Aftermath of the Salem Trials

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Aftermath of the Salem Trials

After the prisoners awaiting trial on charges of practicing witchcraft were granted amnesty (pardoned) in 1693, the accusers and judges showed hardly any remorse for executing twenty people and causing others to languish in jails. Instead they placed the blame on the "trickery of Satan," thus freeing themselves from any sense of guilt. Jurors and townspeople also managed to maintain a clear conscience by claiming that, after all, many victims had confessed to their "crimes" and that the Salem, Massachusetts, community had been tricked by the devil. Yet families who had lost loved ones and property during the trials were expected to go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Their attempts to regain social standing and receive financial compensation through formal legal channels took several years.

Judges and accusers show minimal guilt

Eventually a few judges hinted at apologies for their roles in the trials, but they did not assume any real guilt. For instance, Massachusetts governor William Phipps conveniently blamed his lieutenant governor, William Stoughton, who had served as a judge (see Chapter 4). As early as 1693 Phipps wrote a letter to the British government, quoted by Frances Hill in A Delusion of Satan, claiming that Stoughton "Hath from the beginning hurried on these matters with great precipitancy [haste] and by his warrant hath caused the estates, goods, and chattels [movable property] of the executed to be seized and disposed of without my knowledge or consent." Plagued by poor harvests and mild disasters since the onset of the trials, Puritan leaders had begun to worry that God might be punishing them. Consequently some officials made earnest attempts to address the issue. The Massachusetts legislature declared January 14, 1697 a Day of Fasting to commemorate the victims of the trials. On this day, twelve trial jurors signed a petition admitting that they had convicted and condemned people to death on the basis of insufficient evidence. The document stated:

We do therefore hereby signify to all in general (and to the surviving sufferers in especial) . . . that we were sadly deluded and mistaken, for which we are much disquieted and distressed in our minds; and do therefore humbly beg for forgiveness. . . . We do heartily ask forgiveness from you all, whom we have justly offended, and do declare to our present minds, we would none of us do such things again on such grounds for the whole world, praying you to accept this in satisfaction for our offense, and that you would bless the inheritance of the Lord, that he may be entreated for the land. (From Hill, Frances, A Delusion of Satan, p. 99.)

Words to Know

an extrememly prejudiced person
a distinguishing characteristic
belief that the future holds good things
beliefs based on facts, reason, and logic
preferring to be alone
someone or something that is blamed for everything rather than the person or thing that is really at fault
careful inspection
a mental feeling of shame

The most emotional plea for forgiveness came from Samuel Sewall (see biography and primary source entries), one of the magistrates (judges). He went a step further than the jurors by "Taking the blame and shame of it" and asking God to forgive him for his role in the trials. As related in A Delusion of Satan, as Sewall stood in front of the congregation of Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts, his apology was read aloud by Reverend Samuel Willard. Sewall begged God to spare the rest of the community and to place the punishment on him instead. Yet even Sewall blamed the trickery of Satan, not the true culprits: the deep social conflicts in Salem and the lies told by Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, and the other girls. "Whatever mistakes on either hand have been fallen into, either by the body of this people or any orders of men [they were a] tragedy raised upon us by Satan and his instruments," he maintained. Nonetheless, for the rest of his life Sewall observed a day of fasting each year in atonement for his sins.

Samuel Parris Leaves Town

In the wake of the trials Samuel Parris, minister of the Salem Village church, attempted in vain to clear his name and retain his position in the community. As noted in A Delusion of Satan, he pointed to the role that deep social conflicts had played in the trials: "I beg, entreat, and beseech you Satan, the Devil . . . may no longer be served by us, by our envy and strifes . . . but that all from this day forward may be covered with the mantle of love and may on all hands forgive each other heartily, sincerely and thoroughly, as we do hope and pray that God, for Christ's sake, would forgive each of ourselves."

In the end, however, Parris deflected the blame onto Satan rather than himself and the Putnam family, all of whom actively promoted the witch hunts and executions. It was too late: his old rivals united with people who had been victimized by the trials and accused Parris of pressuring the judges to accept spectral evidence (claims of seeing a person's spirit committing a foul act which, though unprovable, was used to send a number of people to their deaths). On November 26, 1694, Parris made another speech in the Salem Village church, this time admitting he had been wrong to believe in spectral evidence. Nevertheless, he still tried to hold onto the deeds to the parsonage and parish lands granted him when he came to teh village (see Chapter 3), but his desperation dealt the final blow to his career. In September 1697 a council of ministers forced him to resign and leave Salem.

