Salem Witch Trials
SALEM WITCH TRIALS
In 1692 the community of Salem, Massachusetts, was engulfed in a series of witchcraft afflictions, accusations, trials, and executions. During the course of the year, more than a dozen persons claimed to be afflicted by spells of black magic and sorcery that had been allegedly cast by men and women who had enlisted the supernatural powers of the devil. Most of the persons claiming to be afflicted were teenage girls.
Those persecuted for allegedly practicing witchcraft included Salem residents who deviated in some way from Puritan religious, cultural, or economic norms. Other victims of the witch craze were perceived to be enemies of the largest family in Salem. A few victims were simply weak and sickly people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The legal institutions offered little protection for those accused of witchcraft because the primitive Massachusetts judicial system was still governed by superstitious rules of evidence permitting testimony about malevolent apparitions and broomsticks capable of flight. Although some ordinary Salem residents doubted the credibility of the witchcraft accusations, it was not until they were joined by authorities from Boston that the witch-hunt came to a close.
The outbreak of witchcraft hysteria took place in Salem Village, a small community a few miles inland from Salem Town. Salem Village was not an autonomous entity and lacked a government of its own until 1752 when it achieved independence and became known as Danvers. Salem Village was almost exclusively agrarian, cut off from the ports and tributaries that made Salem Town more mercantile and international in character. Although both communities were predominantly Puritan, during the seventeenth century Salem Town acquired an increasingly secular appearance through the growth of its fur, fish, and timber industries.
The Salem witch craze was largely fueled by personal differences between two families, the Putnams and the Porters. John Putnam Sr. (1579–1662) was the patriarch of the largest family in Salem. He had three sons, Thomas Putnam, Sr. (1615–86), Nathaniel Putnam (1619–1700), and John Putnam Jr. (1627–1710). John Porter Sr. (1595–1676) was the patriarch of the richest family in Salem. He had four sons, John Porter Jr. (1618–84), Joseph Porter (1638–1714), Benjamin Porter (1639–1723), and Israel Porter (1644–1706), and a daughter, Sarah Porter (1649–1725).
The Putnams were farmers who followed the simple and austere lifestyle of traditional Puritans. Although the Porters derived much of their wealth from agricultural operations as well, they were also entrepreneurs who developed commercial interests in Salem Town, throughout New England, and in the Caribbean. The Porters' diversified business interests allowed them to increase their family's wealth while the Putnam family wealth stagnated.
An interfamily rivalry began in 1672 when a dam and sawmill run by the Porters flooded the Putnam farms, resulting in a lawsuit brought by John Putnam Sr. A few years later the Putnams petitioned the town in an effort to obtain political independence for the village, and the Porters opposed them. The arrival of Reverend Samuel Parris in 1689 intensified the Putnam-Porter conflict.
Twenty-six villagers, 11 of whom were Putnams, voted to give Parris a parsonage, a barn, and two acres of land. Some villagers thought that these gifts were too generous. In October 1691 a faction of Parris-Putnam supporters was ousted from the village committee and replaced by individuals who were openly hostile to the reverend, including Daniel Andrew, the son-in-law of John Porter Sr.; Joseph Hutchinson, one of the sawmill operators responsible for flooding the Putnams' farms; Francis Nurse, a village farmer who had been involved in a bitter boundary dispute with Nathaniel Putnam; and Joseph Porter. The new committee quickly voted down a tax levy that would have raised revenue to pay the salary of Reverend Parris.
It is no coincidence, then, that the witchcraft afflictions and accusations originated in the Parris household. In February 1692 the reverend returned home from his congregation one evening to discover his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Parris, her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, and their 12-year-old friend, Ann Putnam (the daughter of Thomas Putnam Jr. and Ann Putnam) gathered around the kitchen table with the Parris family slave, Tituba, who was helping the girls experiment in fortune telling. Realizing that they had been caught attempting to conjure up evil spirits, the girls soon became afflicted by strange fits that temporarily deprived them of their ability to hear, speak, and see. During these episodes of sensory deprivation, the girls suffered from violent convulsions that twisted their bodies into what observers called impossible positions.
