Salem Witch Trials and Executions

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Salem Witch Trials and Executions

The pre-trial hearings in the cases of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba set the stage for the social strife that would soon rip Salem apart. (See Chapter 3 for information on the circumstances that led to the arrests of these three women on witchcraft charges; also see Tituba's biography entry.) At first no one suspected that Tituba, Elizabeth (Betty) Parris, Abigail Williams, and the other young girls could be lying. After all there was "damning evidence": Tituba had confessed to practicing witchcraft, and the girls had clearly been bewitched by Good, Osborne, and Tituba. During the hearing on March 1, 1692, both Good and Osborne denied the charges against them, pleading for justice and fairness. Yet, according to court records, chief magistrate (judge) John Hathorne deliberately invited several girls to identify Osborne as a witch, telling "all the children to stand up and look upon her [Osborne] and see if they did know her which they all did and every one of them said that this was one of the women that did afflict them and that they had constantly seen her in the very habit [clothing] that she was now in."

The accusing girls were immediately seized by such severe fits that their mouths bled and their tongues became stiff. In desperation, Osborne at first pleaded innocent; she then shifted tactics, claiming,as quoted by Rice, she had been haunted by "an Indian, all black, which did pinch her in her neck." She went on to imply that Tituba had haunted her for several months, repeatedly ordering her to stop attending church. Osborne thus sealed her own fate by focusing attention on the fact that she frequently missed worship services. When the court asked Osborne's husband and neighbors if she had been to church on Sundays in the past few months, they admitted that she was often absent. In attempting to deflect attention onto Tituba, Osborne inadvertently (accidentally) made herself look like a liar and a co-conspirator.

When Tituba was called upon to speak, she not only doomed the two Sarahs but many others as well. Tituba announced that the children had not been bewitched by spirits but instead by the devil himself, who often appeared to her as a tall man carrying a witches' book. According to Tituba, the book contained the names of nine local witches, two of them being Osborne and Good. Tituba's confession was perhaps even more dramatic than the children's fits, for it fed the worst fears of the crowd in the courtroom. She exaggerated her story with fantastic descriptions of riding to Sabbath (mass meeting of witches) with both Sarahs on a broomstick, at which point the girls again began thrashing about in fits. Tituba herself went into a fit and claimed to have become blind, confirming a popular superstition that when a witch gives up her power she loses her sight.

Words to Know

physically or mentally destroyed
to draw out
add to in an exaggerated way
making fun of
area of legal coverage, as in a court system
strongly criticized
ghostly figure

The monster of Salem

When Tituba, Osborne, and Good were put in jail to await formal trial, Salem residents set about eradicating other witches from their midst. At this point fear and politics merged to become the monster of Salem. Under the influence of their politically motivated relatives, the girls began pointing fingers at more people, some of whom were highly regarded members of the community. The first such victim was Elizabeth Proctor, wife of tavern owner John Proctor (see biography entry). She publicly questioned the validity of the girls' fits, suggesting that there was more to the hearings than simple accusations of witchcraft. Elizabeth was more outspoken than her husband, but he supported her right to express her doubts, thus bringing himself under suspicion. Although the Proctors were not involved in local land disputes, they posed a threat to the Putnams, a family who wielded considerable power in Salem Village (see Chapter 3). The main accusers of witches were Ann Putnam, Sr. and Ann Putnam, Jr. (see biography and primary source entries), wife and daughter, respectively, of Salem Village leader Thomas Putnam. Joseph Putnam, Thomas's own brother, reportedly backed Elizabeth Proctor's statements. According to records, as related by Rice, Joseph went to Thomas's house and warned him not to spread his "foul lies" any further in the family. The Proctors' protests and Joseph Putnam's warning marked the beginning of doubt that soon caused a separation between those who believed the evidence and others who dared to resist the hysteria. Such vocal opponents as the Proctors and Putnam managed to keep some people from joining in the frenzy, but their efforts were not enough to stop the tide of accusations.

