The term Witch comes from of the Old English word, "wicce", which means " wise woman" or "wise man". It was once believed that those with special powers could help a village or country thrive with good help and great incite, though simply passing on the lessons of Old was more than enough. Merlin would have fallen under this category. But the church was loosing members, and therefore, power and money, to those who had such powers and wisdom. The church labeled them as evil, saying that no person outside of the church could hold such knowledge, meaning that they had to have made a contract with the devil. In England and her colonies, hanging was preferred, while France would burn the witches.
The trials of Salem Village began in 1692, though they had happened for centuries before in Eourope. The daughter and niece of Rev. Samuel Parris became ill. When they didn't get better, Dr. William Giggs was called to the house. He said that they had been bewitched, thus causing a panic in the small town.
The girls had learned a spell to see who they would marry in the future. They had learned it from their slave, Tituba. At the time, such a game was considered evil because no one but God should know what is to be. Instead of seeing love, they saw a coffin. They acted strangely after that. Though the matter was kept secret, rumors spread. Soon, other girl began getting the same sickness. When asked, the daughter and niece passed blame on Tituba, who was tortured into confessing to being a witch.
The other girls named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne as witches. Two weeks later, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Cory were also charged with using witchcraft. By the end of April, six people were imprisoned as witches, including Rev. George Burroughs, who was named the leader by Abigail Williams. By May, over 100 people had been arrested for the use of witchcraft. Many were convicted because the accused witch appeared to the victim as a kind of apparition that only the the accuser could see. At the time, honesty was expected because lying was sinful. Besides, who would lie about seeing a witch's apparition that was trying to kill them?
Sir William Phips arrived from England on May 14, 1692. The Courts of Oyer and Terminer were established by him specifically for the trials. Something had to be done to remove the clutter in the prisons.
The first case was of one Bridget Bishop. She was quickly found guilty and hung on June 10. The next famous case was against six women nine days later. They were found guilty and hung a month later. On August 6, six more were found guilty. Elizabeth Proctor was spared because she was pregnant and the courts didn't want to kill an innocent life because of the guilty mother, and the other five were hung on August 19. Early in September, six more women were found guilty, but one escaped because of friends, one was acquitted, and the other four were hung on September 22.
Two days later, the trial of Giles Cory took place. This was the last trial to take place in Salem. When asked for his plea, he refused to give one. He was sentenced to a pressing, where large rocks were placed on his chest, until he pleaded guilty or not guilty. They asked for his plea several time, but his only answer was, "More weight!" He was crushed to death by the weight of the rocks, which didn't allow him to breath.
By this time, 19 people were hung, 50 were given lenient charges for confessing and naming names, 100 were in prison awaiting trial, and 200 were accused but never arrested. Still, the fits of madness in the girls did not stop. When the name of a respected and influential community member's wife was heard, questions and accusations were thrown at the court. One boy confessed that one of the girls had admitted to doing such fits for fun, which called to question all other testimonies. By this time, fear a witchcraft was falling aside to being falsely accused of witchcraft.
Once people turned against the courts, people began having second thoughts. Jurors admitted to errors due to fear, witnesses recanted stories (many were from greed and jealousy, and saying the rival was a witch insured money and power), and Samuel Sewall, a judge of the courts, admitted his own errors on the steps of the Old church in 1697.
In 1711, Massachusetts legislature made amends by overturning the convictions. It did it again in 1957. It gave financial restitution to the living relatives of the executed in the amount of £580 and 12 shillings. That would be about £81,970 or $108,798.78 in today's money.