When the girls regained control of their senses, they complained of being bitten, pinched, kicked, and tormented by apparitions that would visit them in the night. These ghostly visions, the afflicted girls said, pricked their necks and backs and contorted their arms and legs like pretzels. Witnesses reported seeing the girls extend their tongues to extraordinary lengths. After examining the afflicted girls, Dr. William Griggs, the village physician, pronounced them under an evil hand.
Nearly 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem during the summer of 1692. Twenty accused witches were executed, 15 women and 5 men. Nineteen were hanged following conviction, and one was pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Four prisoners, three women and a man, died in jail. The trials began in June and continued for four months, the final executions taking place on September 22. In October the governor of Massachusetts, William Phipps, dissolved the tribunal that had been established to preside over the witchcraft prosecutions. The following spring the governor ordered the release of all the accused witches who remained incarcerated upon payment of their fines.
The persons accused of witchcraft ranged from a four-year-old girl, Dorcas Good, to an octogenarian farmer, Giles Cory. The accused also included an angry, muttering beggar, Sarah Good, who rarely attended church, and an ailing village matriarch, Rebecca Nurse, who was respected for her goodness and piety. Yet the witchcraft accusations were far from random. Historians have identified a pattern of accusations that strongly suggests that the afflicted girls singled out social deviants, outcasts, outsiders, merchants, tradesman, and others who threatened traditional Puritan values.
For example, Sarah Osborne, one of the first persons accused of witchcraft in Salem, had earlier scandalized the village by having premarital sexual relations with an indentured servant from Ireland. Another accused witch, Martha Cory, had given birth to an illegitimate mulatto child. Tituba, an Indian slave from Barbados, relished her reputation as a sorcerer in black magic until she landed in jail after being accused of witchcraft. Bridget Bishop, the owner of a small Salem tavern known for its disorderliness, and Abigail Hobbs, a village rebel who was neither a church member nor a churchgoer, were two assertive and independent women whose scornful attitude toward Puritan social order was silenced by their arrests for practicing witchcraft.
Like Bridget Bishop, John and Elizabeth Proctor were tavern keepers on Ipswich Road, the thoroughfare separating Salem Town from Salem Village. The tavern was frequented only by persons from outside Salem Village, and its loud, debauched patrons were a source of concern for residents of the village. John Proctor was one of the first Salem residents to openly criticize the witch craze, maintaining that the afflicted girls were shamming. The day after he questioned their credibility, the afflicted girls implicated his wife in the witch conspiracy. Other Salem residents who were bold enough to express skepticism about the sincerity of the accusations made by the afflicted girls, including George Jacobs, Dorcas Hoar, Sarah Cloyce, and Susannah Martin, soon found themselves ensnared by the malignant web of witchcraft allegations.
The largest common denominator among the accused witches was the source of the complaints against them. Eight members of the Putnam family were involved in the prosecution of approximately 50 witches. Thomas Putnam Jr. signed ten legal complaints against the defendants and provided testimony against 24 accused witches. His wife, Ann Putnam was the most prominent citizen among those who were purportedly afflicted by witchcraft, and his daughter, Ann, was the most prolific accuser, providing testimony against 48 accused witches. Members of the Porter family attempted to mobilize the village against the witch trials but were stymied when 19 of their allies found themselves facing witchcraft allegations.
Daniel Andrew, Phillip English, Francis Nurse, and George Burroughs were representative of the group of defendants accused of witchcraft by the Putnam family. Andrew was born and raised in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1669 he moved to Salem where he married Sarah Porter, daughter of Putnam family rival John Porter Sr. Through an inheritance, Andrew and his wife received a large parcel of land, helping them become the fourth wealthiest couple in Salem Village. Andrew was also one of the Salem residents selected to replace the Putnam-Parris faction on the village committee. Along with his village committee colleagues Francis Nurse and Phillip English, Andrew was accused of practicing witchcraft by the Putnam clan. None of the three was executed.
