In 1692 a group of young girls became sick in Salem Village, Massachusetts, suffering from vomiting, delusions and muscle spasms. At that time life in New England was harsh. The recent war between the British and France, a smallpox epidemic, and fears of attack from Native American tribes caused paranoia among the villagers, and as a result of their unexplained illness the girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several women in the community of witchcraft. This accusation that these women had made a pact with the devil in exchange for special powers was what started the Salem witch trials.
A wave of hysteria travelled through the village and neighbouring towns and between the spring and fall of 1692 over 150 women, men, and children would be accused of witchcraft. There were so many accusations of witchcraft that a special court was convened to hear all the cases. In June of 1692, the first person, Bridget Bishop, was convicted of witchcraft and hanged at Gallows Hill.
One of the interesting things about these trials is that while most of the accused denied the accusations a few women actually confessed and named others working with them in service of the devil. It is likely that these women knew that they were doomed either way, but hoped that their lives might be spared if they acted as an informant.
It is important to note that at trial the court would apply several completely unorthodox test to determine whether the accused was actually a witch. One test was to look for witch marks, which was a blemish that witches were believed to receive upon making their pact with the devil. Any mole, scar, birthmark or sore could be characterized as a witch mark. Another test was called charging, where the accused would be forced to verbally order the devil out of the victim and if the victim immediately recovered this was proof that the accused was a witch.
By the fall of 1692 several community leaders began to speak out against the trials, most notably, Increase Mather, who was president of Harvard College at the time. He urged the courts to require a higher standard of evidence before convicting those accused, stating that there was no reason why the standards of evidence for witchcraft should not be the same as any other crime.
By early 1693 the amount of trials were dwindling and by the middle of that year all those in prison on witchcraft charges were pardoned and released. But the term witch hunt is still used to this day to mean harassment against a person or group who have unpopular or unorthodox views.
In a bill introduced by the Liberal government earlier this year, several laws in the Criminal Code that were outdated or obsolete were struck. One such law was s.365 of the Criminal Code which made it an offence to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery or enchantment.