J.K. Rowling Reveals the Sinister History Behind the Salem Witch Trials

     March 9, 2016


In the second of four short pieces of writing that further reveal the history of magic on the North American continent, J.K. Rowling is tackling one of the biggest magical topics of all: the Salem Witch Trials. As part of the lead up to the America-set Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Potter author is taking the opportunity to lay some historical groundwork by revealing some of the canon history on this side of the pond. Yesterday she addressed the topic of Native American magic, taking us up to the 17th century, but today’s new piece of writing seems to be far more revelatory both in terms of Fantastic Beasts and the Harry Potter canon overall.

In revealing the history behind the Salem Witch Trials over at Pottermore, Rowling writes that North America was a much harsher environment for witches and wizards than the Old World of Europe. This was due to a variety of factors, from the lack of readily available resources for potion-making and such, to the No-Maj’s (the American word for “muggle”) harsh treatment of both the Native American population and each other. The biggest and most dangerous issue, however, involves something called a Scourer.

As the wizarding community in America was small, scattered and secretive, it had as yet no law enforcement mechanism of its own. This left a vacuum that was filled by an unscrupulous band of wizarding mercenaries of many foreign nationalities, who formed a much-feared and brutal taskforce committed to hunting down not only known criminals, but anyone who might be worth some gold. As time went on, the Scourers became increasingly corrupt. Far away from the jurisdiction of their native magical governments, many indulged a love of authority and cruelty unjustified by their mission.


Image via Warner Bros.

Rowling adds that corrupt Scourers were known to traffic their own kind, or pass off innocent No-Majs as wizards in order to collect rewards from unassuming non-magic folk. This laid the path for the Salem Witch Trials, for which Rowling says at least two known Scourers were among the so-called Puritan judges. The author writes that some of those persecuted during the trials were indeed witches, though innocent of the crimes for which they were accused, while others were innocent No-Majs.

The brutality of the Salem Witch Trials led to the creation of the Magical Congress of the United States of America—abbreviated as MACUSA—in 1693, which is the American version of the Ministry of Magic. This was the wizarding community’s attempt to govern and police itself, and led to many Scourers being put on trial and executed for betraying their own kind.

Interestingly enough, in what may be some foreshadowing for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling says many notorious Scourers eluded justice and began to mix in with the No-Maj population, favoring offspring that were not magic-inclined and instilling in their family both a belief in and hatred for magic and all magic-folk. Rowling says this led to North American No-Majs being much harder to fool than the muggles of Europe, which had “far-reaching repercussions on the way the American wizarding community is governed.”

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which takes place in 1920s New York City, we know that there are a number of curious characters that could be directly tied to this Salem History, particularly Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou, described as a narrow-minded No-Maj and leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society. Ezra Miller, in a mysterious role, plays her “troubled” adopted son, so might this family be descendants of the Scourers? And how do they fit into the overall plot of Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander and his gaggle of mystical creatures getting loose in New York City? We’ll just have to wait until the film opens on November 18th to find out.


Image via Warner Bros.


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