The legal environment in Salem offered defendants few protections against fabricated allegations of witchcraft. Similar to modern legal procedure, criminal proceedings were instituted upon the filing of a formal complaint by a party allegedly injured by witchcraft. Such complaints usually prompted the issuance of an arrest warrant by a local magistrate who then conducted a preliminary examination in public to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to hold the accused in custody pending grand jury deliberations. If the grand jury chose to indict a particular accused witch, the defendant was then tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, an emergency tribunal established by gubernatorial proclamation to resolve the burgeoning crisis. The law applied by the court was an English statute passed in 1604 during the reign of James I and carried with it the death penalty. The law prohibited "conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits" (Hill 1995). The indictment against the accused closely mirrored the language of the english law, charging the defendants with having "killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined, and lamed" certain individuals by witchcraft.
During both the preliminary examinations and the ensuing trials, the accused witches were presumed guilty. The presiding judges and magistrates frequently asked leading questions designed to elicit answers that would disclose whom the defendants had bewitched and how, instead of more neutral and impartial questions aimed at ascertaining whether they had actually bewitched anyone at all. Although juries were impaneled to determine guilt and innocence, in at least one instance the court directed the jurors to reconsider an unpopular verdict they had rendered. After further deliberations, the jury reversed itself, declaring a previously acquitted defendant guilty. No accused witches were afforded the right to legal counsel, and only those defendants who confessed were saved from the gallows upon conviction.
The afflicted girls were normally present during the courtroom proceedings. When an accused witch entered the courtroom, the afflicted girls invariably collapsed into traumatic fits of hysteria that only ceased when the accused began to confess. In contrast to the dignified courtroom decorum demanded by most U.S. judges today, the Salem witches were confronted by belligerent magistrates, rabid witnesses, and apoplectic spectators in the gallery. One defendant was struck in the head with a shoe thrown by an onlooker.
The evidence offered to incriminate the defendants typically reflected the medieval superstitions of the Puritan community. Nine witches were convicted on the strength of spectral evidence alone, meaning that the only connection between the accused and the afflicted girls was testimony that an alleged victim had been visited during the night by a ghostly figure who resembled the defendant. Other defendants were convicted based on evidence that they could not properly recite the Lord's Prayer, owned mysterious dolls and puppets, or suffered from a reputation for witchcraft in the community. Jurors were told that unusual protuberant growths proverbially represented signs of a witch's nipple through which the defendant had ostensibly consummated intimate relations with the devil or lesser demons.
The Salem witch trials came to an end when the esteemed Reverend Increase Mather from Harvard University questioned the reliability of spectral evidence. The witch trials had been based on the premise that the devil could not assume the shape of a particular person without her consent. Mather turned this premise on its head, arguing that a deceitfully evil creature like the devil could assume the likeness of even the most unwilling and innocent person. Mather proclaimed that it is better for ten suspected witches to escape, than for one innocent person to be condemned.
Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. 1974. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
Christenson, Ron. 1991. Political Trials in History: From Antiquity to Present. New Brunswick: Transaction Press.
Hill, Frances. 1995. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday.
Hoffer, Peter Charles. 1997. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.
Le Beau, Bryan F. 1998. The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: "We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way." Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Mappen, Marc, ed. 1996. Witches & Historians: Interpretations of Salem. 2d ed. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger.
Starkey, Marion L. 1982. Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Time.
Trever-Roper, H. R. 1967. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. San Francisco: Harper Torchbooks.
Weisman, Richard. 1984. Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts. Amherst, Mass.: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.
Salem Witchcraft Trials: 1692
Salem Witchcraft Trials: 1692
Defendants: 200 accused, including: Bridget Bishop, Reverend George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, Giles Corey, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, George Jacobs, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, John Procter, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Reed, Margaret Scott, Samuel Ward well, Sarah Wild, and John Willard.
Crimes Charged: Witchcraft
Chief Examiners: Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne
Place: Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts)
Dates of Hearings: March 1, 1692 through the spring
Chief Defense Lawyers: None
Chief Prosecutors: None
Judges for Court of Oyer and Terminer: Jonathan Corwin, Bartholomew Gedney, John Richards, Nathaniel Saltonstall, William Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, William Stoughton, and Wait Winthrop.
Place: Salem Town (presentday Salem, Massachusetts)
Dates of Trials: June 2, 1692-September 1692. The court was then suspended. A superior court, convened in January 1693, held trials in several cities.
