Art Thou a Witch? Studying the Witchcraft Trials in History

An illustration showing a woman executed by hanging, for the practice of witchcraft, 1692. Published in 'A Pictorial History of the United States', 1845. Interim Archives / Getty Images

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University


Lithograph of witch trial in Salem, Massachusetts. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Introduction
In light of the recent celebration of Halloween we decided to do an article surrounding witch hunts that have taken place throughout history. A witch-hunt (also called a witch purge) is a historical and global phenomenon, whereby authorities have searched for people who have been accused of being witches. They also might search for evidence (Usually bogus or arbitrary evidence) to prove that the accused was practicing witchcraft. In the United States many people are somewhat familiar with the Salem witchcraft trials but are not aware that witch hunts were a global phenomenon throughout history. 

History of Witch-Hunts
The era known as the classical period of witch-hunts took place during Early modern Europe and in Colonial America about 1450 to 1750. The prosecutions reached a highpoint from 1580 to 1630 during the Counter-Reformation and the European wars of religion that resulted in an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 executions.  Most people were burned at the stake, roughly 80% of those executed were women, often over the age of 40. The last witch hunt executions in Europe took place during the 1700’s, but other regions of the world such as parts of Africa and Asia have continued the practice.


Witch Burning (1555) Witches Being Burned At The Stake In Germany
A Contemporary German Woodcut Poster Print by (24 x 36)

Salem Witch Trials
In the United States, people are most familiar with the events that took place in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The Salem witch trials consisted of a series of hearings and prosecutions of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. Thirty of those accused were found guilty, and nineteen of the thirty were executed by hanging (fourteen women and five men). Books like the classic novel The Crucible have brought more attention to the historical events.

The American imagination has been long fascinated by this time period, as most people are intrigued by the supernatural and the fear of the unknown. In light of this, witch hunts are a wonderful topic to bring to the classroom. Here are some lesson plans and resources teachers can use to help students explore the topic on a deeper level.

Lesson Plans and Teacher Resources

Lesson Plans
Witch-hunts Teacher Resources
Aha! You’re a Witch- Early Modern European Witch-hunts
Salem Witch Trials Lesson Plan
Understanding the Salem Witch Trials
Which of You Is a Witch? The Salem Witchcraft Trials and The Crucible
Salem Witch Trials: Web Supported Lesson Plan
Salem Witch Trials- American Bar Association

History
Salem Witchcraft Trials History
History of Witch Hunts
Salem Witch Hunt Museum
The Witch Craze
Salem Witchcraft Trials History Channel