A day of prayer in Salem Village

In early March, Betty Parris was sent to live at the home of Stephen Sewall, a court clerk, in Salem Town in order to give her some distance from the trials. She evidently stopped having fits and was restored to her more stable nature. The other girls were never formally separated from one other, however, and continued to meet whenever possible. Each rendezvous resulted in another series of accusations. On March 11 the village of Salem held a day of fasting (the act of abstaining from food or drink) and prayer to contemplate the presence of witchcraft in their community. The event was a genuine attempt by villagers to seek spiritual guidance and to examine their own roles in the charges against their fellow citizens. It could have been a turning point away from hysteria had the girls not been present at the service: once again they took center stage with their convulsions. This time they shocked the entire community by pointing the finger at an unlikely candidate, the highly respected and elderly Martha Corey.

Attacking Martha Corey

Martha Corey (also spelled Cory) was eighty-one years old and the third wife of Giles Corey, a wealthy landowner whose property straddled the line between Salem Village and Salem Town. Though a faithful church member, she was known for being opinionated. She had also created a ripple of controversy early in her adult life by giving birth to an illegitimate mulatto (of mixed racial descent) child. These factors combined against Martha Corey when, on March 19, Edward Putnam, a member of the powerful Putnam family, and Ezekiel Cheever, the court reporter, came to her home and accused her of practicing witchcraft. Prior to their visit Corey's primary accuser, Ann Putnam, Jr, claimed that she had been temporarily blinded and could not describe the clothing Corey was wearing when the old woman had supposedly bewitched her. Edward Putnam and Cheever confronted Corey with evidence that she had afflicted Ann and other girls. Although Corey denied accusations of witchcraft, she tried to outsmart the men by saying, "But does she tell you what I have on?"—implying that Ann might be accusing the wrong person. Corey's accusers took this statement as a sign that she not only knew they could not answer the question but she was also playing a trick on them—that she was, in fact, a witch. Edward Putnam and Cheever immediately arrested Corey on charges of committing injuries against Ann and other girls—Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Abigail Williams. Another "injured" person on the list was Ann Putnam, Sr., who had also testified against Corey and another elderly church member, Rebecca Nurse (see The Testimony Ann Putnam, Sr. against Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse in the primary sources section).

Since the warrant was issued on a Saturday, Corey had one more chance to give her side of the story. Local law made Saturday and Sunday sacred days of prayer on which no person could be arrested. Corey attended church for the last time on Sunday, March 20. During the service a special sermon was delivered by a visiting minister, Deodat Lawson, who had come to town to investigate the situation. Having recently lost his wife and daughter to illness, Lawson was overcome with grief and therefore ready to blame their deaths on witchcraft. He thus devoted his day–long sermon to the need to resist the forces of evil through religious faith. Throughout the day the girls put on a spectacular show of fits and accusations, claiming to see specters (ghostly images) of Corey all over the church in various tormenting poses. At one point, as noted in A Village Possessed, Abigail Williams interrupted the sermon by screaming out, "Look where Goodwife Corey sits on the beam suckling [nursing] her yellow bird between her fingers!" Ann Putnam, Jr. then ran up to Lawson and echoed Abigail's accusation. She claimed she saw a yellow bird with Corey's face sitting on Lawson's hat as it hung on the wall in the pulpit.

These antics ruined Corey's opportunity to gain support from her fellow villagers. The event also ushered in another vital aspect of the witch-hunts—spectral evidence—which would eventually ruin the lives of several people. While spectral evidence was not a new phenomenon, it was becoming the main source of proof against people accused of witchcraft. Consequently, anyone could claim to see another person's image committing some foul act. Spectral evidence turned into a powerful weapon that could be used against any member of the community, regardless of status. Thus, since the girls had a monopoly on attention, they could effectively bring down anyone they chose to accuse simply by lapsing into convulsions and conjuring up specters. Even people such as the well-loved and respected Martha Corey could not fight their accusations.

During Corey's court trial on March 21 both spectral evidence and the clothing coincidence were used against her. Corey tried to defend herself by explaining that a friend, who was present in the Putnam home when Ann Putnam, Jr., supposedly went blind, had rushed to tell her about the accusations. Corey said her friend's warning was the reason she had known to ask whether or not Ann could describe her clothing. When the court questioned Corey's friend, however, he denied ever telling her such a thing. Giles Corey also could not recall his wife being visited by the friend, thus reinforcing the conclusion that she was a liar. During the trial the girls reacted to any sign of nervous tension exhibited by Martha Corey. When she wrung her hands or twitched they threw themselves into massive fits, stopping only to exclaim that they saw a man whispering into Corey's ear whenever she was being questioned. Corey was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, yet she maintained her innocence. (See The Testimony of Ann Putnam, Sr. against Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse in the primary sources section.)