Calef blasts bigots

A few participants in the Salem story tried to explain the events in full-length books. For instance, in 1696 John Hale wrote A Modest Inquiry, in which he contended that the witches had been guilty. Although he acknowledged the mixed motives of the community, he justified the executions. In fact, he felt the witch-hunts had ended too early because leaders had been distracted by the escalating social chaos that brought an end to the trials. Boston merchant and trial critic Robert Calef (see biography primary sources entries) took the opposite position. In 1697 he wrote More Wonders of the Invisible World, in which he attacked the accusers and judges of viciously turning on their own neighbors and friends:

And now to sum up all in a few words, we have seen a bigoted zeal [extreme prejudice] stirring up a blind and most bloody rage, not against enemies or irreligious profligate [irresponsible] persons, but against as virtuous and religious as any . . . and this by the testimony of vile varlets [unprincipled persons] as not only were known before but have been further apparent since by their manifest lives, whoredoms, incest . . . etc. The accusations of these, from their spectral sight being the chief evidence against those that suffered. In which accusations were upheld by both magistrates and ministers, so long as they apprehended themselves in no danger. (From Frances Hill. A Delusion of Satan, p. 209.)

Calef's book also attacked religious leaders like Cotton Mather (see biography and primary source entries), who encouraged charges of witchcraft rather than trying to determine the truth. Calef aggravated the dispute even further by printing "Another Brand Plucked From the Fire," an account of conversations and written correspondence between Mather and him. Calef attacked Mather for taking supposedly bewitched girls into his own home and encouraging their testimony against accused witches during the trials. Mather was deeply offended by Calef's charges, and he spent the remainder of his life trying to justify his actions. Calef also targeted judges such as Stoughton and chief magistrate John Hathorne for their illegal tactics and prejudicial treatment of accused witches. Neither Stoughton nor Hathorne expressed any sense of remorse or guilt. They never looked back on this period in their careers, and they were never required to account for their roles in the execution of innocent people. Both men remained highly respected and wealthy members of their communities.

Victims ignored by courts

As soon as the trials were over the victims and their relatives pleaded with the courts for financial compensation and social recognition. They had to wait until 1700 for any legal body even to acknowledge their requests, and by this time many families had already been ruined. Accused witch Abigail Falkner was the first person to write a request to the court for a "defacing of the record" emphasizing that she was regarded as a criminal in her community. She noted, according to Frances Hill, that the only testimony in her case had been spectral evidence, which had since lost any legal validity. Despite this fact the courts did not grant Falkner's request, and it continued to delay action on the appeals of other victims as well. In March 1702 frustrated survivors and relatives submitted an extensive petition to the courts asking for formal restitution (restoring) of character. In response the Massachusetts legislature passed a formal bill forbidding the use of spectral evidence, thus implying the innocence of people who had been wrongly convicted and executed—but still not formally clearing their names.

A year and a half later former prisoners and their families tried another tactic. This time they appealed to the Massachusetts General Court, claiming that Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Jr. (see biography and primary source entries), and the other girls who started the witchcraft hysteria had been possessed by the devil and therefore their testimony had no legal basis. Again the courts gave no formal response. In May 1709 another petition requested both social and financial remuneration (payment), but once again there was no formal reaction from the courts. In 1710 Isaac Easty presented a memo asking for compensation for the loss of his wife, Mary, one of the twenty people who were executed. As recorded by Francis Hill in A Delusion of Satan, Easty acknowledged that nothing could make up for his "sorrow and trouble of heart in being deprived of her in such a manner" and declared that the courts should render justice to him and the families of other victims. Easty's action prompted relatives of executed witches Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Wilde, Mary Bradbury, George Burroughs, Giles and Martha Corey, and Rebecca Nurse to submit similar pleas. At long last the courts granted a sum of 578 pounds (British money) to be split among the petitioners and the families of other victims according to their financial status prior to the trials. Again, according to Hill, as a result there was a great disparity in the distribution of the money, with the family of John and Elizabeth Proctor receiving 150 pounds and Elizabeth Howe's relatives being awarded only 12 pounds.

