Salem Town and Salem Village

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Salem Town and Salem Village

In early 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, was in a period of transition. The community was recovering from fifteen brutal years of regional conflict and disaster that had produced deep local tensions. During this time New Englanders had experienced severe epidemics, warfare with Native Americans, and high mortality (death) rates. They also suffered a major constitutional setback: in 1684 England revoked the charters (government deeds) of the New England colonies, taking away the colonies' form of self rule. Four years later a British official, Sir Edmund Andros (1637–1714), was appointed as governor. This act effectively nullified (made void; ended) all former land titles, taking away legal claims to some properties and plunging the region into chaos. Angry colonists rebelled and overthrew Andros's government. The Massachusetts charter was restored in 1691, uniting the Massachusetts Bay Colony with Plymouth and Maine. Yet the political struggle had put great stress on the Puritans. Not only had they fought among themselves over land rights, they were also convinced that God was unhappy with them and would perhaps bring other punishments upon them. During the Salem trials in 1693, Boston minister Cotton Mather (see biography and primary sources entries) described the situation:

I believe there never was a poor plantation more pursued . . . than our New England. First, the Indian Powwows . . . then seducing spirits . . . after this a continual blast upon some of our principal grains . . . . Herewithal, wasting sickness. . . . Next, so many adversaries of our own language . . . desolating fires also . . . and losses by sea. . . . Besides all which, the devils are come upon us with such wrath as is justly . . . the astonishment of the world. (From John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan, p. 313.)

Words to Know

ghostly figure
person or thing responsible for something, usually bad
not obeying the rules
small village
indentured servant:
one who signs a contract to work for an employer for a specified length of time
an official of the courts

Salem Town against Salem Village

During this time Salem was beset by internal conflicts that became crucial to the later witch trials. The six hundred Salem residents lived in two distinctly different communities—Salem Town and Salem Village. The town was located closer to the Atlantic coast and had become a bustling, urban commercial center with many affluent citizens. In contrast, the village was an isolated agricultural hamlet of a few scattered houses and farms. In the winter residents had to walk up to two hours just to go from one side of the village to the other because of the wilderness and harsh weather conditions. Salem villagers were mostly farmers and servants who adhered to more traditional religious and social values than town residents. Community relations were further strained as the town underwent an economic boom and the village remained a struggling settlement. By the early 1690s a marked class division had developed between the town and the village. Discord reached a peak as Salem residents argued about land rights and economic problems. Several other issues contributed to mounting tensions. For instance, Salem leaders argued about when and how men should pass down their property, often setting father against son. They were also trying to determine whether power and authority should stay in the hands of the established elite, or whether the merchant class could become part of the ruling group. Still another struggle involved deciding how much political power should be shared between the upper and lower classes.

Although Salem Town had political and religious authority over Salem Village, about half of the villagers felt they should rule themselves. Preacher Samuel Parris (see biography entry), a newcomer to the area, was the controversial leader of a group that wanted independence from Salem Town. The villagers who favored self-rule gathered around Parris and his close friends, the Putnams, who owned most of the farming land in Salem Village. In fact, witchcraft accusations started in the Parris household, and many of the accusers were villagers. Targets of the accusations lived in Salem Town or were villagers who did not support the separation movement. Tensions ran so deep that in 1692 Salem was basically dry kindling waiting for a spark to ignite it.

Parris controversy fuels trials

Samuel Parris was born in London, England, and made his first attempt at a career as a sugar merchant in Barbados, an island in the West Indies in the Caribbean. When a hurricane wrecked his business he moved to Boston, Massachussetts, with his family and tried to start over. After failing again as a merchant, Parris decided to become a minister. He moved to Salem Village in 1688, bringing with him his wife, three children, a niece, and two slaves. He was hired by the Putnam family to take over the congregation—which consisted mainly of the Putnams and their relatives—that was separate from the one in town. Normally, a town minister would receive a modest salary, the use of a house, and free firewood as payment for his services. Parris got all of these benefits in addition to the title and deed to the parish (the area where the congregation members live) that surrounded his land. This deal angered residents who did not want separate churches for the village and the town. They saw Parris as an unnecessary drain on meager resources. They rebelled by not paying their local taxes, which paid Parris's salary, and refusing to worship at the Salem Village meetinghouse. In 1691 they elected a committee, made up mostly of Parris opponents, who ruled against using taxes for his salary and revoked the deed to his house and land. As a result, Parris would have to sustain himself and his family solely off voluntary contributions. Nevertheless, lines had been drawn between the powerful Putnams on one side and opponents of Parris on the other. Events were set in motion for the Salem trials that came later the next year.