The trial of Rebecca Nurse

After Corey was found guilty accusations began flying anew across Salem Village and taking down other respected people. During Corey's trial, Reverend Lawson paid a visit to the home of Salem Village preacher Samuel Parris (see biography entry), where Parris's neice Abigail Williams was living (see Chapter 3). Lawson witnessed Abigail undergoing a particularly severe fit. During the commotion she repeatedly claimed to see fellow villager Rebecca Nurse standing in front of her and coaxing her to sign the witches' book. Abigail made an elaborate show of refusing to sign the book. She ran to the fireplace and picked up hot embers, which she threw around the room with her bare hands. During the next few days Ann Putnam, Sr., met with the girls at the local tavern. She also began having fits. On March 23 the other girls accused Nurse of practicing witchcraft. This turn of events was even more dramatic than the charges against Corey, for Nurse was a seventy-five-year-old woman renowned throughout the village for her kindness and piety. She was, in other words, a model citizen and one of the least likely candidates for victimization in the witch-hunt craze. Nurse's neighbors Israel and Elizabeth Porter immediately warned her about the charges being brought against her. Responding with typical kindness, Nurse said she was worried about the girls and declared that other accused "witches" were also innocent. The Porters later wrote a formal statement that proclaimed Nurse's innocence, yet it was not enough to protect her.

On March 24, 1692, Edward and Jonathan Putnam (uncle and cousin, respectively, of Ann, Jr.) swore out a formal complaint against Nurse and issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of criminal witchcraft against the entire group of girls. When Nurse was taken to the meetinghouse (the term for a Puritan church) for a pretrial hearing, two factions (opposing groups) immediately formed over the issue of her guilt or innocence. Even Hathorne took a remarkably gentle approach in questioning her, even showing some pity. In the meetinghouse Nurse told the crowd that not only had she been lying in bed gravely ill for the past eighty-nine days, she had never harmed anyone in her entire life. When she was accused of murdering several children, she suggested another possibility, as quoted in Rice's Salem Witch Trials: "I do not know what to think of it. . . . The Devil may appear in any shape." Nurse's response suggested a new theory in the minds of some citizens: perhaps the devil was wandering around taking on the images of respectable people in order to trick them into turning against one another. Nurse was sent to jail to await trial.

The tragic month of April

The month of April 1692 ushered in an even greater tide of accusations and trials, each case fueling panic, social strife, and hysteria. By the end of April twenty-three more suspects were targeted in Salem Village, along with several others in neighboring towns. On April 3, Samuel Parris read a sermon in which he condemned both Nurse and Corey, who were members of his own congregation. Stressing the Puritan notion of predestination (that one's fate is already sealed), he suggested that the accused "witches" had been chosen by God, even before birth, to go to Hell, in the Christian concept of eternal punishment after death. Parris went on to say that the worst crime against the church was to serve the devil from within the congregation itself. During the service a parishioner named Sarah Cloyce got up and stormed from the room, slamming the door behind her.

The Towne-Putnam feud

An angry Parris immediately accused Cloyce of being yet another witch spreading evil among the good Christians of Salem. Her defenders asserted, however, she had taken ill suddenly and that a gust of wind had slammed the door as she left in haste. Historians note that Parris clearly had a political motivation for calling Cloyce a witch: she was the sister of Rebecca Nurse. The women were members of the Towne family, longtime enemies of the powerful Putnam clan, who had started the Salem Village congregation for Parris. The feud between the Townes and the Putnams had begun in 1639, when the Massachusetts General Court gave Salem Village permission to expand in the direction of the Ipswich River. Six years earlier, however, the court had also granted the village of Ipswich permission to expand in the same location. The town of Topsfield, which lay between Salem and Ipswich, became the site of conflict that lasted for several decades. At Topsfield four main families competed for the right to mark boundaries on the land they had all been granted by the government. John Putnam, head of the Putnam family, fought against the Howes, Townes, and Eastys. During a dispute over rights to woodlands, Jacob Towne (the father of Nurse, Cloyce, and Elizabeth Proctor) cut down one of Putnam's trees in full view of Putnam himself. In retaliation Putnam returned with a group of his relatives and threatened to cut down all of Towne's trees. Thus began a feud that continued for over fifty years and culminated in the Salem trials, when the Putnams targeted their Towne rivals in a final show of force.

