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. I have always been intrigued by learning about the Salem Witch Trials. We read the Crucible play my senior of school and I also wrote a paper about the witch trials that occurred in Massachusetts. However, I did not know that other parts of the world such as Asia and Africa also continued the practice. It was a tragic and horrific event that included the execution of many young women and men who were wrongfully accused. I always wonder how or why people believed the young girls were witches and accused them for the strange instances that happened during that time period. I think the resources are excellent to use in the classroom and to inform students it was a global phenomenon that occurred throughout history.

  2. I really enjoyed getting to read this article and see thew multiple resources that can be used to teach students about this topic. It is amazing to me to think that many people were executed in thought of practicing witchcraft. I also really didnt know that it was a global thing since I have really only learned about the Salam trials. It also was neat to hear about some of them being men. I have only really heard about women practicing it.

  3. I thought this article was very interesting and informative.  I never knew that witch hunts were a global phenomenon.  I only heard of the Salem Witch Trials.  I also never knew that they executed so many people because they thought they were witches.  Most of these people were women.  I also liked the teacher resources attached to this article.  I think that it can be difficult to teach  the witch trials for elementary grades, but the resources had excellent ideas.  You can have students read informational text about the witch trials and have them answer questions and summarize the text.  This activity would be a good integration of social studies and reading. 

  4. I was startled that there was an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 executions during Early modern Europe and in Colonial America, and surprised that I had never heard this fact before. I have only heard a bit about the Salem Witch Trials and did not know that witch hunting had been a global phenomenon/effected so many women’s lives in history. I was also surprised that 20% of those executed were men and was unaware that men were prosecuted for being witches as well.

  5. I found it very interesting that there was a time where witches were considered to be real. It also fascinates me how these “witches” were pronounced guilty when clearly none of them were witches. It makes me wonder all of the stories and reasonings behind all of the trials and what came from them. It is crazy to me that there is an estimated 50,000 executions. There was a time where people actually feared witches and most people thought them to be real. That to me doesn’t feel like a real problem, but for them it really was.

  6. This article interested me because, I remember visiting Salem as a kid. My aunt lived in Boston, so we decided to make a trip to Salem. The witch trials is a big part of our history that I often forget about. It also shocked me that there were 40,000 – 50,000 thousands deaths. 

  7. I tend to forget that witch hunts where a major part of history. I was not aware that it was global as well. It was interesting to hear how long they went on for. Another thing I found interesting was that men were also executed and accused of being witches.

  8. Before reading this, I never quite realized how long the “witch hunt” carried on for. I always assumed just a few years but I was very far off. I also thought it was only in Salem, I did not know that most of the world in its entirety had taken part in this. Lastly, I thought it was only women put to death, I did not know it was 80% women and 20% men.

  9. I have always been super interested in The Salem witch trials and witch hunts in general. It blows my mind how women (80%) were accused of being witches so regularly and stupidly from 1450-1750 and for so long! The estimated 50,000 executions that’s crazy, being burned at the stake sounds like the worst way to die.

  10. Before this article, I never knew the entire world participated in witch hunts. I also didn’t realize that men were also persecuted as witches as well. I always associated witch hunts with Northeastern Puritan beliefs, but now I can understand that they actually started in Europe. The amount of information I knew before this article is just the beginning to the history of witch hunts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.