Everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials of Massachusetts, 1692-1693. Nineteen people – fifteen women and four men – were found guilty of witchcraft, and hanged. A twentieth, Giles Corey, refused to enter a plea and was tortured to death. Two dogs were also killed.
What’s less often mentioned, though, is that many of the perpetrators of this atrocity later publicly repented.
In 1697, assistant magistrate Samuel Sewall asked for his apology to be read aloud publicly at a nearby church. Likewise, twelve of the jurors involved released a written statement admitting “that we ourselves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand, the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness, and prince of the air,” taking responsibility for “the guilt of innocent blood,” and calling themselves “sadly deluded and mistaken.”
And in 1706, Ann Putnam Jr. – one of the principal accusers, though only a child at the time, and likely manipulated by others – also publicly apologized, saying that she did “earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense.”
This is not to imply that all guilty parties apologized; many central figures remained unrepentant, as far as I could discover. Nor am I suggesting that a mere apology can excuse the horrific pain and death their actions enabled.
The apologies do, however, suggest something hopeful: that people, and society, can and do change for the better.
Massachusetts has not, to my knowledge, executed anyone for witchcraft in quite some time.