Role of skin lesions in the Salem witchcraft trials

Am J Dermatopathol. 1989 Dec;11(6):582-7. doi: 10.1097/00000372-198912000-00014.


In the late 17th century, several hundred people were tried for the crime of practicing witchcraft in Salem Village, Massachusetts. Twenty-four people died before the Superior Court of Judicature dismissed the remaining cases and Governor Phips pardoned and granted amnesty to all of the accused and convicted. The evidence used to convict a person of being a witch included spectral evidence confessions, and apparent proof of that person's alleged supernatural abilities. Also used as evidence were skin lesions characteristic of what were termed "devil's marks" or "witch's marks." It was believed that the devil would confirm his pact with a witch by giving her or him a mark of identification. Devil's marks included a variety of skin lesions described as flat or raised, red, blue, or brown lesions, sometimes with unusual outlines. Witch's marks were most probably supernumerary nipples. It was believed that familiars (agents of the devil, usually in animal form) would receive sustenance by being suckled. In the Salem witchcraft trials, a variety of skin lesions were used as confirmatory evidence that the accused person had made a pact with the devil, but there is no indication in the trial transcripts that anyone was convicted based on this evidence alone.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Dermatology / history*
  • History, 17th Century
  • Humans
  • Jurisprudence*
  • Magic*
  • Massachusetts
  • Medicine in the Arts
  • Skin / pathology*