Verdicts: 29 found guilty
Sentences: 19 hanged; remaining convicted and accused released over a period of years
SIGNIFICANCE: America's only massive witch-hunt resembled those that occurred in Europe over the centuries in that it transpired during a period of political unrest, but it was atypical in that it was localized and comparatively brief. However, the American witch-hunt remains singular in the effect it has exerted on the American imagination as historian and nonhistorian try to fathom the reasons for this frightening example of the perils of hysteria.
In the 17th century there was an almost universal belief in the effective power of witchcraft. English courts were specifically interested in maleficia, the performance of malicious acts against one's neighbors. Many mishaps, major and minor, were attributed to the malice of witches. Yet prior to the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts records indicate only about 100 people had ever been formally accused of witchcraft, 15 of whom were executed. In 1692, 200 were accused in a matter of months.
Over the centuries, witch-hunts generally occurred during times of anxiety or social upheaval. From the time the settlers first landed, they had enjoyed a nearly autonomous form of self-government. But in 1684 Massachusetts lost its charter. England then created the Dominion of New England combining several unwilling colonies. Not only was political autonomy threatened, but the dominion's new governor, Sir Edmond Andros, had declared that the revocation of the charter invalidated land titles. During the wake of England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, James II was deposed and Andros was overthrown. The colony was drifting in a legal limbo.
During the winter of 1691-92, in the kitchen of the Reverend Samuel Parris, Tituba, a Carib Indian slave entertained 9-year-old Betty, the minister's daughter, and 11-year-old Abigail Williams, his niece, with fortune-telling and magic. Eventually, the girls invited in eight more girls, ranging in age from 12 to 20. Key among them was Ann Putnam, Jr., the brilliant daughter of an embittered woman.
To Puritan eyes there was nothing innocent about flirting with magic spells for amusement. Moreover, Puritanism was unrelenting in its admonitions that the grace of God was man's only rescue from deserved damnation—a grace seemingly measured in droplets. However exciting their games, the girls were tense from the strain of their secret misdeeds. By January 1692, tension turned into what would now be termed hysteria.
Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began exhibiting strange symptoms. They fell into trances and, if addressed, made noises and gestures. Abigail suffered convulsions and screamed as if in pain. Other girls soon exhibited similar symptoms. Panic seized the village.
In February, Reverend Parris called in Dr. William Griggs, who, after extensive examination and treatment, concluded they were bewitched. Several ministers came to pray over the girls to no avail. The ministers insisted the girls must name those bewitching them.
An accepted maxim was that the Devil had to work through one person to affect another; in other words, he had to persuade someone to act as his agent. The Devil could then appear to his victims in the shape of his agent and harm them. The spectral shape was thought to be visible only to the afflicted. Such "spectral evidence," criticized by some, was accepted by the court.
Pressed, the girls finally named Tituba, the slave, Sarah Good, a near derelict, and the unpopular Sarah Osburn. On February 29, 1692, warrants were issued and they were arrested.
Magistrates Hold a Hearing
On March 1, two magistrates, Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne opened a public hearing in the packed meeting house of the village. The examiners conducted themselves more like prosecutors than investigators. Pregnant, dressed in rags, the haggard Sarah Good stood before the magistrates and flatly denied tormenting the children. The girls fell into fits and blamed Good for their pains. Before being removed, Good shifted any possible blame onto Sarah Osburn.
Osburn, dragged from a sick bed when arrested, also denied tormenting the children. The girls again performed. Osburn said she "more like to be bewitched than that she was a witch." She reported a dream in which she was visited by something "like an Indian all black, which did pinch her in her neck" and drag her toward her door. Osburn died in jail awaiting trial. Others met the same fate.
Tituba told the magistrates what they wanted to hear. After briefly denying she had "familiarity" with the Devil, she said:
[T]here is four women and one man, they hurt the children, and then they lay all upon me; and they tell me, if I will not hurt the children, they will hurt me.
She named Good and Osburn, but claimed she could not identify the other two. Following the magistrates' lead, Tituba wove into her testimony elements of spectral evidence such as talking cats, riding on sticks, and a tall, unidentified man of Boston.