Sealing fates

After Cloyce left the church the girls became highly agitated and claimed to have a vision of a large group of witches standing by a devil's church, with Cloyce and Sarah Good serving as deacons (church officials). Without hesitation the congregation accepted this vision as proof that members of their own community were working with the devil to destroy them. Cloyce and Proctor (who was pregnant at the time) were arrested shortly thereafter. They appeared in court on April 11 in the first case to be tried in Salem Town. The trials were elevated to celebrity status when six Massachusetts dignitaries traveled from Boston to Salem to serve as judges and observers in the proceedings. Among them were Thomas Danforth, the deputy governor, and court clerk Stephen Sewall's brotherSamuel Sewall , who kept an extensive diary of the trials (see biography and primary source entries). Danforth presided over the trials, showing even less skepticism about the girls' behavior than local residents who had known the girls prior to their fits. His attitude greatly boosted the girls' credibility and spread fear throughout Massachusetts. In a sense Danforth had put a stamp of approval on the girls and determined the outcome of the trials.

During Cloyce's trial Danforth interrogated John Indian (Tituba's husband), Mary Walcott, and Abigail Williams for evidence to be used against Cloyce. John Indian claimed he had been injured by both Proctor and Cloyce when they choked him and tried to force him to sign their witches' book. At this point, according to the court record quoted in The Salem Witch Trials, Cloyce stood up in the courtroom and screamed out in anger: "When did I ever hurt you?" John Indian calmly replied, "A great many times." When Abigail was asked about her visions she said she had seen about forty people gathered in a witches' Sabbath, where Cloyce and Good were acting as ministers of the devil. This was sufficient evidence to condemn Cloyce to death.

During Proctor's trial Danforth asked similar questions of the accusers. Yet none of the girls stepped forward to call Proctor a witch, and one of them even said, "I never saw her so as to be hurt by her." Then John Indian claimed that Proctor's specter had attempted to choke him. While the girls remained silent Danforth asked Proctor about John Indian's charge. She replied, "I take God in Heaven to be my witness that I know nothing of it, no more than the child unborn." Suddenly the girls became animated and declared that Proctor had tried to get them to sign the devil's book. In response to this new accusation she calmly maintained her innocence, hinting that the girls would later be judged by God for telling lies. At this point Abigail and Ann Putnam, Jr., went into severe fits, exclaiming that Proctor's specter was taunting them from the ceiling of the meetinghouse. As they writhed on the floor they shouted that the specter was being joined by the specters of John Proctor and two local women, Goodwife Bibber and Goodwife Pope. The Proctors, Bibber, and Pope were sent straight to the Boston jail. Another prisoner was Dorcas Good, Sarah Good's four-year-old daughter, who had apparently confessed to being a witch herself.

First Salem Trial

The first trial in Salem Town marked a significant change in the course of the witchcraft proceedings. The presence of Boston dignitaries, who served as judges and imposed harsh sentences, gave validity to both spectral evidence and the girls' fits as primary proofs of guilt. In addition, Chief Magistrate John Hathorne made a formal statement in court implying that the devil could not take the shape of an innocent person, ruling out any argument that the devil was simply tricking the community by inhabiting otherwise respectable citizens. Consequently, people had the power to accuse anyone they did not like or trust of being a witch simply by claiming that person's specter was tormenting them. Similarly, the girls could cast a shadow of guilt upon accused witches by going into fierce fits when in their presence. Acceptance of these two factors by the courts would have deadly consequences, as it became virtually impossible for the accused to prove their own innocence. Historians do not know for certain if the girls' fits were real, for their dramatic outbursts could have been inspired by actual fear of witches or by the prompting of their own spiteful relatives. After the first trial arrest warrants were issued with increasing rapidity for anyone remotely associated with the charges. Between April 11, 1692 and the beginning of May, warrants were issued for Mary Easty, Edward and Sarah Bishop, Deliverance and William Hobbs, Sarah Wildes, Mary Black, Nehemiah Abbott, Jr., Mary English, and Reverend George Burroughs. This was just the beginning: as innocent people waited in shackles in filthy jail cells, their fates were sealed by the public outrage against witches that boiled above them in the streets and in the courtrooms.

