University of Notre Dame

The Salem Witch Trials

Course Number: HIST 13184-8
Instructor: Ingrid Rowland

Between February 1692 and July 1693, nineteen residents of Salem Village, Massachusetts were hanged for witchcraft, one pressed to death under boulders, and eight more condemned to hang. The victims included both socially marginal figures and upstanding members of the Puritan community, and debate about the alleged presence of witchcraft in Massachusetts Bay and the trials of the accused witches engaged some of the most prominent thinkers of the day, including Increase Mather, President of Harvard University, and his ambitious son Cotton. At the turn of the seventeenth century, the Salem witch trials revealed Puritan society in all its complexity, caught between religious faith and scientific inquiry, precariously settled amid great physical hardships on a continent already inhabited by other peoples. In 1953, the Salem trials provided playwright Arthur Miller with a way to address a very different problem: the increasing power of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist crusade. Miller’s play The Crucible would become one of the great works of American theatre. This seminar will examine the trial records, the works of Increase and Cotton Mather, and Arthur Miller’s Crucible in an effort to understand a tragedy that continues to define the American experience.