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The following appeared in The Writer’s Almanac:
On this day in 1692 eight citizens of the colony of Massachusetts were hanged for their supposed connections to witchcraft. Theirs were the last of the deaths caused by the Salem Witch Trials, preceded by 11 other hangings, plus five who died in prison, and one who was crushed to death for refusing to enter a plea.
A period that roughly spanned the spring and summer of 1692, the Salem Witch Trials started when two young girls began displaying bizarre behaviors — convulsing, shouting blasphemy, and generally acting like they were possessed. The girls were the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, a minister relatively new to town but already divisive. He’d moved from Boston where an account of young children who were supposedly “bewitched” by a laundress was published. Parris had insisted on a higher salary and certain perks as the village reverend and insinuated in his sermons that those who opposed him were in cahoots with the Devil.
After the girls’ behavior gained attention and was pronounced the result of an evil spell, several other girls in town began acting strangely too … and began naming individuals in town as the cause. The town was whipped into a frenzy and soon dozens of people — women, men, and children — were accused of and often jailed for practicing or supporting witchcraft. Many of the accusations seemed to fall along the lines of existing feuds or were directed at people who were — because they were poor, not upstanding members of the church, or marginalized in some way — not likely to mount a convincing defense.
By the time the final eight people were hanged on September 22 word about the trials was spreading throughout the state. Within weeks the governor of Massachusetts declared “spectral evidence,” or visions of a person’s spirit doing evil when in fact their physical body was elsewhere, was inadmissible. Soon after he barred any further arrests, disbanded the local court, and released many of the accused. It wasn’t until the following spring that he finally pardoned those who remained in jail. A full decade passed before the trials of 1692 were officially declared illegal, another nine before the names of the accused were cleared from all wrongdoing and their heirs given a restitution, and 265 years before the state of Massachusetts apologized for the events of that most infamous witch hunt.