Girls turn on one of their own

On April 11 the group of afflicted girls suddenly turned against Mary Warren, one of their own friends. Warren was the house servant of John and Elizabeth Proctor. On this day, just before Elizabeth Proctor was to appear in court, the girls went into fits in front of a large crowd when Warren approached them. As they fell into their typical fits, Warren also had a particularly violent and bizarre series of seizures. Some of the girls called out that Warren was about to confess to being a witch but that the specters of Corey and Proctor were silencing her. According to The Salem Witch Trials, when Warren emerged from her fits she started to say things like "I will speak, Oh, I am sorry for it, I am sorry for it! Oh Lord help me, oh good Lord save me! I will tell! They did, they did! They brought me to it!" She fell into fits again, never clarifying what she had meant and who had brought her to what actions. Was she consumed with guilt over falsifying evidence against her employers and the rest of the victims? Was she implying that the girls had forced her to lie? Historians have found no explanation for this bizarre episode. Warren was taken to a prison cell, where she continued to experience intense fits. The magistrates prodded her for a confession about the Proctors' guilt. Subjected to extreme duress, she finally implicated herself and John Proctor. Warren then lapsed into such a severe state that her legs could not be uncrossed without breaking them.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer

After a month of arrests William Phipps, the new Massachusetts governor, and Boston minister Increase Mather arrived from England with a new provincial charter for the colony (see Chapter 3). On June 2, 1692, Phipps created the Court of Oyer and Terminer (an Old French language term for "To hear and determine"). This court was composed of Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne, and, later, Johnathan Corwin. Only Hathorne and Gedney were local people, while the rest of the men came from Boston and Dorchester. All were widely experienced magistrates, and Phipps hoped they would be far enough removed from local tensions to preside over the trials in an objective manner. To the contrary, however, these judges brought their own prejudices and fears about witches, which would surface throughout the hearings.

By this time seventy people were scattered in various jail cells waiting to go to trial. Bridget Bishop (see biography entry) was the first to be tried at the new court of Oyer and Terminer. The seventy-year-old wife of local sawmill owner Edward Bishop, she had faced accusations of witchcraft several decades earlier. The trial itself was mainly a rehashing of earlier evidence and accusations, which would be typical in the trials

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to follow. Several neighbors claimed that Bishop had murdered local children, while others testified that her specter had been taunting them for quite some time. The most damaging evidence came from two men who had helped her rebuild a portion of her cellar wall, where they claimed to have found witch's puppets made of rags and boar's bristles. As reprinted in Early American Writing, by Giles Gunn, Boston minister Cotton Mather (see biography and primary source entries) noted in his diary that "There was little occasion to prove the witchcraft, this being evident and notorious [obvious] to all beholders." In other words, Bishop was considered guilty long before she could plead her innocence. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but a legal hitch stood in the way of the Salem courts: at this time Massachusetts no longer had a death penalty for the crime of witchcraft. On June 8 the Massachusetts General Court reinstated the old colonial law that had named witchcraft a capital offense to be punishable by death. Thus the way was cleared for the execution of witches.

On June 10 Bishop became the first accused witch to be hanged in Salem Town. Her execution led to the resignation of magistrate Nathaniel Saltonstall. Frightened by the prospect of attracting negative attention to himself, he quietly left the bench and simply said that the girls' fits and spectral evidence were not good sources for primary evidence. Saltonstall reportedly became a raging drunkard from then on, living the rest of his life in guilt and shame over his involvements in Bishop's sentence. He was replaced by Johnathan Corwin.

