The Salem Witch Trials is one of the most famed–and tragic–events in American History. Today, the area is a thriving tourist community filled with “witches” willing to tell fortunes and help with all kinds of ailments. But its beginnings were grim and heart-wrenching.
Early in 1692, in the village of Salem, Reverend Samuel Parris’s daughter, Betty Parris age 9, and his niece Abigail Williams age 11, were stricken with a sudden and mysterious illness which brought fits “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits.” The illness persisted beyond normality and the village doctor, William Griggs, was brought into the household. The girls screamed, crawled under furniture, threw objects, and contorted themselves into horrifying positions. They also described pains of being “pinched and pricked with pins”. Even the physician was baffled. So, like any rational man of medicine, he diagnosed the girls with “bewitchment.” Soon, many other girls in the village began exhibiting these strange behaviors. Among these were also 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, and Elizabeth Hubbard. (They were later joined by others in the finger-pointing and theatrics.)
This unfortunate diagnosis ultimately set off the infamous Salem Witch Trials in the which resulted in the imprisonment of more than 200 people, nineteen of whom were found guilty and executed by hanging. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. This surprised me because I thought witches were burned at the stake or drowned. Apparently, there were many ways to execute a witch.
To add to the senseless tragedy, five more died in prison, including an infant, Mercy Good. Her sister, Dorothy Good, only four years old at the time, was also imprisoned for her mother’s ‘involvement’ in witchcraft. She lived another decade or so, but she was so damaged by her treatment in prison that she became insane.
It is hailed as the deadliest witch hunt in America’s history.
What many people don’t know is that while some of the events did happen in present-day Salem, the majority of the trials took place in Salem Village which is present-day Danvers, Massachusetts. Neighbors of Salem Village considered the population as “quarrelsome.” There were arguments about property lines, grazing rights, and church privileges. Like any small town, there were fights and feuds in which the entire community was involved. It all seems petty now, doesn’t it?
I’ll back up a bit to give some background. In 1672, the villagers had voted to hire a minister of their own, apart from Salem Village. The first two stayed only a few years each, departing after the congregation failed to pay their full rate. Ironically, even one of the ministers, George Burroughs, was arrested at the height of the witchcraft hysteria and hanged as a witch in August 1692.
The first ordained minister of Salem Village’s choice was Samuel Parris. He received ￡66 annually “one-third part in money and the other two parts in provisions” as well as use of the parsonage. Salem Village hired him in June of 1689 and raised his benefits in October of 1689, which conflicted with a 1681 Village resolution which stated that “it shall not be lawful for the inhabitants of this village to convey the houses or lands or any other concerns belonging to the Ministry to any particular persons or person.” Whoops.
Reverend Parris’s delay of his acceptance of the position increased the village’s divisions, and he was not seen in a good light by his own congregation. To make matters worse, this so-called man of God deliberately sought out “iniquitous behavior” and made up-standing church members suffer public penance for small infractions. This reminds me of my zero-hour high school teacher making me stand in front of the class and explain why I was five minutes late one morning. Humiliating! This increased Salem Village’s tension. (Also, remember that Parris’s daughters’ diagnosis of bewitchment started the witch craze.)
Additionally, thanks in large part to the church minister who audaciously called himself a Christian, rumors of witchcraft swept the villages neighboring Salem prior to the outbreak of the hysteria in 1692. Cotton Mather, a minister of Boston’s North Church, was a prolific publisher of pamphlets, including some that expressed his belief in witchcraft.
In these pamphlets, Mather illustrates how Boston mason John Goodwin’s eldest child had been tempted by the devil and stolen linen from the washerwoman Goody Glover. Honestly, I would be pretty upset if some kid kept wandering into my yard and stealing my linens, too. I think Goody Glover had something going here. Nonetheless, Glover was seen as a disagreeable old woman and described by her husband as a witch. (I’m hearing the line from Princess Bride…”I’m not a witch–I’m your wife, and after what you just said, I’m not sure I want to be that anymore!”) All joking aside, his unkind description of his wife may have prompted the formal accusation.
Four of the six Goodwin children had strange fits, which quickly became associated with witchcraft. These symptoms included “neck and back pains, tongues being drawn from their throats, and loud random outcries.” Other symptoms included having no control over their bodies such as contortionism, flapping their arms like birds, or trying to harm others as well as themselves.
Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne were among the first to be accused and arrested for affecting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard. At the time, a vicious rivalry was underway between the Putnam and Porter families which resulted in polarizing the people of Salem. These disagreements often escalated into full-fledged fighting based on their opinion of the feud. I suppose an accusation of witchcraft was an easy way to get rid of an enemy, considering the gullible and superstitious nature of the people in this town.
Tituba, the first to be targeted, was reportedly a South American Indian slave belonging to Samuel Parris. She was accused of telling the girls stories of enchantment which included sexual encounters with demons, swaying the minds of men, and fortune-telling. While centuries later Tituba’s involvement in the witch hunt hysteria is hailed as the catalyst, there was no evidence to support this. It’s likely that she did tell stories from her native land. Who wouldn’t? I’m sure she meant no harm.
Sarah Good was a homeless beggar accused of rejecting Puritan ideals, choosing to torment and “scorn [children] instead of leading them towards the path of salvation”.
Sarah Osborne was also an easy target; she rarely attended church meetings and she had remarried–to an indentured servant. The villagers of Salem also disapproved of her trying to control her son’s inheritance from her previous marriage.
One thing is clear: each woman was an outcast in some way and each exhibited many of the character traits typical of the “usual suspects” for witchcraft accusations. Each woman was interrogated for several days starting on March 1st, 1692 and then sent to jail.
During the month of March, others accused of witchcraft included: Martha Corey, Dorothy Good, daughter of Sarah Good–who was only four years old at the time–Rebecca Nurse from Salem and Rachel Clinton in nearby Ipswich. Martha Corey had expressed skepticism about the credibility of the girls’ accusations and drew attention that way. However, the accusation against Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse rocked Salem; both women were fully covenanted members of the Church. They were good, God-fearing women.
Now anyone could be a witch.
The hysteria increased. Accusations came flooding into the courthouses. Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca Nurse’s sister, and Elizabeth Proctor were arrested in April. John Proctor protested his wife’s arrest and was arrested himself that same day. He maintained his innocence as well, and openly and strongly criticized the court’s use of spectral evidence.
The accused were brought before John Hathorne, a relative of famous writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Jonathan Corwin in Salem Town.
Giles Corey, Martha Corey’s husband, was also arrested with Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Marry Warren, and Deliverance Hobbs. To save their own lives, Abigail Hobbs, Mary Warren, and Deliverance Hobbs all confessed and began naming additional people as accomplices. As a result, Sarah Wildes, William Hobbs, Nehemia Abbot Jr., Mary Easty, Edward Bishop Jr. and his wife Sarah Bishop, and Mary English were all arrested and brought to trial.
May brought more accusations but some suspects began to evade apprehension. Names poured in, some brought on by those arrested. Sarah Osborne, meanwhile, perished in jail on May 10th, 1692. At the end of May, the total number of people in custody was 62.
The first person to be brought to grand trial was 30-year-old Bridget Bishop. On April 19th, 1692, she was examined by John Hathorne – patrilineal ancestor of famous writer Nathaniel Hawthorne – and Jonathan Corwin. During Bridget’s questioning, the young girls Elizabeth Hubbard, Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, and Mercy Lewes testified that she was hurting them. Even small motions Bishop made, like looking upwards or shaking her head, caused the girls to cry out in pain, thus solidifying the jury’s beliefs that she was a witch. She was described as having an “immoral” lifestyle, wore black clothing and odd costumes. Bishop was vehement that she was innocent, repeating that she had no idea who her accusers were, that she had never seen them before and she had never made any deals with the devil. Below is an excerpt of her examination:
Bridget Bishop: I am no Witch.
John Hathorne: Why if you have not wrote in the book, yet tell me how far you
have gone? Have you not to do with familiar Spirits?
Bridget Bishop: I have no familiarity with the Devil.
John Hathorne: How is it then, that your appearance doth hurt these?
Bridget Bishop: I am innocent.
John Hathorne: Why you seem to act Witchcraft before us, by the motion of your
body, which seems to have influence fluence upon the afflicted.
John Hathorne: I know nothing of it. I am innocent to a Witch. I know not what
a Witch is.
John Hathorne: How do you know then that you are not a witch? #[and yet know not what a Witch is?]
Bridget Bishop: I do not #[understand] know what you say.
John Hathorne: How can you know, you are no Witch, & yet not know what a Witch is:
Bridget Bishop: I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it.
