Author Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in a town called Salem in Massachusetts, USA, which was associated with witches in the 1690s. It was a time when most people believed that witches were a real danger and, in Puritan America, practising witchcraft was illegal and punished by death. In 1692, a series of strange events and unexplained behaviour was blamed on witches. Nowadays we know that science might describe these episodes as epilepsy or mental illness but in 1692 the villagers immediately associated it with the work of the devil. Almost 200 people were arrested and after torture and confessions, 14 women, 5 men and 2 dogs were executed!

Evidence used at the trials to prove that someone was a witch included having unusual birthmarks on the body, owning a cat or a doll and appearing in someone’s dream. Women who used plants and ointments to cure people were also considered witches. Hawthorne’s own ancestors were involved in the Witch Trials there and this legacy had a great influence on his writing. He condemned rigid Puritan values and even changed his name from the original Hathorne to distance himself from his great-great grandfather, Judge John Hathorne, who sentenced the ‘witches’ to death.

Illustration by Gianni De Conno, taken from The Scarlet Letter, Reading and Training, Step 5 (B2.2)