The Debunker: Were Witches Burned at the Stake at Salem?

by Ken Jennings

The poet John Keats called autumn a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Let’s leave the “mellow fruitfulness” for November - October is all about the season of mists. We’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-aleck Ken Jennings to fact-check the spookiest Halloween lore he could dig up and fill us in on all these monstrous misconceptions.

Spooky Myth #2: Witches Were Burned at the Stake at Salem.

Before I get into this one, let me stipulate right up front that every Women’s Studies paper on the Salem witch trials was exactly right. The trials were a fascinating and tragic confluence of screwed-up religious, political, and sexual dynamics, and twenty people were executed for the stupidest of reasons.

But, despite what you think you remember from history class, none of the “witches” were burned at the stake. Burning witches was a common pastime in Europe beginning in the 15th century, claiming thousands of victims over the next three hundred years. But colonial America never burned its witches; hanging was in style by then. All of the executed Salem defendants were hanged, except for Giles Corey, an eighty-year-old man “pressed to death” under boulders, defiantly refusing to answer the bogus charges against him. Another five alleged witches died in prison.

The words “Salem” and “witch” are both misleading ways to refer to the hysteria, by the way. Though the most famous proceedings—the ones immortalized in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—took place in Salem Town, three other surrounding villages held their own hearings as well. And not all the executed Satan-socializers were female witches. Giles Corey was one of six men executed, and even two dogs were marched to the scaffold as accomplices. I guess once you’ve started terrorizing women and old people, it’s just a short jump to puppies.

Quick Quiz: What politician released the famous “I am not a witch” video to her YouTube channel in 2010?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr member kellinahandbasket. Used under a Creative Commons License.