Witchcraft: The Folklore That Provoked Fear and Mass Hysteria

More than three hundred years after New England occupants executed twenty people accused of witchcraft, the Salem Witch Trials continue to haunt American history, inspiring books and plays such as The Crucible and capturing public imagination. These infamous trials, as well as many other cases of witchcraft accusations throughout England, exemplified a widespread belief in magic during the early modern period. The fear of witchcraft prompted colonists to fight against the presumed existence of these witches, through murder and unjust hangings (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The grave marker for Mary Parker, who was executed for witchcraft at Salem during the witch trials. Photograph by Darren McCollester.

Although the world mainly focuses on what happened at Salem, belief in witchcraft existed long before the crisis in the “Witch City” occurred (Baker 2015). In England, more than 200 people accused of being witches were executed between 1645 and 1647. Concern over the presence of witches in England soon spread to the colonies, where they began to investigate cases of witchcraft. Underlying all of the arising chaos, anxiety plagued various communities, due to the public fear of rebellions, governmental and communal conflicts, and other distressing events (Drake 1968).

People grasped onto the idea that witchcraft caused the community’s problems. Witchcraft accusations were associated with illness and death, especially among children and animals. In one case, after a woman fondled a child that wasn’t hers, the child changed color and died soon afterwards. The child’s nurse accused her of practicing dark magic, leading to the woman’s execution. However, the parents later testified that their child died because of the nurse’s neglect (Drake 1968). This case embodies how witchcraft was often used to explain unusual events such as unexpected deaths, and also to justify the murder of the accused, even if they were innocent.

The public fear of witches extends into the archaeological record; artifacts found in houses dating to the time of the trials connect to the prevalent belief in witchcraft. People would often hide material objects, like horseshoes and witch-bottles, in their homes to ward off witches, demons, and other evil spirits (Hoggard 2004). These artifacts indicate the practice of counter magic, or magic used for protection against evil.

When construction workers were dismantling a New England house built in 1681, they found an iron horseshoe on the site. The horseshoe, and its location nailed to the house near the hearth and the outside door, represented an attempt at protecting the home and its owners from witches (Baker 2015:131). People also used witch-bottles (Figure 2). Like the horseshoes, witch-bottles protected its owners against dark magic and witches; these glazed stoneware bottles contained symbolic items, like pins, nails, urine, and animal remains, that warded off witchcraft (Hoggard 2004).

Figure 2: The witch-bottles were used as a means of defense against witchcraft. Photograph from Kerry Sullivan.

The widespread presence of these items displays the extensive effects of folklore and witchcraft. The eagerness of families to practice counter magic reveals the panic of these people, desperate to protect themselves from any harm at a time of great tension in society.

Further Reading:

The Discovery of the Site Where the Executions Took Place:


The Connection Between the Salem Witch Trials, Witch Hunts, and the Red Scare:



Baker, Emerson W.

2015  A Story of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, New York

Drake, Frederick C.

1968  Witchcraft in the American Colonies, 1647-62. American Quarterly. 20(4): 694-725

Hoggard, Brian

2004  The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic. In Beyond the Witch Trials, edited by Owen Davies and Willem de Blecourt, pp. 167-186. University of Manchester Press, Manchester


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2 thoughts on “Witchcraft: The Folklore That Provoked Fear and Mass Hysteria

  1. Really cool post! I like how you analyze the hysteria over witchcraft for what it can tell us about the political and social conflicts of the time. You do a nice job explaining how studying these events can teach us more about the people living through it. I do wonder though about the possible consequences of conducting an archaeology of witchcraft. Considering what an issue pseudoarchaeology is, what do you think are the possible risks of being an archaeologists who studies primarily “witchcraft”? (not to say that these risks should stop one from doing it)

    • Studying the archaeology of “witchcraft” poses risks, especially in regards to pseudoarchaeology. Pseudoarchaeology typically ignores the context of artifacts and instead allows people to use them to prove their own irrational or imaginative beliefs (Wade 2019). If an archaeologist wants to study witchcraft, and they find an artifact that they believe is linked to magic, they could potentially ignore the historical context of the artifact and use that object to promote the belief in witchcraft. For example, if an archaeologist found a horseshoe that dated back to the time of the Salem Witch Trials, that archaeologist could disregard the mass hysteria and public fear of witches that existed during the early modern period, as well as the underlying tension in New England communities at the time. The horseshoe could then be misinterpreted as evidence of the practice of magic, instead of evidence that people were afraid of magic. Studying the archaeology of witchcraft could also be dangerous in that it could mislead the public into believing that witchcraft actually exists and that there is archaeological evidence that suggests people practiced magic in the past.

      Wade, Lizzie
      2019 Believe in Atlantis? These archaeologists want to win you back to science. Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Electronic Document, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/believe-atlantis-these-archaeologists-want-win-you-back-science, accessed December 14, 2019

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