World History

Were witches really burned at the stake in Salem?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. In 1692, 20 people were put to death in Salem, Mass., following the infamous witch trials. However, none of the accused was burned at the stake. Rather, hanging was the execution of choice, except for one man who was crushed to death under heavy rocks. Historians believe the supposed "witches" were inflicted with mass hysteria, as were their accusers. There is also some speculation the victims may have been physically ill, or hallucinating from ingesting tainted rye bread.

    Overall, the events related to Salem witchcraft lasted from late in February 1692 until April 1693. In that time, about 100 people also were kept imprisoned. Five of them died while in jail because of the poor conditions [source: University of Virginia]. A total of 160 people were accused of witchcraft, including the 80-year-old man crushed by rocks, his wife and a four-year-old girl. Many had their property and legal rights taken from them. Some confessed to witchcraft under the duress of torture; those who confessed had their lives spared. The basis for hanging came from English law, which Massachusetts was still under as a colony at the time. Witchcraft was considered a crime against the government and a felony punishable by hanging. Rumors regarding burning at the stake may have come from practices regarding witchcraft in other areas of Europe.

    The 19 women and men who faced execution had to go from the Salem jail on St. Peter Street on a rather winding path to Gallows Hill. The accused were known to have been transported there on carts. Executions of the 19 people condemned as witches occurred on June 10, July 19, August 19 and September 22, 1692 [source: Salem Witch Museum]. The site of the hangings is marked for visitors who tour Salem, although it is not known exactly where the gallows were placed. 

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