Fact check: Witches weren't burned at the stake in American colonies, historians say

·4 min read

The claim: No witches were burned at the stake in America

In retellings of historical witch hunts, it's often claimed that the people convicted of witchcraft – mostly women – were burned at the stake. But social media users claim accused witches in colonial America never met that archetypal fate.

“Did you know that there were no witches burned at the stake in America, unlike England,” an Oct. 15 Facebook post reads.

The post accumulated more than 300likes and 40 shares in a few days.

The claim is missing context. Historians say that people found to be witches were hanged, not burned, in accordance with English and colonial law. But, the post is wrong in claiming this is unlike what occurred in England. And one historian said it's possible burnings at the stake could have been conducted in parts of the future United States that were under Spanish rule.

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USA TODAY reached out to the post’s creator for comment.

Colonial ‘witches’ hanged, not burned, historians say

In 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts, American colonists accused more than 200 people of practicing witchcraft. Twenty were condemned to execution.

At the time, witchcraft – defined by English law as using magical powers bestowed by the devil, according to the New England School of Law – was a felony offense. Mary Beth Norton, a Cornell University professor and author of “In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692,” confirmed that no witches were burned at the stake in North America or in England; they were hanged.

“In the Anglo-American legal tradition, the most severe punishment was hanging,” Norton said. “That was true in colonial America as well as on the home island. But often, people accused of witchcraft in the colonies got off with some sort of lesser punishment. That was not true in Salem in 1692, when 19 were hanged.”

The accused man not hanged, Giles Corey, was crushed to death with heavy stones after refusing to plead innocent or guilty, according to Library of Congress records.

In 1692, the Salem witch trials resulted in the conviction and hanging of 19 people.
In 1692, the Salem witch trials resulted in the conviction and hanging of 19 people.

Laura Stokes, a history professor at Stanford University, confirmed that hanging, not burning, was the execution method of choice in colonial America.

"The witches executed at Salem and elsewhere in the colonies that later became the United States were hanged on gallows," they said.

The idea of burning witches at the stake didn’t form out of thin air. Across the European continent, particularly in Catholic countries, witches were burned at the stake because they were seen as heretics, Norton said.

"In English law, they weren’t regarded as heretics despite their consorting with the devil," she said. "Heretics – Protestants or Catholics depending on who was on the English throne at the time – were occasionally burned at the stake in England too, but not witches. So people see images of witch burnings on the internet today, or in books/magazines, and think that applies to the colonies and Salem witchcraft."

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But Stokes warned against "absolute statements," writing in an email that witch trials in non-English colonies could have ended in execution by fire.

"There may have been witch trials in the colonies under Spanish rule in what later became the USA, as there were in Latin America," they said. "They may well have ended at the stake."

Our rating: Missing context

We rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that no witches were burned at the stake in America. It's accurate that the American colonies, in line with English tradition, did not burn suspected witches at the stake. Those people were killed through hanging instead. However, one historian said it's possible burnings at the stake could have been conducted in parts of the future United States that were under Spanish rule. The post is also wrong in claiming this is unlike England, since the practice of hanging rather than burning at the stake came from England.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Witches hanged, not burned, in American colonies

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