England Died: August 19, 1692
Farmer, tavern owner, and accused wizard
John Proctor was one of twenty people executed during the Salem witch trials in 1692–93. Condemned to death as a wizard (a man who practices magic), he was targeted by the court for expressing open opposition to the trials. Thus Proctor was doomed because of his own outspokenness. Yet he was also a victim of the accusations of his maidservant, Mary Warren, who belonged to the group of young girls who initiated the witchcraft charges that resulted in the mass hysteria.
John Proctor and Salem Village
John Proctor was born in England, and at an early age he emigrated to Ipswich, Massachusetts, with his family. In 1666 he moved to the outskirts of Salem Village, settling on a large tract of land he inherited (received ownership of) from his father and becoming one of the wealthiest property owners in the village. He and his wife Elizabeth also ran a tavern in Salem Town (the Salem community consisted of the larger, more urban Salem Town and the smaller, more rural Salem Village). As a successful farmer and businessman Proctor was envied by his village neighbors and respected by the people of Salem Town. Although he was never directly involved in Salem Village politics (see Chapter 4), his tavern was located in the town and he therefore remained a target of suspicion in the divided community.
Dorcas Good, Five-Year-Old Witch
In the early phase of the Salem trials, when young girls began accusing respected townspeople of being witches, many villagers were skeptical of their claims and rushed to defend the suspects. Yet within only a few weeks the testimony of a few witnesses swayed public opinion.
A particularly compelling witness was Dorcas Good, the five-year-old daughter of Sarah Good, one of the first three women accused of practicing witchcraft. Soon after her mother's arrest Dorcas confessed to being a witch herself. In court she spoke at length about having her own "familiar" (an animal that has been inhabited by a witch), a small snake that she claimed to nurse between her fingers. Upon examining her hands, court officials found a deep red spot on her forefinger—a sign that she was a witch. Although the spot could have been caused by a number of factors, the spectators needed no other evidence to convince them that Dorcas was telling the truth. When pressed to reveal who had given her the snake as a familiar, Dorcas shocked the audience by condemning her own mother. Her confession came only days after the controversial arrest of Rebecca Nurse, a beloved and respected member of the community. Fears of a widespread witches' conspiracy had been gaining momentum daily, so when the child revealed that she and her mother were witches, the community's worst suspicions were confirmed. Those who dared to question the arrests of suspected witches were immediately silenced.
Proctor's troubles began when his sister-in-law Rebecca Nurse was arrested on March 19, 1693. His maidservant Mary Warren was one of several young girls who had recently joined Elizabeth (Betty) Parris, daughter of minister Samuel Parris (see biography entry), and Abigail Williams, Betty's cousin, in having fits (see Chapters 3 and 4). As the main accusers in the Salem trials, they had testified against Nurse in court (see primary source entry). The day after the arrest, Proctor went to the village to find Warren. According to Witchcraft at Salem, Proctor
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was enraged by her behavior, and he publicly denounced all of the girls, charging that they were faking their fits: "If they were let alone we should all be Devils and witches quickly," Proctor exclaimed. "They should rather be had to the whipping post. . . . Hang them! Hang them!" According to witnesses he took Warren home and beat her until she regained her composure, then as she had more fits he beat her again. Villagers were shocked by his actions, which they considered brutal treatment of a defenseless, afflicted girl. Proctor had also endangered his own position in the village by making an untimely outburst early in the witch-hunt, when public opinion was shifting toward sup port of the accusers.