Reverend Green starts healing process

When Samuel Parris was forced to resign as the minister of Salem Village church and leave town in 1697 (see biography entry and box on p. 71), he was replaced by Joseph Green. More sophisticated and accepting than his predecessor, Green immediately tried to heal the community. He preached forgiveness in his sermons and even changed the seating arrangement in the church, forcing former enemies to acknowledge one another. He also brought justice to victims who had been ignored by the courts. In 1703 Green formally reversed Martha Corey's excommunication (forced removal) from the church (see Chapter 4), thereby restoring her reputation and assuring the relatives of other executed people that their loved ones would not be damned to hell (according to the Christian concept of eternal punishment for sins after death). In 1712 he revoked the excommunications of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey (see Chapter 4). Although Green's efforts helped the community eventually recover from the devastation caused by the trials, Salem remained a symbol of fanaticism and injustice. As time passed the trials became etched into the collective conscience of an emerging nation, a warning against the extremes of human nature.

What Happened to the Girls?

Most of the accusers in the Salem trials went on to lead fairly normal lives. Betty Parris, Elizabeth Booth, Sarah Churchill, Mary Walcott, and Mercy Lewis eventually married and had families. Records do not reveal what happened to Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, or Mary Warren. Ann Putnam, Jr. , stayed in Salem Village for the rest of her life. Both of her parents died of an unknown infectious disease within months of one another in 1699, leaving Ann in charge of raising her nine younger siblings. In 1706, at age twenty-seven, Ann made a formal apology for her role in the trials when she was admitted as a member of the Salem Village church. (See Putnam's biography entry as well as the full text of her apology in the Primary Sources section.)

Englightenment replaces superstition

In the century following the Salem trials, social and political changes taking place in the American colonies had a direct impact on New England. During the early eighteenth century people were struggling to redefine traditional superstitions as the Enlightenment, an intellectual and scientific movement that began in Europe in the seventeenth century, introduced a more rational, reasoned, and ordered concept of the universe. The stronghold of Puritan faith was being replaced by the so-called Age of Reason, which provided no opportunity for hysteria over supernatural powers or the battle between God and the devil. Journals and other accounts show that episodes of suspicion and violence against supposed witches became less frequent throughout the region. Nevertheless, accusations of witchcraft persisted in some places, even into the nineteenth century.

Struggle to abandon old beliefs

Indeed, in 1800 a Protestant minister in Fayette, Maine, wrote in his diary, as recounted in historian John Putnam Demos's book Entertaining Satan, that there was "Witchcraft in plenty. A man had been troubled six months and it was thought he must die. He is emaciated [dangerously thin] and often horribly distressed. A Mr. Billings, a Baptist teacher, soon to be ordained, has lost his milk for some time." Numerous similar accounts showed the endurance of ancient superstitions. At the same time, however, people struggled to reconcile their old fears with the new rationalism. In 1799 a farmer from Long Island, New York, also quoted in Entertaining Satan, expressed his reluctance to believe in witchcraft:

It is contrary to my senses and my reason, and ridiculous for me to believe in witchcraft, and was it not for what has happened to me and fallen in the way of observation, I should despise the very idea of spirits having the power to act on or operate on the minds or bodies of creatures.

Yet he went on to blame a local gang of women witches for his misfortune. People still believed that witches could be killed by counter-magic; that is, a victim of witchcraft could easily reverse a witch's curse with his or her own curse, which would harm or kill the witch.

Evil witch replaced by pitiful hag

New Englanders continued to target the same kind of person as a witch: an elderly, reclusive woman remained under suspicion, particularly in more rural areas that were isolated from modern trends. Traditional healers were under the strongest scrutiny, just as they had been during the European witch-hunts that started in the fifteenth century (see Chapter 1). A newly emerging medical field, based on the latest scien tific theories, however, left no place for women healers in mainstream society. In fact the modern stereotype of the witch began taking shape during the eighteenth century: the image of the powerful, eccentric woman who did the work of Satan—in other words, the witch who had stood trial in Salem only a few decades earlier—was reduced to an ugly, toothless, old hag. As a result the witch became a somewhat laughable figure, merely a useless old woman who was socially isolated and even entally weak. This is clearly reflected in reports that more