Boredom and Toil for Girls

In New England winter was a time of relaxation for men and boys, who traditionally farmed and worked outdoors in the summertime. They spent the long, bitterly cold days socializing, hunting and fishing, and visiting their neighbors. Yet there was no rest for women, who continued the monotonous and difficult household chores that sustained their families through the season. Young girls helped their mothers with sewing, spinning, washing, and cooking. Play was a forbidden activity for children, and they were faced with long boring months of isolation and hard work inside as winter raged outside. Boredom and unrelenting work for girls became a major factor in the Salem trials.

Winter 1691–92 in the Parris home

Tales of voodoo by the fire

During the winter of 1691–92 the Parris household became the center of witchcraft accusations. Living in the home were Parris's nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth (called Betty), his eleven-year-old niece Abigail Williams, and two other children. Betty was a quiet, obedient child known for her deep fear of the devil, which no doubt came from hearing her father's fiery sermons. Abigail, on the other hand, was a bolder, more impulsive girl who felt protected by her connection to God through her uncle. Also living in the house were the Parrises' two slaves—Tituba (see biography entry), an older Caribbean woman (half African, half Carrib Indian), and her husband, John Indian, a Carrib Indian. Tituba took care of the girls and did most of the indoor chores, while John Indian helped Samuel Parris with outdoor tasks. Tituba, Betty, and Abigail spent most of the time cooped up inside doing chores together. All three escaped the boredom of their daily lives by taking short breaks when Parris and his wife were out socializing with other parishioners. To pass the time Tituba and the girls would sit by the fireplace and tell stories. Tituba captured the girls' imaginations with fantastic tales of voodoo (a form of magic) tricks, spells, and charms she learned while growing up in Barbados. Although the Parrises had forbidden Betty and Abigail to discuss voodoo, they encouraged Tituba's stories and savored the often frightening details.

Fear and Tituba's circle

As the storytelling sessions became more intense, Betty and Abigail—both God-fearing Puritans—began to worry that they were committing evil. In this era even children were made to feel the heavy weight of obedience and sin. From an early age they had heard sermons that were meant to inspire fear in adults as well as children. An excerpt from another of Mather's books, The Good Education of Children, 1708, is typical of the messages aimed at the minds of young Puritans:

Do you dare to run up and down on the Lord's day? Or do you keep in to read your book? They which lie must go to their father the devil, into an everlasting burning; they which never pray, God will pour out his wrath upon them; and when they beg and pray in hellfire, God will not forgive them, but there they must lie forever. Are you willing to go to Hell to be burnt with the devil and his angels? Oh the Hell is a terrible place, that's worse a thousand times than whipping. (From Earle Rice, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. p. 23.)

Not only were Betty and Abigail under intense pressure from their Puritan faith, they also had to endure the burden of living in Samuel Parris's household. They were surely aware of the controversy about his status in the community, and they must have known that the family would become poverty-stricken if Parris lost his income. The pleasure they took in Tituba's stories also gave them a sense of doom, which they felt powerless to fight. Fear and fascination led the girls to confide in a few friends, who too began attending the storytelling sessions. Tituba's new listeners included Ann Putnam, Jr. (see biography and primary source entries), the twelve-year-old daughter of Parris's main supporters. Other girls in the group were Mary Walcott, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Captain Jonathan Walcott; Elizabeth Hubbard, the seventeen-year-old great-niece of the village physician, William Griggs; Susan Sheldon; and Elizabeth Booth. Also coming to the Parris fireside were nineteen-year-old Mercy Lewis, who lived with the Putnams, and Mary Warren, a twenty-year-old servant in the village tavern run by John Proctor (see biography entry).

The beginning of the crisis

The coffin and the egg

On January 20, 1692, the girls were experimenting with one of Tituba's voodoo fortune-telling tricks. They dropped an egg white into a glass of warm water, then waited for the egg to turn into the face of the man a certain girl would marry. But when Betty looked into the glass she saw the shape of a coffin instead of a man's face. She immediately flew into hysterics. She started ranting and raving, at times crouching on her hands and knees and barking like a dog. She also had severe convulsions (spasms) and seizures. Betty's symptoms were so extreme that ripples of fear spread quickly throughout the village: the devil was afoot and threatening to destroy Salem from within the very heart of their religious community.

