The Salem Witchcraft Trials
Scene from "The Crucible", Minneapolis Patrick Henry High School class play, 1969
The last of the notable witch trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Twenty people were executed, with two more dying while imprisoned. As much as any of the noteworthy orations and declarations made by the founding fathers in the American revolution, this event shaped what American would become: a secular state. Witchcraft trials had gone on in Europe for years where their prime function was to insure the supremacy of the religious authorities.
The events in Salem were more local, more personal, with a strong element of repressed sexuality. Arthur Miller's play has become a classic, not only for its dramatic qualities, but because it addresses the issue of human sexuality as an manifestation of good or evil. It has become a perennial on the high school stage, possibly because it is one of the few dramas where teen-age girls can "act their age" concerning these issues.
In 1693 there was a new trial, the "spectral evidence" which had convicted those the previous year was thrown out, but the final dismissal of all the charges was not until 1957! It was, by then, of no solace to the families of the accused or convicted.
The trials showed clearly how hysteria and fear could pervert justice. The trials used torture to extract confessions. The accused were denied advice and legal representation. The accused found themselves imprisoned on the basis of guilt by association and guilt by accusation.
I'm glad that none of that happens in America today.