The Salem witch trials of 1692 constitute a formative event in the evolution of American civil society. They expressed a theocratic mind-set supported by civil power over life and death. The significance of the Salem witch trials can be seen chiefly in the fact that they serve as an object lesson in governance. History has thoroughly discredited them as state murder. The key issue of importance in the Salem witch trials has to do with the proper role of government and religion in civil society and the power ratios between and among individuals and between individuals and the social structure they inhabit.
To see how these elements come together, a recital of the facts is in order. Between May and October of 1692, 20 women and men in Salem, Massachusetts, were executed for witchcraft. Nineteen were hanged; one 80-year-old man was crushed to death by stones. What appears to have begun with ghost stories told to adolescent girls by a slave named Tituba metamorphosed into eight girls' accusations that they had been bewitched. At the urging of Salem clergymen, a special court of judges was convened to investigate and prosecute, and the scope of accusation and denunciation enlarged dramatically, with neighbors, family members, servants, and masters denouncing one another.
Multiple explanations have been offered for the Salem witch trials: mass hysteria, a project of grabbing, land, personal property, and/or social prestige in the religious community of Salem, hallucinogenic effects brought on by contamination of grain by ergot, an attempt on the part of the judges running the trials to save their political reputations by blaming a one man's devil worship for their own military failure in a frontier Indian war that strained Salem's infrastructure. Eventually "150 people had been imprisoned and were awaiting trial," but they were released by order of the royal governor.
Whatever "caused" the trials to begin, the conflict was play...