The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months.
Around 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft under Scotland’s Witchcraft Act between 1563 and 1736. During this time, witchcraft was considered a mortal crime, and those convicted of it were strangled to death and then burned at the stake so that there wasn’t a body to bury. Two-thirds of the suspects suffered this fate — a huge figure for the small country. Suspects were also imprisoned and tortured in order to obtain confessions as they awaited trial and women were not allowed to speak in their own defense. Sleep deprivation was used as a form of torture as well as stabbing suspects with pins to find evidence of the Devil’s mark.
One of the first ways of proving that a woman was a witch was that there was evidence laid at trial if you were what is described as a ‘quarrelsome dame.’ So, a woman who would argue about how much meat the butcher gave her or who would argue with your neighbors or was a generally an outspoken person, could be accused of witchcraft. Then at trial, because she was a woman, the accused would not be allowed to speak in her defense, almost assuring conviction. The overall effect was to keep women scared to voice their opinions and to keep women in a subservient role through fear.
It should be no great surprise to learn that most of these laws were enacted under the rule of James VI. King James VI of Scotland, who ruled from 1566 to 1625, considered himself an expert in witchcraft and in 1597 wrote the philosophical text “Daemonologie“. In many ways, the Salem Witch Trials were not a fluke of history attributed as many apologists would argue to attributable to ergot (which excretes a substance similar to LSD) poisoning. It was a terrible miscarriage of justice instituted by the Crown.