— Excerpt of the Examination of Bridget Bishop, as Recorded by Samuel Parris (http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/swp?div_id=n13)
Despite her pleas, Bridget was convicted and executed by hanging on June 10, 1692. Chilling. The only evidence the judges had were the cries of ‘pain’ by underaged girls, and poor Bridget’s personal choices of clothing.
“There were four execution dates, with one person executed on June 10, 1692, five executed on July 19, 1692 (Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe and Sarah Wildes), another five executed on August 19, 1692 (Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr. and John Proctor), and eight on September 22, 1692 (Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, Ann Pudeator, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd and Margaret Scott).
Several others, including Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor and Abigail Faulkner, were convicted but given temporary reprieves because they were pregnant. Five other women were convicted in 1692, but the death sentence was never carried out: Mary Bradbury (in absentia), Ann Foster (who later died in prison), Mary Lacey Sr. (Foster’s daughter), Dorcas Hoar and Abigail Hobbs.”
Giles Corey was one of the few males accused of witchcraft. He refused to enter a plea when he came to trial in September, so he was tortured by way of peine forte et dure, in which stones were piled on his chest until he could no longer breathe. While under torture, the magistrates tried to make him talk. He famously said “more weight!” instead of acquiescing. He endured for two days before ultimately perishing. “His death was a protest against the methods of the court.”
Once they were convicted witches, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey were excommunicated from their churches and denied proper burials. As soon as the bodies of the accused were cut down from their gallows, they were thrown into a shallow grave and abandoned.
Supposedly, family members later dug up their remains and reburied them in unmarked graves in family property. At least they cared enough to do this. I can’t imagine the horrors their families must have endured. To be accused of witchcraft and then to be discarded like trash… These women deserved so much better. It’s quite sobering to think that not even these wonderful ladies were unable to avoid the witch hunt. One would’ve thought that they, of all people, would’ve been safe.
No one was safe from the hysteria.
Eventually but much too late, “the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October of 1692. The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the “witchcraft” court, did not allow the spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or specters to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch trials were over.
As years passed, apologies were offered and restitution was made to the victims’ families. Historians and sociologists have examined this most complex episode in our history so that we may understand the issues of that era and view subsequent events with heightened awareness.” (http://www.salem.org/salem-witch-trials/)While visiting Salem, known as The Witch Town, it was clear the residents were not afraid of the history their town harbored. Many psychics, ghost hunters, and other paranormal enthusiasts make their home here. Even the local law enforcers carry a badge with a witch riding on a broomstick. It’s really cool! I find it ironic and poetically just the Salem area has now attracted the very kinds of people it was trying to eradicate.
The town itself is a town like any other, though with some of the oldest houses I’ve ever seen! Near Halloween, it becomes a huge tourist attraction for Ghost Tours, haunted houses, and of course staying in the extremely famous and haunted Hawthorne Hotel. The residents I stayed with expressed their exasperation of the touristy time of year. I can agree.
I read and watched The Crucible in high school and became morbidly fascinated by the happenings during these trials. It all began with a group of girls began wildly accusing people of witchcraft simply because they didn’t like them. Although, to be fair, some scholars have suggested many were hallucinating due to a poisonous fungus growing on bread. Regardless of the cause, the wild accusations and the actions of those who jumped to irrational conclusions resulted in death and torture of many innocent adults and children, affection generations. I wonder if those girls eventually realized what they had done and had some sort of regret. Who is to say what really went through their heads?
A fun fact: Abigail Williams did flee Salem like in The Crucible, but she reportedly became a prostitute. Mercy Lewis went to live with her aunt in Boston, eventually marrying in 1701.
The judges were as much to blame as the girls for allowing their judgments to be swayed by prepubescent children seeking attention. Reportedly, John Hathorne showed no repentance for his involvement in the Trials. Nathaniel Hawthorne added the ‘w’ into his own last name to be disassociated with his ancestor.
Residents of Salem leave fresh flowers and other trinkets on the memorials of those killed during the trials every day. It is a touching and sobering reminder of what transpired and what could have been avoided.
On that grim note…Happy Halloween!
Ray, Benjamin, and University of Virginia. “Bridget Bishop Executed, June 10, 1692.” Salem Witch Trials Notable Persons, 2002, salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/swp?div_id=n13.
“Salem Witch Trials.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials.
sirisaac-dev. “Salem Witch Trials.” Destination Salem, 29 May 2018, www.salem.org/salem-witch-trials/.
Wallenfeldt, Jeff. “Salem Witch Trials.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Dec. 2017, www.britannica.com/event/Salem-witch-trials.