The Proctors are accused
Few villagers had dared to speak out against the trials, soProctor had sealed his fate by publicly chastising (scolding) Warren for accusing innocent people of being witches. Elizabeth Proctor had been even more critical of the trials than her husband, but he had consistently supported her. On April 4, 1693, villagers Jonathan Walcott and Nathaniel Ingersoll entered official complaints against Elizabeth and Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca Nurse's sisters. The women were officially arrested on April 8 and interrogated (questioned) three days later. During a pre-trial examination the young accusers were unable or unwilling to answer questions about Elizabeth's involvement in witchcraft. Finally John Indian, a slave in the Parris household and husband of confessed witch Tituba (see biography and primary source entries), claimed that Elizabeth's specter (spirit) had tried to choke him. The girls sat silently until they were forced to speak. This time they put on a memorable show by going into such severe fits that trial judge Samuel Sewall (see biography entry) noted the event in his diary entry for April 11. As the girls thrashed about on the floor, they babbled incriminating evidence against Elizabeth. The most damaging accusation was that Elizabeth had forced Mary Warren to sign the devil's book and then had cast a spell on her. As stated in Witchcraft at Salem, Elizabeth replied "Dear child, it is not so. . . . There is another judgment, dear child." The word "judgment" sent the girls into another frenzy. Abigail Williams cried out that she saw Proctor's specter walking over to Goodwife (the Puritan term for a married woman) Bibber, one of the spectators in the courtroom—at which point Bibber herself went into fits. This spectacle was enough to doom Elizabeth, even though she was pregnant at the time and had been calm under questioning. John Proctor defended his wife in public and was immediately arrested for participating in witchcraft with her.
Proctor appeals for help
On April 11, 1693, the Proctors were taken to jail to await trial. Prior to their arrest a sheriff came to their home and, as stated in The Devil in Massachusetts, "seized all the goods, provision and cattle that he could come at, and sold some of the cattle at half price and killed others and put them up for [sale in] the West Indies; threw out the beer out of the barrel and carried away the barrel, emptied a pot of broth and took away the pot and left nothing for the support of the [Proctors'] children." On July 23, four days after the executionof Rebecca Nurse, Proctor asked his fellow prisoners to sign an appeal for help to Increase Mather (see Chapters 2 and 3 and primary source entry), Cotton Mather (see Chapters 2 and 3
Mary Warren Admits to Faking Fits
A possible reason that Salem villagers turned against the Proctors was John Proctor's treatment of their maidservant Mary Warren, one of the original accusers in the trials. He had beaten her and publicly chastised (scolded) her for targeting innocent people as witches. Although Warren initially hurled accusations with the same zeal and fervor as the other young girls, she eventually calmed down and went so far as to admit she had lied. Indeed, according to The Devil in Massachusetts, after one of her fits she confessed that "It was for sport." At this point Warren's fellow accusers turned on her, claiming she was working in league with the devil. When the Proctors were arrested as suspected witches, Warren did not dare to speak out against Proctor or his wife Elizabeth; she was known to be particularly fond of John, even though he had beaten her. For these reasons she found herself accused on April 19, 1693, shortly after her employers were arraigned for questioning. During Warren's interrogation, chief magistrate John Hathorne asked her why she had switched from accuser to accused. She replied, "I look up to God and I take it to be a great mercy of God." Hathorne immediately seized on her statement as a confession. Knowing she was trapped, Warren fell into fits and cried out, "I will Speak! . . . Oh I am sorry for it! I am sorry for it! Oh Good Lord save me! I will tell! I will tell!" She apparently lapsed into such a severe state that her jaws locked and she was unable to move or speak. Her affliction was interpreted as bewitchment by one of the accusing girls, who told the court that Elizabeth Proctor's specter had come to torture Warren.
Warren was taken to jail, where she was subjected to frequent questioning, always to the point of confession. In her confessions she condemned the Proctors as witches, but witnesses also took note of her calm and lucid (clear) state at other times, when she defended John in particular. On May 12, 1693, Warren stopped trying to defend John and told her jailers that she felt his shape hovering above her. She went into another severe fit, and this time her legs could not be uncrossed unless they were broken. Warren was allowed to go free and returned to the group of girls in the courtroom, but she never fully regained her sanity.