One of the next two accused, Martha Corey, was vulnerable because she had unequivocally disbelieved the girls' claims. But Rebecca Nurse, a frail, elderly, pious matriarch, had never questioned the girls' condition. Few had a harsh word to say about her, except, perhaps, those engaged in a long land dispute with her family. Her sisters were subsequently accused of witchcraft. In the course of their investigations, the magistrates unearthed and recorded many old arguments and suspicious activities. Both women had to testify amidst the girls' fits and visions. The examiners made even less pretense of impartiality than they had with Good, Osburn, and Tituba, but they could not shake the two women in their denials.
Jails Fill with Accused
By May, the jails of Salem Town and Boston were filled with people awaiting trial. More women than men, the accused ranged from Dorcas Good, 5-year-old daughter of Sarah, to the Reverend George Burroughs, formerly the pastor of Salem Village. Ann Putnam claimed Burroughs was responsible for the deaths of his first two wives and of soldiers fighting Indians along the border. Reverend Cotton Mather believed Burroughs was the witches' master conspirator.
Also by May, Massachusetts had a new charter and a new governor, Sir William Phips. Phips convened the General Court, which appointed a special court to try the witches. He then left to tackle more pressing matters of skirmishes along the borders.
The first tried was Sarah Bishop, a tavern keeper. According to Samuel Gray, Bishop's specter appeared over the cradle of his child, bringing about the child's illness and death. Bishop was convicted and, on June 10, hanged.
Next, the judges consulted several ministers for guidance on witchcraft evidence. The ministers warned against heavy reliance on spectral evidence, saying the "demon may assume the shape of the innocent."
The court reconvened June 28. Of the five tried, one was briefly acquitted. The jury was impressed by Rebecca Nurse's demeanor and by a petition testifying to her character. Her daughter, Sarah Nurse, submitted a deposition:
I saw Goody [term of address] Bibber pull pins out of her close [sic] and held them between her fingers and clasped her hands round her knees and then she cried out and said Goody Nurse Pinched her. This I can testify.
After the verdict was read, the girls fell into howling fits, and Justice William Stoughton addressed the jury foreman:
I will not impose on the jury, but I must ask you if you considered one statement made by the prisoner. When Deliverance Hobbs was brought into court to testify, the prisoner, turning her head to her said, "What, do you bring her? She is one of us.' Has the jury weighed the implications of this statement?
Asked for an explanation, the half-deaf woman did not answer. After reconsideration, Rebecca Nurse was found guilty.
On July 19, the five women were hanged. Urged to confess by Reverend Nicholas Noyes, because "she knew she was a witch," Good retorted:
You're a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard. If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink.
Reports are that Noyes died bleeding from the mouth.
Six more were convicted in August. The execution of Elizabeth Proctor was delayed because she was pregnant. The delay saved her life. Her husband, John Proctor, an outspoken critic of the girls' visions, was hanged. His servant girl, Mary Warren, had tried to recant. Away from magistrates and the other girls, Warren would slowly return to a rational state of mind. Faced by them, she would dissolve into hysteria. Sarah Churchill, who also briefly recanted, said in private:
If I told Mr. Noyes but once I had set my hand to the Book [witches book] he would believe me, but if I told him one hundred times I had not he would not believe me.
In September, 15 were convicted. Eight were hanged. These would be the last hangings. Trials were suspended and further executions postponed by Phips. Phips soon released into the custody of their families those against whom there was only spectral evidence.
An independent opinion from New York clergy criticized almost every type of evidence accepted by the Massachusetts court. When the next court convened, spectral evidence was eliminated as a basis for conviction. Only three were convicted. Eventually Phips reprieved all the condemned.
But the reprieved still had legal and financial problems caused by the trials. The simplest was that jail residents had to pay their prison (lodging) fees before they were released.
As the emotional temper of the colony quieted, qualms about the witch trials grew. In January 1697, the General Court ordered a day of prayer and fasting. In 1703 and 1710, in response to petitions, the legislature reversed most of the convictions and voted compensation to the convicted or their families. Even Ann Putnam eventually repented in church. The convictions of seven, for whom no one submitted petitions, remain on record.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Gragg, Larry. "Under an Evil Hand." American Histoy Illustrated (March-April 1992): 54-59.
