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Detail of “Salem Witch Trial Courtroom Scene”
© Bettmann/CORBIS
Church was the cornerstone of 17th century life in New England. Most people in Massachusetts were Puritans—colonists who had left England seeking religious tolerance. But the strict Puritan code was far from tolerant. It was against the law not to attend church—where men and women sat on opposite sides through long services. The Puritan lifestyle was restrained and rigid: People were expected to work hard and repress their emotions or opinions. Individual differences were frowned upon. Even the dark, somber Puritan dress was dictated by the church.
Since Puritans were expected to live by a rigid moral code, they believed that all sins—from sleeping in church to stealing food—should be punished. They also believed God would punish sinful behavior. When a neighbor would suffer misfortune, such as a sick child or a failed crop, Puritans saw it as God’s will and did not help.
Puritans also believed the Devil was as real as God. Everyone was faced with the struggle between the powers of good and evil, but Satan would select the weakest individuals—women, children, the insane—to carry out his work. Those who followed Satan were considered witches. Witchcraft was one of the greatest crimes a person could commit, punishable by death.
In keeping with the Puritan code of conformity, the first women to be accused of witchcraft in Salem were seen as different and as social outcasts: Tituba, a slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, a sickly old woman who married her servant.
Fear of magic and witchcraft was common in New England, as it had been in Europe for centuries. Over 100 alleged witches had been tried and hanged in New England during the 1600s. But the hangings in 1692 Salem would be the last ones in America.