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

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

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


  1. Before reading this article, I did not know that witch-hunting was a global phenomenon. The article highlighted the wide reach of the practice in a clear way, and even explained how it was mostly fear based. I had never looked into witch hunting, but this article definitely peaked my interest and may lead me to looking into this topic further.

  2. Now I personally loved learning about witches in the mid-evil times on my own around Halloween season because I grew up believing in witchcraft. It gave me something scary to believe and I loved all the different movies that came out that involved witches.

  3. reading and learning about The era known as the classical period of witch-hunts which took place during Early modern Europe and in Colonial America which is about the mid 1400s till the mid 1700s. i had always heard a little bit here and there about the Salem witch trials but i never really took time to learn more prior to reading this article.

  4. This topic has always intrigued me. I found the background and history of the witch hunts very eye-opening, as said in the article I did not know this was a global phenomena. I looked at some all of the lesson plans and was excited to see one that was for an upper elementary classroom I think it is a great way to lead into the US constitution.

  5. As I am an educator and am in my third year of education, and me, myself probably will not teach witchcraft trials in my classroom. Witchcraft can often frighten some kids especially the grade that I will be teaching. This article gave me great knowledge about witchcraft I did not know, for example the Salem witch trials consisted of a series of hearings and prosecutions of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. Thank you for sharing!

  6. The first time I heard about witch craft was on a Netflix show called “The Vampire Diaries”. Other than, I’ve never heard of any witch craft happening in the real world. When I hear the word “witch”, the first place that comes to mind is New Orleans and not Massachusetts or Europe.

  7. I have always found the topic of witches and the witchcraft trials to be very interesting. It’s kind of ridiculous that it was a worldwide phenomenon, the witch trials. I think it speaks for itself that about 80% of the victims of these trials were women. Some might not want to admit it, but I believe that the trials were a way to take down powerful women, or people in general. Just because someone acts differently and appears to be more superior than you doesn’t mean that something is wrong with them or that they need to be punished. I love to hear about all of the theories regarding this topic and found that this article could be an easy way to grab one’s attention to the topic.

  8. Learning about witches usually honestly freaks me out, but after reading this and getting a little more understanding of the history was interesting. I honestly had no clue that people actually went out with hunting back in the day, and let alone killed people while they were hunting witches.

  9. Through reading the article and some of the lesson plans it looked as if most of the witches who were accused of practicing witchcraft were not practicing it, rather it was things that could have been explained by other misfortunes such as animals having a parasite, poisonous crops, unsanitary habits, genetic mutations, etc. In summary the things could be explained by studies not visible to the naked eye or something that was studied.

  10. This is an excellent resource for learning more about the witch trial phenomenon that is such a dark part of our global history. Shamefully, the extent of my own knowledge comes mostly from movies, and from studying The Crucible in High School. One movie that IS noteworthy, In my opinion, is The Witch (2015), written and directed by Robert Eggars. The script was taken from actual witch trial transcripts and… though it does lean hard toward the supernatural in the back half… it provides a fairly realistic look at what the whole “witch experience” would have been like in the 1600’s.

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