Starkey, Marion 1. The Devil in Massachusetts, A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co. 1949.
Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft. Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House Publishers, 1971.
SALEM. A port city in Essex County on the north shore of Massachusetts, Salem lies nineteen miles north of Boston. Salem is the site of one of the earliest European settlements in America, and it was a major trading port in the eighteenth century. It is perhaps best known as the site of the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692. Booming international trade soon overshadowed the Salem witch trials.
In 1626 a small group of settlers led by Roger Conant left Cape Ann (now Gloucester) and made their way south to a sheltered bay at the mouth of a river, a place Native Americans called Naumkeag or Comfort Haven. The group of settlers renamed the settlement "Salem" from the Hebrew word "shalom" or peace. Early settlers farmed and fished for cod.
By 1692 Salem had grown into a sprawling community, and divisions began to arise between Salem Village, the primarily agricultural outskirts, and Salem Town, the commercial and judicial heart of Essex County. Accusations of witchcraft were initially made against three
village women, but by the time the hysteria was brought under control a year later, 185 people had been accused of witchcraft. Nineteen women were executed on the gallows, and one man died while being interrogated. The Witch Trial Memorial was dedicated in 1992 by the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to commemorate the tercentenary of the Salem witch trials and to advocate for peace and tolerance.
Salem developed into a major shipbuilding, fishing, and trade port in the eighteenth century. The growth of the codfish trade with Europe and the West Indies brought wealth and prestige to the town. Salem, with its money and its ships, was poised to be a key player in the American Revolution. In 1774 the Provincial Congress was organized there. Salem merchant ships quickly equipped themselves for war and seized or sank over 450 British ships.
Salem reached its zenith between the Revolution and the War of 1812. It was the sixth largest city in the United States in 1790 and had the highest wealth per capita. Wealth from international trade, particularly with the Far East, led to the construction of magnificent mansions and stately homes. Many Salem captains and merchants commissioned Samuel McIntire (1757–1811), a great architect and woodworker, and Salem developed into the home to one of the most significant collections of Federal architecture in the world.
Salem became an industrial city in the mid-nineteenth century after shipping moved to deep-water ports. Immigrants came to Salem to work in cotton mills and leather and shoe factories.
By the twenty-first century tourism and retail were the base of Salem's economy. Its museums, magnificent architecture, numerous historical sites, and proximity to Boston made it a prime destination. It is also the home of Salem State College, and some industry remained in the area. Salem Harbor is used primarily by pleasure vessels and fishing boats, but they share the waterfront with the Friendship, a replica of a 1797 East India merchant tall ship. By 2000 Salem's population of thirty-eight thousand shared the city with over 1 million visitors every year.
Flibbert, Joseph, et al. Salem: Cornerstones of a Historic City. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 1999.
McAllister, Jim. Salem: From Naumkeag to Witch City. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 1000.
"Salem, Massachusetts." Available at http://www.salemweb.com/guide.
See alsoMerchant Marine .
Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials
Beginning in 1621 Puritans moved from England to settle in the American colonies, particularly in the area of New England. Their goal was to create communities centered around the church to support their Christian way of life. Interpreting God's word through the Bible defined life within Puritan communities. By the late 1600s this pious way of life was being affected by outside influences.
The pursuit of witches
In Massachusetts in early 1692, a circle of young girls began to meet in the Salem Village home of a local Puritan pastor, Samuel Parris (1653–1720). Parris had a slave, Tituba. She shared with the girls voodoo-like tales and rituals from her native West Indies. Voodoo was an unwritten religious faith from western Africa that came to the Americas with captured slaves.
Some of the girls began to behave strangely, complaining of physical maladies, visions, and trembling, and babbling without restraint. The girls said their behavior was caused by Tituba and two other village women who practiced witchcraft upon them. Mysterious ailments among the Puritans were normally attributed to the work of the devil, and the incident sparked a determined effort to rid the village of evil influences.