Betty never recovered from her sickness and other girls, including Abigail, fell ill with similar symptoms. Within several weeks suspicions of witchcraft turned into accusations. Parris wrote in his diary, quoted in Entertaining Satan, that "When these calamities first began, which was in my own family, the affliction was several weeks before such hellish operations as witchcraft were suspected." Dr. Griggs examined the girls in early February, when it became clear that the afflictions were not going away. He announced that the girls were physically healthy but were "under an evil hand," thus making the first formal claim of witchcraft as the culprit in this bizarre behavior. News of the girls' "bewitchment" quickly spread through the region. The panic was heightened by the recent publication of Mather's 1693 book Wonders of the Invisible World, which reported his observations of the Goodwin children in Boston (see Chapter 2). The symptoms were similar enough to make people believe that the same fate was being visited upon Salem.

On February 25, 1692, Mary Sibley, the aunt of one of the afflicted girls, enlisted the help of Tituba and John Indian in determining whether witchcraft was at play in Salem Village. She ordered them to bake a "witch's cake" consisting of a batter mixed with Betty and Abigail's urine. The cake was to be fed to the Parrises' dog, which would prove a witch's spell if he turned into a "familiar," an animal inhabited by the spirit of a witch. No record remains of the dog's reaction. It is known, however, that Parris found out about the witch's cake and became infuriated by attempts to use witchcraft in his own home. He publicly denounced Sibley for getting the devil's attention, thus playing on the fear that evil was breaking loose into the village through prominent people. Sibley confessed to the crime of using witchcraft, and perhaps the girls realized they could deflect some of the blame onto others. Terrified that their own "crimes"—such as mixing the egg-white potion—would be discovered, the girls began pointing fingers.

Possible Culprit in Salem: The Ergot Fungus

Contemporary scientists may have found a new culprit in the Salem witchcraft trials: ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus that grows on rye wheat. This fungus can withstand freezing temperatures and may be taken into the body either through contaminated wheat in bread or in milk from cows grazing in contaminated fields. In small doses ergot can cause muscle contractions that result in such symptoms as spontaneous abortion and minor damage to the central nervous system. In large doses it can cause ergotism, a condition in humans characterized by disorientation (not knowing who or where you are), hallucination (imagined visions), muscle cramps, convulsions (spasms), seizures, vomiting, and even a deadly form of gangrene (rotting of the flesh). Since the Salem trials, more specific symptoms have been recorded during outbreaks of the fungus. Among them are depression, psychosis (mental derangement), delirium (confusion), a crawling sensation on the skin, and a sense of being pinched all over the body. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a drug known for its hallucinatory effects, is chemically related to the ergot fungus.

Scientists began investigating ergot in 1951, when the fungus contaminated wheat used for making bread in a small town in France. Almost all the affected villagers claimed to feel burning sensations in their limbs, had hallucinations that they could fly, and were gripped by other symptoms. These reactions have led some scientists and historians to speculate on the witch trials in New England. It is possible that the Puritans' belief in witches, the stresses of frontier living, and outbreaks of ergotism converged to create a crisis. It would help explain how people may have genuinely believed that witchcraft had caused their suffering. Perhaps a small fungus changed the course of history for an entire population.

The first three Salem "witches"

Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne

On February 29, 1692, Salem villagers Thomas and Edward Putnam, Joseph Hutchinson, and Thomas Preston together swore official complaints in court against Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. These men were all supporters of Samuel Parris, who said that Betty and Abigail had identified the women as witches. Besides Tituba, thirty-nine-year-old Sarah Good was the first person to be accused. According to TheSalem Witch Trials Ann Putnam, Jr. swore to Magistrates John Hathorne and Johnathan Corwin that she been plagued by an "apparition of Sarah Good which did torture [her] most grievously." She claimed the apparition then pinched and pricked her for days, while urging her to become a witch. Putnam also said she had witnessed Good doing the same things to other girls, who all confirmed her charges for the magistrates. The three accused witches were taken to jail on March 1 and examined for marks by the magistrates. On this fateful day, Tituba readily confessed to the crime of witchcraft and proclaimed the guilt of Good and Osborne as well. Perhaps she thought she stood a better chance of being released if she admitted to a relationship with Satan and accused the other women of evil acts.

