Before sending your daughter or granddaughter out trick-or-treating in a pointy black hat, please pause to reconsider history, because to become a witch for Halloween is to make light of centuries of human tragedy.

“Be a wily wee witch,” urges one holiday costume website. “Your little girl will look adorable decked out in this witch’s hat, cape and green wig for Trick or Treating!”

The internet abounds with sites for costumes from “Pretty Potion” to “Bewitched Sabrina, Broomsticks sold separately.”

Fascination with witches is nothing new. Both Longfellow and Hawthorne (the descendant of one Salem witch judge) wrote poems and historical novels about witches. Hollywood made up Maine native Margaret Hamilton as a nasty crone in the “The Wizard of Oz,” while Disney enhanced stereotypes in “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White.” Yet history is definitely scarier than these celluloid images. Witches are about intolerance, religious bigotry and the abuse of power.

More than 50,000 persons in Europe were executed as witches between 1400 and 1775, 85% of them women. “The Hammer of Witches,” the how-to manual written by two priests and sanctioned by Pope Innocent VIII, made witchcraft heresy. It detailed ways to identify, arrest, torture and kill witches. The main thesis was that due to Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, women were more susceptible to the devil’s temptations.

Witch hunts have occurred throughout human history. In Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692, not only common folks but many well-educated magistrates and ministers were convinced that Satan, assisted by his earthy agents, was intent upon destroying their Christian communities. Within a period of nine months, 117 women and 39 men were arrested. Fourteen women and six men were hanged and one man pressed to death beneath stones for refusing to enter any plea. New England Puritans were considered lenient because they hanged witches rather than burning them alive.

Salem, Massachusetts, celebrates itself as “Witch City” and has been inviting tourists to “stop by for a spell” on Halloween since 1876. However, more men, women and children from Andover were imprisoned for witchcraft and confessed to committing the capital crime than from any other town. Seventeenth-century witch hunts and executions also took place in Connecticut.

Few little girls wearing witch costumes these days would want to hear Dorothy Good’s story. Salem’s smallest victim was 4 when put into chains to join her mother in prison. Sarah Good was a vagrant who roamed Salem Village with her daughter, begging food from door to door. When questioned by judges and jury, little Dorothy agreed her mother must be a witch if everyone said so.

“Mama hurt people with the help of one black and one yellow bird,” the child claimed, while her own familiar was a snake that sucked between her fingers. She held up a hand, spreading her fingers so the court could see the bite marks. According to trial records, inquisitors “observed a deep red spot, the bigness of a flea bite” between the tiny fingers. After her mother went to the gallows, Dorothy remained in prison seven more months and never recovered from her terrible ordeal.

The Salem trials hold a powerful message for our own time. They offer case studies in victimization and examples of the tragic results of persecution when gossip and fear triumph over reason. At the dedication of the memorial honoring Salem’s 1692 victims in 1992, Elie Wiesel, the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said, “We still have our Salems …” One word characterizes what happened here, and that word is fanaticism.

Juliet H. Mofford of Bath is a former museum educator and full-time writer. 

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