A Case of False Accusation

An episode that occurred in 1720 in Littleton, Massachusetts, was eerily similar to the event that started the Salem witch trials. It began when eleven-year-old Elizabeth Blanchard had visions, went into trances, and acted as if she were "possessed.' She tore at her clothing, disfigured herself, and bit other people. She also reported sensations of being strangled and pricked by invisible hands. Soon Elizabeth's two sisters were exhibiting the same bizarre behavior, and all three girls accused a local woman of putting a spell on them. Littleton townspeople gathered for a meeting and were immediately split on the issue. Their reactions showed the struggle between traditional Puritan and Enlightenment values in New England

According to historian John Putnam Demos, "Some thought [the Blanchard sisters] labored of bodily maladies, others that their minds were disordered . . . others thought them to be underwitted; others that they were perverse and wicked children. But the greater number thought and said that they were under an evil hand, or possessed by Satan. This was the general cry of the town."

Ironically, the accused woman died during the controversy, and the children returned to their normal behavior. Years later, as adults, the three girls confessed to their pastor that they had faked the entire episode to get attention and that they had been "Led by folly and pride into outright deceit."

harm was done to witches than was being done by them. The Enlightenment encouraged a sense that ordinary people could outwit these outcasts. The new rational man was therefore more powerful than the old hocus-pocus herbalist. Consequently, witches ceased to provoke real fear and instead provoked ridicule and mockery. Evidence comes from the story of a Reverend Walker in New Hampshire who dismissed notions of witchcraft when townspeople appealed for his help against two local witches. "The most [the townspeople] had to fear from witches was from talking about them; that if they would cease talking about them and let them alone, they would soon disappear," Walker commented, as recorded in John Putnam Demos's Entertaining Satan.

A new America

During the eighteenth century social and political changes in the colonies produced a new America. Leaders began promoting youth, vitality, and the self-made man. Having fully embraced the rationalism and optimism of the Enlightenment, they championed the individual who spoke his mind. This was a dramatic shift: whereas outspokenness had cost people their lives in the witch trials, it had now become a respected quality. As communities continued to grow, eccentric townspeople were less important or noticeable, and conflicts between rival families became less prevalent. The notion of individuality replaced fear of outsiders or differences that had often united people against voices of discontent (unhappiness) within the community. Furthermore, social conflict and opinionated debate came to be viewed as healthy rather than threatening. Less often were accusations hurled against those who dared to speak their minds about politics, religion, or even their neighbors. By the mid-1700s the New England of the era of the Salem trials was a fading memory.

Women and child-rearing practices change

Ironically, these changes had an impact on three groups that had been especially vulnerable during the trials, both as accusers and accused: the elderly, women, and children, especially young girls. As youth and progress became the hallmarks of the time, the elderly were regarded as being out of touch and unnecessary nuisances. Therefore old people were less likely to be targeted as a threat to the community. Women were now experiencing a new way of life. The woman of the Enlightenment was increasingly confined to the home and for the most part isolated from public life. This loss in status removed the stigma of women being associated with power, mystery, and nature. Now a woman was a passionless, delicate creature, and her body was an embarrassing medical condition over which she had no control. Further, the ancient tradition of the midwife who helped women deliver their babies at home, and who also was the target of witchcraft accusations, was slowly being replaced by the all-male medical establishment.

This unfortunate disempowerment of women did serve to protect them from the superstitions that had made them victims of accusations of witchcraft. This shift was accompanied by changes in child-rearing practices, which in turn influenced the lives of children and teenagers in New England. The Puritans had raised their children to be silent, obedient, and, most importantly, "broken spirits." During the Enlightenment, however, a child was viewed as morally innocent and thus given freedom to explore and play and be gently nurtured toward adulthood. Adolescence became recognized as a unique stage in life, during which young people were encouraged to be social and to explore their world rather than being closely supervised as potential sinners. Young women were given much greater freedom of motion and encouraged to mingle and socialize prior to marriage. These changes dramatically reduced the boredom, frustration, and anxiety that had characterized the lives of the young girls who were involved in the Salem trials. Consequently, time had eliminated an entire category of people who had played a major role in the tragedy. In short, eighteenth-century Americans no longer needed witches as scapegoats. But they soon encountered other misfortunes and problems, so they found new scapegoats: African Americans, Native Americans, recent immigrants, and anyone else who did not quite fit into the Englightenment ideal.

For Further Study

Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gunn, Giles, editor. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Classics, 1993.

Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.

Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into theSalem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.