and biography and primary sources entries), and three other members of the Boston clergy. In the petition Proctor revealed two factors in the trials that he felt the ministers would find troubling. First, he wrote that his own son William had been tortured into accusing his parents of being witches. Village officials had tied William's neck to his heels until his nose bled and he finally confessed. Although this was strictly against New England law, which, according to Witchcraft at Salem,declared such actions "barbarous and inhumane," the practice was apparently becoming quite common. Physical torture was especially popular in the few cases where there was no free confession. Second, Proctor reported the extensive use of spectral evidence (that one's spirit had committed an evil deed), which the ministers had wanted to keep to a minimum in the trials because it could not be substantiated (proven) with concrete facts. Upon receiving the petition, they held a conference and finally decided not to pay attention to the plea. In a weak response to the charge about spectral evidence, the clergymen issued a statement in which they claimed it was occasionally possible for the devil to enter into people and make them do his work. The ministers also took no action to investigate the charges of torture, essentially turning their backs on Proctor. Increase Mather did write back, saying he would try to be at Proctor's trial, but he did not attend.
Proctor bravely faces death
Both John and Elizabeth Proctor were found guilty, and on August 5, 1693, they went to court to receive their sentences. Present in the courtroom were thirty-one of John's friends from Ipswich and twenty-one neighbors from Salem Village, who came to express their support. At the risk of being incriminated themselves, they had signed a petition declaring Proctor's innocence and citing his position as an upstanding member of the community. Their appeal had no effect on the courts, however, because the judges were already determined to see Proctor die:declaring him innocent at this point would have caused too many questions about other cases. John was condemned as a wizard and on August 19 was taken with five others to be hanged on Gallows Hill. Before being executed he made a final plea for justice. In the words of Thomas Brattle, a witness to the execution, Proctor and his fellow condemned prisoners:
protested their innocency as in the presence of the great God whom forthwith they were to appear before. They wished, and declared their wish, that their blood might be the last innocent blood shed upon that account. With great affection they entreated Cotton Mather to pray with them. They prayed that God would discover what witchcrafts were among us. They forgave their accusers. They spake without reflection on jury and judges for bringing them in guilty and condemning them. They prayed earnestly for pardon of all other sins and for an interest in the precious blood of our Redeemer, and seemed to be very sincere, upright, and sensible of their circumstances on all accounts, especially Proctor and [John] Willard, whose whole management of themselves from jail to the gallows and whilst at the gallows was very affecting and melting to the hearts. (From Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem.)
Although Elizabeth Proctor was also sentenced to die, she "pleaded her belly" (pregnancy) and was allowed to wait in jail until her baby was born; she finally received a pardon. Yet her husband had left her nothing in his will, so she was faced with the task of raising six children only on her barely cleared name.
Nearly two decades later the Proctor family did receive payment for the losses they incurred during the trials. In 1710 Salem villager Isaac Easty appealed to the court for compensation for the loss of his wife Mary, who was executed. As stated in A Delusion of Satan, acknowledging that nothing could make up for his "sorrow and trouble of heart in being deprived of her in such a manner," he delared 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 Wildes, Mary Bradbury, George Burroughs, Giles and Martha Corey, and Rebecca Nurse to submit similar pleas. The courts granted a sum of 578 pounds (British money) to be split among the families of victims according to their financial status prior to the trials. According to A Delusion of Satan, the Proctors received 150 pounds, a major portion of the final settlement. In contrast, the family of Elizabeth Howe was awarded only 12 pounds.
John Proctor is featured as a main character in The Crucible (1953), a drama about the Salem witch trials by American playwright Arthur Miller. In the play, which has become a classic around the world, Miller examines the complex moral dilemmas confronted by Proctor, who is wrongly accused of practicing witchcraft. Through a depiction of the mass frenzy of the witch-hunts, Miller addresses the social and psychological aspects of group pressure and their effects on individual ethics, dignity, and beliefs. Although the plot and characters are based on transcripts of the trials, some of the facts have been altered for dramatic effect. The Crucible is frequently performed, and in 1996 the play was adapted as a feature film, with Daniel Day-Lewis starring as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams.
For Further Reading
The Crucible. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998. Videocassette recording.
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.
Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Kallen, Stuart A. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1999.
Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.
The Salem Witch Museum. [Online] http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/ (Accessed July 7, 2000).
Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Wilson, Lori Lee. The Salem Witch Trials. New York: Lerner, 1997.