The community's immediate response was to look to the Bible for guidance. Finding a statement that witches should not be allowed to live, their duty became clear. Two assistants of the Massachusetts General Court were called upon to conduct an investigation. Though many villagers
were skeptical of the girls' claims, Tituba confessed her own connection with the devil, implicating the two other women in the process. The three were sent to prison.
More accusations came almost immediately. It seemed to many that the devil was actively destroying their community. The Massachusetts Governor's Council set up a special court of seven judges to handle the problem.
The judges heard testimony that included “spectral evidence,” testimony by accusers that they had seen menacing specters, or spirits, resembling the accused witches. Because only a victim could see such a specter, such testimony had been rejected as evidence in past court cases. Accepting it in the Salem witch trials allowed testimony that could neither be supported nor refuted by investigation.
Over the course of 1692, 156 people were accused of witchcraft. Considering confessions as signs of repentance, the courts were more lenient with those who volunteered stories of dealing with the devil. Knowing that persistent denials were not believed, many confessed and implicated others in the process. Few of the staunch Puritans were willing to betray their morality by lying to save their lives. Twenty were sentenced to death.
By the time the twentieth accused witch was executed, public opinion no longer supported the trials. Many were being accused whom no one could believe guilty. Court procedures seemed to be aggravating the problem rather than alleviating it. Ministers from outside Salem expressed concern about spectral evidence and the continuing trials. Finally the governor dismissed the special court at the end of 1692.
The general court continued to hear cases through early 1693, but without admitting spectral evidence. Forty-nine of the fifty-two trials were immediately dismissed for lack of evidence. The governor soon gave reprieve to the others and all remaining prisoners were discharged.
Citizens were relieved to return to a more normal life. In the following years many accusers repented, clearing the names of those they had accused of witchcraft. In 1709 and 1711 the Massachusetts General Court restored the good names of the accused and awarded financial compensation to families of those who had been executed. By taking responsibility the accusers and the Massachusetts authorities helped to prevent future hysteria and witchcraft trials.
Salem Witch Trials
SALEM WITCH TRIALS
SALEM WITCH TRIALS. The witch panic began in Salem Village, in Essex County, Massachusetts, in the last weeks of 1691, when nine-year-old Betty Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams—the daughter and niece, respectively, of the Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village—began to display odd behavior. Reverend Parris called upon local doctor William Griggs to determine the cause. Griggs informed Parris that he suspected the Devil's hand.
Under pressure from adults, the girls named three Village women as their tormentors: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, a West Indian slave who worked for the Parris household. On 29 February 1692, warrants went out for their arrest. Osborne and Good denied they were witches; Tituba confessed. All three were jailed in Boston.
Accusations, confessions, and trials escalated. At least forty-eight additional people testified to their own possession. Moreover, hundreds of non-possessed local residents testified against witches who had allegedly committed crimes, most especially maleficium (that is, causing misfortune, illness, accidents, or death). By early October, over 185 people from Salem and the surrounding towns had been named as witches. Twenty-four women and six men had been tried and convicted. Nineteen of them, mostly women, had been executed by hanging, and one man had died under interrogation. Over 100 people remained in jail. Several of them died awaiting trial.
In the face of increasing skepticism about evidence, however, and because of the relatively high stature of some of the accused, growing numbers of clergymen and political leaders voiced their opposition to the trials, convictions, and executions. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was dismissed; most subsequent trials ended in acquittal and all prior convictions were overturned.
Most historians who have examined the Salem witch-hunt maintain it was the result of underlying social tensions in late seventeenth-century Puritan Salem. Those tensions may have been rooted in gender conflict, dramatic economic change, or local politics. An accusation of witchcraft proved an effective way to control or punish a person labeled for a variety of reasons as an outsider.
Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Hall, David D., ed. Witch-hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History, 1638–1692. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.
Karlsen, Carol. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
See also vol. 9:Evidence Used Against Witches .
In the Bible (Genesis 14:18) Salem is a place-name understood to be another name for Jerusalem and to mean ‘peace’. It was later (chiefly in the nineteenth century) adopted by Methodists, Baptists, and others as the name of a particular chapel or meeting-house, and thus was sometimes used as a synonym for a nonconformist chapel.