On this day in 1692, an English woman by the name of Bridget Bishop was brought before a municipal court in Salem, Massachusetts. Settled in 1626 by Puritans (Protestant refugees from England), the town was gripped by a wave of terror that, according to many, was motivated by a recent string of occult incidents. Fearing for their lives, Salem’s residents accused Bishop – a bartender at Salem’s tavern, according to some accounts – of committing one of the most egregious crimes of all: witchcraft.
A number of Salem’s young women claimed to have been possessed by an apparition that looked like Bishop; whenever Bishop glanced in their direction, the women were struck down, unable to move. Only Bishop’s touch would bring them back to life. Other “witnesses” claimed that Bishop owned a number of poppets, small figurines allegedly used in occult ceremonies, and one man proclaimed that Bishop had poisoned his cat. Perhaps the most damning bit of evidence was a popular belief that Bishop possessed a third nipple, a sure sign of a witch (although only two nipples were present on the day of Bishop’s trial). Much of the evidence against Bishop was contradictory, false, or disturbingly personal – Bishop had a number of enemies, having been married three times – but attendants were upset by Bishop’s calm demeanour and her demonstrably false statements. The court found Bishop guilty, and the crowd marched her off to be hanged. As the rope was placed around her neck, Bridget Bishop became the very first victim of the Salem Witch Trials.
In the ensuing months, over 200 people in and around Salem were accused of witchcraft. Contrary to popular belief, none of them were burned at the stake: a majority of those found guilty were hanged, although one man was pressed to death with large stones. Partially inspired by circulating copies of Malleus Maleficarum – a discredited German manual for combatting the occult – the murderous rampage of Salem’s townsfolk is colonial America’s first example of mass hysteria. Puritanical fears of women, foreigners and sexuality likely motivated many of the killings (78% of Salem’s “witches” were women, and at least one was a slave from the West Indies). Many in Salem reportedly dealt with sleep terrors and paralysis, likely motivated by a string of night raids by Native Americans; additionally, Salem’s rye bread supply may have been infected with elements of hallucinogenics like LSD.