Digital Mapping Leads Scholar Benjamin Ray ’62 to New Salem Witch Trials Insight

Benjamin Ray ’62, a University of Virginia religious studies professor, has published a new book, Satan and Salem, that helps reveal when and how Salem’s witchcraft hysteria began more than 300 years ago. Scholars have never fully understood why the small Massachusetts village spawned a spate of accusations against supposed witches.

Ray led the development of an award-winning U.Va digital archive of primary source materials about the Salem witch trials, which allowed him to digitally map the geography and timing of each accusation. His work steered him to the conclusion that religious difference played a major part part in the mass delirium that left more than 150 people accused and 19 killed.

“Most of the accusers were daughters of church members, while most of the accused were outside of the church,” explains a University of Virginia article. “[Ray] also noticed that accusations began to leap to Andover, Reading and other villages in the region with the same message that Satan was not just trying to destroy [Samuel] Parris’ church [a controversial Salem minister], but the church as a whole.”


  1. Not just religious difference, but religion itself bears primary responsibility for these types of murders throughout early modern Europe and North America. The requisite fear of divine reprisal, combined with a categorization of vulnerable populations deemed “other” by local religious authority have led to witch hunts, inquisitions, and pogroms throughout medieval and early modern western history. Salem was just one more example. Historical thought may need to come to the common sense conclusion that religion in history needs be treated like the humorism of Galenic medicine: for whatever argument can be made for its positive ambitions, it was simply misguided, harmful, and ultimately in need of replacement.

  2. tim prince says:

    That always appeared to be a documented aspect of the witch trials. Among the accusations against my forebear, Sarah (formerly Prince) Osborne, were poor church attendance (bed-ridden, difficult journey in winter). She and Robert Prince had been on record in opposition to paying church tax after moving out to the country.

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