 3 local women of tormenting them.
All 3 of the accused were considered outsiders in some way.
On February 29th, the authorities arrested Sarah Good, a poor pregnant mother of a young daughter; Sarah Osbourne, who had long been absent from church and was suing the family of 1 of her accusers; and Tituba, an enslaved woman in Betty Parris's home, known by her first name only.
Tituba denied harming the girls at first.
But then she confessed to practicing witchcraft on the Devil's orders, and charged Good and Osbourne with having forced her.
Osbourne and Good both maintained their innocence.
Osbourne died in prison, while Good's husband turned against her in court, testifying that she "was a witch or would be one very quickly."
Good's 4-year-old daughter was imprisoned and eventually gave testimony against her mother.
Meanwhile, Good gave birth in jail.
Her baby died, and she was convicted and hanged shortly thereafter.
Tituba was held in custody until May, and then released.
These 3 victims were just the beginning.
As accusations multiplied, others, like Tituba, made false confession to save themselves.
The authorities even reportedly told one accused witch that she would be hanged if she did not confess, and freed if she did.
They were not particularly interested in thoroughly investigating the charges.
In keeping with their church's teachings, they preferred that the accused confessed, asked for forgiveness, and promised not to engage in more witchcraft.
The court accepted all kinds of dubious evidence, including so-called “spectral evidence,” in which the girls began raving when supposedly touched by invisible ghosts.
Complicating matters further, many of the jurors in the trials were relatives of the accusers, compromising their objectivity.
Those who dared to speak out, such as Judge Nathanial Saltonstall, came under suspicion.
By the spring of 1693, over a 100 people had been imprisoned, and 14 women and 6 men had been executed.
By this time, accusations were starting to spread beyond Salem to neighboring communities, and even the most powerful figures were targets.
When his own wife was accused, the governor of Massachusetts colony suspended the trials.
Sentences were amended, prisoners released, and arrests stopped.
Some have speculated that the girls were suffering from hallucinations caused by fungus; or a condition that caused swelling of the brain.
But ultimately, the reason for their behavior is unknown.
What we do know is that adults accepted wild accusations by children as hard evidence.
Today, the Salem Witch Trials remain a cautionary tale of the dangers of groupthink and scapegoating, and the power of fear to manipulate human perception.