McCarthyism: The Witch Trials of the Twentieth Century

By | November 30, 2018

test article image
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.

test article image

Logic should have dictated that such an event would never be repeated. But fear has a way of defeating logic and it ran rampant during the Cold War. Communism lurked around every corner. There were two “red scares” in the twentieth century. The first occurred from 1917 – 1920 as a reaction to the rise of Communism as a political force. But it is the second Red Scare which came to be known as the McCarthy Era. The Cold War began with the end of World War II and it wasn’t long before rumors of Soviet espionage spread throughout the country. Rumors turned to fear when the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949. The House of Un-American Activities Committee, created in 1938, was charged with investigating the rumors. A number of people were arrested and confessed to charges of espionage. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and executed on charges of stealing atomic bomb secrets for the Soviets.