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The Salem witch trials: Why everyone from Trump to Woody Allen still invokes their hysteria

A detail from the painting “Witch Hill/ The Salem Martyr” by Thomas Satterwhite Nobel, 1869. A woman, found guilty of witchcraft, walks to the gallows with the hangman and judges. (AP)

With two weeks to go before Halloween, it’s open season on witches.

President Trump routinely dismisses the multiple investigations into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia before the 2016 election as “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

And in an interview with the BBC over the weekend, filmmaker Woody Allen warned of a “witch-hunt atmosphere” surrounding the storm of sexual harassment allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

For a culture that largely doesn’t believe in witches, politicians and celebrities spend a lot of time invoking them. (In Zambia, meanwhile, a mob searching for an actual suspected witch burned down a police station Saturday.)

Here’s what Allen, who has himself faced allegations of sexual abuse in the past, had to say after lamenting the harm to done to Weinstein’s victims: “You also don’t want it to lead to a witch-hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

She said her boss raped her in a bank vault. Her sexual harassment case would make legal history.

For many, 17th-century Salem, Mass., is the origin story for our modern definition of witch hunting. The hysteria-fed execution of 14 women and six men for witchcraft in the Puritan colony was a ready-made metaphor for any unforgiving, evidence-scant campaign against a group of people with unpopular views.

But the literal practice of witch hunting was not a made-in-America phenomenon. Historians trace the persecution of those suspected of black magic, heresies and other deviations to at least as early as Exodus 22:18 (roughly, “You will not allow a witch to live”) and other Hebrew scriptural invocations  against witchcraft, according to material compiled by feminist historian Jone Johnson Lewis.

Prohibitions on fortunetelling and other supernatural sins made it into various Christian canons. Campaigns against witches rose and waned, often in keeping with the fortunes of the Catholic Church. In 1317, a German bishop was executed for using sorcery in an assassination attempt against a pope, Lewis found, and in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII authorized monks to investigate suspected witches.

About 12,000 confirmed witch executions have been identified in documents, but the number of those killed could be many times that, Lewis found in her timeline on the witch hunts of Europe. The vast majority of those executed were women.

“In the real witch trials, it was about 75 percent charges of witchcraft made against women,” said Lewis. “How interesting that this time around it’s being resurrected to accuse women who are accusing men.”

The peak of the hysteria was in the late 1500s to the mid-1600s. The Salem trials occurred in 1692, just as official witchcraft acts were being phased out in Europe. A Tennessee man was prosecuted for witchcraft in 1833, the same year Tennessean Andrew Jackson was sworn in for his second term as president.

It was five decades later, in 1885, according to Merriam-Webster, that “witch hunt” first appeared in popular usage. Scholars are divided on when the phrase first jumped to political discourse, but many cite George Orwell’s reporting from Spain in 1938: “The Communist tactic of dealing with political opponents by trumped-up charges is nothing new. … Rank-and-file Communists everywhere are led away on a senseless witch-hunt.”

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But “witch hunt” was invoked in the American political sphere even earlier, at the end of World War I during a Senate investigation into propaganda activities by German and Bolshevik agents (particularly among German-born beer brewers). Witness Raymond Robbins, a Red Cross officer who had been stationed in Russia, expressed hope the country would deal with suspected Bolshevik sympathizers with intelligent action instead of in a “witch hunt.” Here’s the exchange in the session, according to the Congressional Record.

Sen. Lee Overman (R-N.C.): “What do you mean by ‘witch hunt’?”

Mr. Robbins: “I mean this, Senator. You are familiar with the old witch-hunt attitude, that when people get frightened at things and see bogies, then they get out witch proclamations, and mob action and all kinds of hysteria take place.”

Sen. Overman: “This committee has been called a witch hunt.”

Mr. Robbins: “I wish to make no possible sort of criticism of the committee.”

Some three decades a later, another Senate investigation into communist infiltration of American society would forever weld “witch hunt” into the political lexicon. It would become synonymous with McCarthyism, named for the Wisconsin senator who accused civil servants, soldiers and writers of traitorous communist ties with no proof.

One of those he would accuse, playwright Arthur Miller, would finally draw the circle from Sen. Joseph McCarthy all the way back to zealot judges of Salem with his acclaimed parable drama, “The Crucible.”

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