What would turn out to be the world's last great witch hunt began 300 years ago this year.
In February 1692, hysteria and panic raced through the tiny settlement of Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony after a group of girls, influenced by a West Indies-born housekeeper, began acting strangely. In the following months, what would come to be known as the Salem Witch Trials would rock the town north of Boston. By the time the terror ended, 19 people had died on the gallows, three or four had died in jail, a man had been crushed to death by stones in a vain attempt to extract a confession, and more than 150 people were imprisoned. Others fled the town in fear of being falsely accused.
It has been through the acclaimed 20th century drama, "The Crucible," by playwright Arthur Miller, that the Salem Witch Trials have been recycled through the American consciousness. Introduced in 1953, amid the hysteria of anti-Communist hearings being conducted by Wisconsin's Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, "The Crucible" helped shape the views of American society regarding the danger posed by overzealous accusers armed with few facts.
Historians say the excesses at Salem, the wholesale accusations and the torture of innocent people into confessions, offended the sensibilities of the Puritan community.
"It is believed that events at Salem marked the beginning of the end of witchcraft trials in England and Europe," wrote Ken Radford, author of the 1989 book "Fire Burn: Tales of Witchery."
The community was poised for trouble when fears about witchcraft were raised that late bitter winter of 1691-'92.
"The Salem witch craze began in February 1692 in the home of the Rev. Samuel Parris," writes Bryna Stevens in her book "Witches." Parris had worked in Barbados and brought back a young woman, Tituba, to care for his sick wife and his 9-year-old daughter, Betty, and his orphaned 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams. Tituba fascinated the girls with tales of voodoo magic, and soon more neighborhood girls gathered to hear her.
Tituba's "crystal ball" was an egg white plopped into a clear glass. She told the girls' future and what their husbands would be like by what she saw in the glob. She played cards and told fortunes. Soon the children were spreading stories and adding their imaginings to them.
The girls fell into fits of hallucinations. They awoke screaming in the night and said ghosts were hovering about the room. Nothing could console them in their terror, Mr. Radford said. "If they were under the spell of witchcraft, the neighbors argued, then there were witches hiding among them."
Soon Tituba was being called a witch openly. She was beaten with brooms.
On Feb. 29, she and two other women, whom town whisperers called possessed, were arrested. They were Sarah Osburn, a respected citizen who had abandoned the church, and Sarah Good, a homeless beggar.
The next day, they were taken to a Salem tavern and questioned by magistrates. For six days, they faced an inquisition, as a crowd of villagers blamed them for every misfortune in their lives.
Each time during the trial that Good looked at the village girls, they fell onto the floor and went into rolling fits.
"Convulsions, rigid limbs and backward arching of the spine, loss of speech, the delusion of flying, would be recognized by a physician of the 20th century as the symptoms of hysteria," Mr. Radford said.