10 Famous Paranormal Hoaxes

The Salem Witches
This illustration shows a woman being accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s. © Baldwin H. Ward & Kathryn C. Ward/CORBIS

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 represent one of the darkest chapters in the history of the New World, when the false accusations of a handful of teenage girls led to the execution of 20 men and women, and the death of seven others in prison, on charges of witchcraft [source: History.com].

The panic began when the young daughter and niece of Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem Village were struck with a mysterious illness that triggered violent contortions and hysterical screaming. A local doctor pronounced them "bewitched," or cursed by a minion of the devil [source: Salem Witch Museum].

Belief in the devil was strong in the 17th century, and the community of Salem Village was rattled by a recent smallpox epidemic and attacks from Native American tribes. The atmosphere bred a powerful need to blame the community's troubles on supernatural causes.

The girls named their accused witches, who were tried in a special court on the flimsiest spectral evidence -- the alleged ability of the accused to appear to the girls in spirit while their physical bodies where elsewhere [source: History.com].

Other young girls started exhibiting the same "symptoms" and pointing fingers at their neighbors. During the spring and fall of 1692, 150 citizens of Salem Village were thrown in jail on charges of witchcraft [source: Salem Witch Museum].

By October, the governor of Massachusetts banned spectral evidence and disbanded the witchcraft court. Those still in jail were released and pardoned, and financial compensation was given to the heirs of the wrongly executed [source: History.com]. What was really behind the accusations is still a mystery.