Sarah Good's unlucky past

Sarah Good was pregnant, widowed, and poor, with a four-year-old child at the time charges of witchcraft were brought against her. She had had an extremely difficult life. In 1672, when she was a teenager, her father, John Solart, committed suicide and brought scorn and suspicion on his family. The Solarts were living in nearby Wendham village, and they were one of many families involved in disputes over land rights that had caused divisions between Salem Town and Salem Village. Solart's widow remarried, but she refused to share most of his estate with their seven children, leaving them to fend for themselves. Sarah managed to get a few acres of her mother's property near Salem Village, then married Daniel Poole, an indentured servant (one who signs a contract to work for an employer for a specified length of time). Poole died almost immediately, leaving Sarah deeply in debt. When she married William Good, Poole's creditors seized their land as payment for Poole's debts. Now homeless, the Goods begged for food and shelter. Sarah also began to age beyond her years because her life had been so stressful: village records reveal that when she was in her late thirties she appeared to be around seventy years old. Sarah Good's present circumstances and family history made her a prime candidate for accusations of witchcraft. Once she was charged, she could not refute the "spectral evidence"—proof of association with evil spirits—that was the primary weapon against her. Court records show that the magistrates bullied Good and accepted accusations made by Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, even though there was a lack of physical evidence.

Sarah Osborne falls prey to suspicion

When Sarah Good was first examined by the magistrates, she denied the charges against her. Moreover, she announced that Sarah Osborne was responsible for the fits experienced by Betty and Abigail, thus confirming the girls' accusations. Osborne was a frail sixty-nine-year-old invalid who also came under suspicion because of land disputes. Her first husband, Robert Prince, had been a successful and active citizen who owned over 150 acres of land along a controversial dividing line between Salem Village and the adjacent (next) town of Topsfield. When Prince died, Sarah married their indentured servant John Osborne and tried to change the terms of her dead husband's will. Prince had specified that his two

The Psychology of Fear and Punishment

Modern psychologists who study the mind and behavior have classified the experiences of the girls in the Parris household as typical hysteria, more specifically a condition called conversion reaction. This condition occurs in situations in which the victim is terrified of being discovered and punished for some crime, usually imagined. Common in children who have been severely beaten or sexually abused, conversion reaction reflects both an individual experience and a response to the psychological environment of an entire community. In the Parris case, the girls most likely became immersed in the drama of Tituba's stories while feeling ashamed and frightened about being disobedient. They must have been frightened of the "evil" they had conjured up, and were terrified of what Reverend Parris might do to them if he found out they had "invited" trouble into his home. The fear they experienced the day they saw the image of a coffin in water would have certainly been enough to put them into a state of deep hysteria.

Indeed, the girls went through the typical stages of hysteria, starting with a preliminary phase of anxious self-reflection or worrying about their "sins." At this point they realized that they were endangering their own spiritual condition and possibly angering God. This led to the onset phase, which is characterized by fainting, wailing, and broken speech. These symptoms intensified when people became alarmed at the strange behavior of the girls, who then began to have visions of witches. Next was the acute phase, during which the girls experienced intense physical sensations. For instance, they felt like they were burning or being pinched by demons. They also thought they could fly, contorted themselves into strange positions, and acted out interactions with witches. A final stage, known as intermission, punctuated the acute phase with moments of calm or deep depression that came and went for hours or days at a time.

sons, who were only two and six years old at the time of his death, should take over the land when they became adults. He had appointed Thomas and John Putnam, his in-laws, to supervise the trust. Sarah's attempt to change the will put her in direct opposition to the powerful Putnams and raised suspicions about her character. To make matters worse, neither Sarah Good nor Sarah Osborne attended the Salem Village church. Tituba and the two Sarahs were presumed guilty prior to any formal court hearing. They were sent to a Boston jail on March 7, 1692, to await the beginning of the first official Salem trials.

For Further Study

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

Discovery Online—A Village Possessed: A True Story of Witchcraft. [Online] (Accessed July 7, 2000).

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.

The Salem Witch Museum. [Online] (Accessed July 7, 2000).

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Salem Town and Salem Village

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