Salem Witch Trials: Misogynist Fiction, Or are There Witches Among Us?

The Salem witch trials epitomize the way that intolerance, hysteria and the miscarriage of justice can be taken to deadly extremes. Though the trials can now clearly be attributed to ye olde fashioned misogyny, there's no denying that, in addition to puritanical patriarchy, some of the prevalent beliefs at the time ranged from the bizarre to the downright gruesome.

You may be able to hazily recall the events that transpired in Salem, Massachusetts and the surrounding villages beginning in 1692 from your high school American history class, but it's likely your memories have been muddled by pop culture representations taking liberties with the story. The Crucible, Hocus Pocus, the 2012 Rob Zombie joint The Lords of Salem, not to mention the myriad small screen references and plot points on every witchy series since the invention of television, have all found some inspiration in the events. Between Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and myriad other television sorceresses, America is obsessed with witches both fictional and factual, and WGN America's new series, Salem will bring it all full-circle, providing a bold new look at one of the most infamous moments in American history.

So how do we separate historical truth from pop culture fiction?

A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials

The troubles were sparked in 1692 when two young girls — Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams — began having fits in the village of Salem. When the doctor couldn't diagnose a medical or mental problem, their affliction was attributed as the work of witchcraft and the Devil. The three women first blamed for the girls' fits were already marginalized: Tituba, a Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, who was a beggar; and a poor, older woman named Sarah Osborne. Bridget Bishop, the first woman to be hanged, also had a reputation as a promiscuous gossip.

All told, 19 accused witches were hanged, one male witch ("wizard") pressed to death, and up to 13 others died in prison. Political favoritism had a hand in ending the trials, when the powers that be went after the wrong man's wife. In October 1692, the wife of Governor Phipps was accused. The trials continued into 1693, but things began to taper off that October, and it was Phipps who eventually pardoned all of the accused witches.

But, were there even witches in Salem to begin with? One report cites a 1965 book, Witchcraft at Salem by Chadwick Hansen, which claims that some of the prosecuted witches were guilty of witchcraft, but that "it worked then as it works now in witchcraft societies like those of the West Indies, through psychogenic rather than occult means." Translation: the effects were in the minds of those affected and the observers. Carol Karlson, associate history professor at the University of Michigan and author of Devil in the Shape of a Woman, said that her research "didn't turn up much support at all" for Hansen's theory. Her explanation was the afflicted girls were behaving more like religious worshipers when they're "moved by the spirit." Others say the first afflicted girl had a legitimate medical condition and others jumped on the bandwagon when they saw how much attention she was given.

Another hypothesis is that witches weren't witches at all: they were women who sought to affect their environment, or sought out knowledge. In Puritan New England, independence, desire to change, or even a lifestyle that differed from the rigid confines of religious life was interpreted by the controlling classes as an association with the devil. Because witchcraft was illegal in Salem, it was could be used as a way to persecute misbehaving or independent women.

Truth Is Stranger than Fantasy

Although modern-day representations of witches often include their fair share of cauldron bubbling and "toil and trouble," the customs and beliefs of 17-th century Salem are almost more unsettling than any hocus pocus you'll see on TV. Could the pop culture representations with which we are familiar actually be toning down the truth?

The Mark of the Witch

Popular culture's representations of witches — like the 1993 comedy Hocus Pocus — are full of the expected witchy indicators like the cauldron, the capes, the warts and all (or at least the mole on SJP's chin that she since had removed). The wart trope is the closest of these to an actual method used to determine whether women were witches during the Salem trials.

It's also thanks to the following witch test that classy folks everywhere have the phrase "colder than a witch's tit," although it didn't originally refer to breasts (and back then it was witch's teat). A witch's teat was an unusual spot on a woman's body, said to be where Satan had branded her as one of his followers, upon which her animal familiars would suckle (a term which refers to animals that accompany witches as they do their magic, and can also include cats and birds). If the mark was poked with a pin and it bled or hurt, it was thought to be normal mole or blemish, but if it was poked and nothing happened, it was thought to be the mark of a witch.

Canine Sorcery

Cats are often depicted as witch's familiars, like Salem the cat of the Sabrina the Teenage Witch comics and the TV series, which ran from 1996 to 2003. Contrary to what all the iconic imagery of black cats riding tandem on witches' broomsticks, in 1692 it was the poor dogs that got the short end of the broomstick.

Those executed in the trials weren't all even human: two dogs were accused and put to death. In Andover, Mass., an afflicted girl claimed a dog was trying to bewitch her, so the animal was shot. Cotton Mather then declared its innocence, saying that since the villagers succeeded in killing the dog, it must not have been bewitched. Another unfortunate dog lived in Salem Village. It was acting strangely, and the local troubled girls thought it was being "ridden" (the term used when a witch was believed to be inhabiting the body of an animal) by the spirit of accused wizard John Andover, who then skipped town to avoid prosecution.

Dogs, also known as familiars, were also used to identify witches when they had taken possession of a human soul. Following an English folk practice, Tituba baked a "witch cake" using rye flour and the urine of Betty Parris, one of the afflicted girls. The cake was fed to a dog, believing that it would reveal the witch who afflicted the girls. Although this was considered "white magic," it led to Tituba being accused of witchcraft. She eventually confessed, which kept her from being executed.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

These days the word "bewitched" usually conjures some cute imagery relating to young love in the springtime or Samantha Stevens wriggling her darling little nose in the classic sitcom, of the same name, which ran on from 1964-1972. But in Salem in 1692, it meant something that looked a lot more like Regan in the Exorcist.

According to the theory of convulsive ergotism, rye flour might have actually played a much larger role in the events of the witch trials than just being being baked into revolting witch cakes. The theory, introduced in the April 1976 edition of Science magazine by psychologist Linda Caporael, posits that the flour used in the villagers' food could be behind some of the strange behavior that was attributed to witchcraft that year. Ergot fungus, a blight that grows on rye as well as wheat and other cereal grasses, can cause poisoning and bring on convulsions, muscular contractions, and vomiting as well as mania, hallucinations and delusions. (Ergot is also one of the main ingredients from which LSD is derived. Is anyone crafting doses of artisan ergot yet?)

Caporael's theory has been challenged by several other academics, so there is no definitive answer on its validity.

So when we think about the Salem witch trials, how do we separate truth from fiction? Was this whole tragic moment in history the result of a patriarchal society afraid of women (and dogs) gaining power and undermining its puritanical rules? Pop culture and fantasy would have us believe that there really were witches among us, but the facts suggest something very different. The one thing we know for sure is that the trials will never cease to fascinate.

In Salem, witches are real, but they are not who or what they seem. Countdown to Salem's epic premiere: April 20th at 10/9c on WGN America.

Colleen Kane has written for a gamut of publications from the Oxford American to Playgirl to CNBC.com. She created the blog Abandoned Baton Rouge and likes poking around creepy places where she doesn't belong.

This post is part of a sponsored collaboration between WGN America and Studio@Gawker.