McCarthyism: The Witch Trials of the Twentieth Century

By Penny Chavers
Salem Witch Trials, 1692-1693
Throughout history, there have been times when mass hysteria has led to the wrongful punishment of the accused, with little to no evidence. It usually starts with a real event, something to incite fear in the community, then snowballs into a panic and a slew of false accusations, some inspired by genuine concern and others merely as a means to strike out at an enemy.


The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 are not the first example of mass hysteria, but they may be the most well-known. It began with the odd behavior of two young girls, who were said to have begun convulsing and screaming, making strange noises and contorting their bodies. While epilepsy was ruled out at the time, later researchers have suggested ergot poisoning as the possible cause their affliction. Before long, other young women began experiencing the same symptoms and the accusations began. It is believed that the initial accusations arose due to a family feud. Regardless of whether one believes the girls were genuinely possessed, the evidence used to convict the accused was severely lacking. Accusers needed only to claim they had seen the spirit of the person afflicting them to have that person arrested. By May 1693, the hysteria had subsided, but only after more than 200 people were accused, nineteen of whom were hanged.