At the end of the 17th century, more than 200 people in Salem, Massachusetts were arrested and 20 executed. Their alleged crime? Practicing witchcraft. Smithsonian magazine's new article "A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials" summarizes the story behind the intolerance and injustice that erupted into absolute hysteria.
Several centuries ago, many practicing Christians, and those of other religions, had a strong belief that the Devil could give certain people known as witches the power to harm others in return for their loyalty. A "witchcraft craze" rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s. Hundreds of thousands of supposed witches–mostly women–were executed. Though the Salem trials came on just as the European craze was winding down, local circumstances explain their onset.
In 1689, English rulers William and Mary started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as King William's War to colonists, it ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Salem Village is present-day Danvers, Massachusetts; colonial Salem Town became what's now Salem.)
The displaced people created a strain on Salem's resources. This aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. Controversy also brewed over Reverend Samuel Parris, who became Salem Village's first ordained minister in 1698, and was disliked because of his rigid ways and greedy nature. The Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil.