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5 Reasons to Teach the Salem Witch Trials

American Literature Five Reasons To Teach Series

Salem Witch Trial Teaching Materials

The weather is cooling down, the leaves are changing colors–it’s the perfect time to harness this Halloween vibe and study one of history’s most haunting episodes:  The Salem Witch Trials. As an English teacher, I combine this with The Crucible for a double dose of toil and trouble for my students. I find the combo of real-life events and the fictional play to be a powerful teaching tool. That being said, here are five reasons to teach the Salem Witch Trials:

  1. The Salem Witch Trials are an example of real-life horror. I remember, as a youngster, when I first learned that the Salem witches weren’t actual witches, I admit, I was a bit disappointed. But later, when I truly studied the Salem Witch Trials, I realized that the real-life events were even more horrifying than any real-life witchery could be. The fact that once-normal citizens turned on their neighborsaccusing them of horrible crimes is much worse because it really happened. These trials are a true American horror story.
  2. The Salem Witch Trials led to many of our rights as American citizens. So many of the events of the trials are a mirror reverse of the rights we enjoy today. People were considered guilty until proven innocent. Circumstantial evidence was accepted as fact, and defendants were forced to testify, and their own words used against them. It’s no surprise that our Founding Fathers looked back to these trials as they crafted the legal protections we now view as commonplace.
  3. The events of the Salem Witch Trial are as ridiculous as they are frightening.  The Salem Witch Trials are the perfect example of truth being stranger than fiction. Incredibly silly charges led to the deaths of many innocent people–and one dog. When John Bradstreet’s dog barked at the “witch-afflicted” girls, both he and his dog were accused of witchcraft. Bradstreet fled to New Hampshire, but his dog, unaware of the charges against him, was hanged. This kind of ridiculous behavior invites parody, but what asinine things does our own culture do? What will future generations laugh at us for? These are important questions to ask.
  4. The Salem Witch Trials show the consequences of lying. I always begin my unit on The Crucible by asking my students if they would lie to get themselves out of trouble. Much to my chagrin, they often say that “Yes, they would” and then proceed to explain how the end justifies the means. Fast-forward to the end of The Crucible when Abigail Williams’ lies and the lies of the other “afflicted” girls have resulted in the deaths of many innocent townspeople. Then I ask the question again, and I even produce the students’ original answer–asking them how they view their former response in light of the story. Of course, some still stand by their original statement, but others recognize the lesson the story has taught:  Lying can ruin the lives of others.
  5. The Salem Witch Trials show how emotion can overpower rational thought. Although many people believe that witch trials were predominantly a product of the Middle Ages, more witches were killed post-Renaissance, and not by the church either. (The Catholic Church actually opposed witch-hunters and their methods.) In fact, the ultimate witch-hunting textbook the Malleus Maleficarum was written by a former monk, kicked out of the church for torturing supposed witches. But thanks to the printing press, the book saw widespread publication, and the mania captured the frenzied imaginations of the people. In Europe governments began persecuting suspected witches, and the mania spread to the colonies in the New World–even to Salem Village, Massachusetts. We must ask, in our modern world:  What will be the next wave of paranoia? What “witch hunt” will threaten the rights of others? From Communist scares to Cancel Culture, the applications are endless. Whenever society decides to forego rational thought in favor of fear and hatred, we have our perfect historical example of what not to do.
Resources to teach the Salem Witch Trials:

Salem Witch Trials Game Based on Mafia

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