To the people of seventeenth century Salem, witchcraft was a very real and potent threat. Across Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many people - perhaps those seen as odd or outsiders - were accused of being witches, and were tortured and executed.

The persecution of witches spread to England under the rule of James I and with the Puritans, it also spread to the new settlements on the east coast of America.

The Church said that witches made a contract with the Devil and that the witches kept a book with signatures of those contracted to the Devil. The Devil would then work through them and their 'familiars' (evil spirits in the form of an animal - a cat or a toad, for example.)


witches' familiar
Artist's impression of a witches' familiar


Witches were thought to commit crimes or 'maleficium', such as making cows sick, turning beer sour, flying broomsticks or causing injury to people.

There were said to be various 'proofs' of a witch including:

  • the testimony of a fellow witch
  • the common belief/accusation of those who live with the suspected witch
  • cursing or quarrelling being followed by some mischief or mishap
  • the person suspected has the Devil's mark (perhaps a birthmark or deformity)
  • the person contradicts her/himself when questioned.

Matthew Hopkins set himself up as Witch-Finder General, and between 1644 and 1646 he had over 200 people hanged as he searched for witches in the east of England. For each execution he was paid one pound.