As a result of Bishop's hanging and the resignation of a magistrate, Phipps sent a plea for guidance on the issue of spectral evidence to a council of twelve Puritan ministers that included both Increase Mather and his son Cotton. The council urged the courts to act swiftly to remove the threat of witches from the area, but also cautioned them to consider the possibility that Satan may be trying to trick them. Writing for the council, as quoted in The Salem Witch Trials, Cotton Mather observed:

We judge that in the prosecution of these, and all such witchcrafts, there is a need of a very critical and exquisite caution, lest by too much credulity for [belief in] things received upon the Devil's authority there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences, and Satan get an advantage over us . . . nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government the speedy and vigorous prosecution [of all witches].

The council of ministers further recommended that the courts disallow the testimony of those who had confessed to witchcraft, limit the use of spectral evidence, and discourage outbreaks of fits among the girls during a trial. This last recommendation resulted in a split between the ministers and the magistrates. The magistrates felt too limited by these new guidelines. The ministers were reluctant to oppose the courts, so their decisions remained weak at best. The ministers could have put a stop to the trials by barring the girls from the courtroom altogether, but their reluctance to anger the judges kept the same basic rules in place. The girls' visible tortures therefore remained the primary source of evidence.

No way out for many victims

On June 13 Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes were brought to trial. Hathorne's sister and brother-in-law testified on behalf of Nurse, and thirty-nine of her former neighbors presented a petition stating that she was a devout Christian. Even Johnathan Putnam, one of her original accusers, signed the petition. (See The Examination of Rebecca Nurse in the Primary Sources section.) When the jury declared Nurse "Not Guilty" the courtroom burst into an uproar. The girls and Nurse's other accusers went into hysterics and demanded a retrial. Chief Justice William Stoughton went so far as to ask the jury to reconsider their verdict on the basis of a statement Nurse had made earlier in the trial. At that time a confessed witch, Deliverance Hobbs, had been brought into the courtroom and Nurse had asked, "What, do you bring her? She is one of us." Stoughton convinced the jury to interpret this as a confession. When Nurse was questioned about her statement she paused just slightly too long and her silence was interpreted as guilt. Later she said she was practically deaf and had not heard the question. She explained that she had been surprised to see a fellow prisoner ("one of us") being brought into the courtroom. This explanation came too late, however, for the jury had already reversed its decision and declared her guilty. Nurse's astonished friends begged the court for a reprieve (pardon). Phipps granted the reprieve, but then the girls went into another series of fits that convinced him to reverse the decision. Following this new verdict, Nurse was unanimously excommunicated (expelled) from the church, an act that symbolized eternal damnation with no chance at justice in God's court. She was also sentenced to hang.

Susannah Martin was the next to take the stand in her own defense. With wit and mockery she rebuked (strongly criticized) the court and jury for admitting spectral evidence as fact (see The Salem Trials: Interrogation of Susannah Martin in the Primary Sources section). She also asserted the innocence of the other accused women appearing in court with her. Martin then gave a compelling speech in which she tried to convince the judges that they were being tricked by the devil. The court ignored her entirely and condemned her to hang on the basis of a confession she had made as early as 1669.

Elizabeth Howe's case exposed again the land rivalries behind many of the witchcraft accusations. She had lived most of her life on the contested Topsfield-Ipswich border with her blind husband and two daughters. This unfortunate geographical position had caused major financial disputes, as both towns had attempted to tax the Howe property. The Putnams had been the Howes' primary opponents in many land disputes, although other neighbors had contested their property boundaries. Howe was originally charged with witchcraft on the accusation of a neighbor who claimed his daughter had fallen ill after an argument with Howe. The child complained of being pricked and tormented by Howe. She also had reportedly seeing Howe climbing in and out of an oven as she tortured her. Reverend Samuel Phillips of Topsfield testified that he had overheard a conversation, recounted in The Salem Witch Trials, in which Howe asked the child if Howe had ever hurt her. The child had replied, "No, never, and if I did complain of you in my fits I know not that I did so." Phillips then said he had heard the girl's older brother call out from an upstairs window, " Say that Goodwife Howe is a witch! Say she is a witch!" Phillips continued to defend Howe, arguing that the child could easily have been convinced her own neighbor was a witch under pressure from her relatives. Howe's ninety-four-year-old father-in-law then testified on her behalf. He stated that she was the kindest, most helpful member of the family. He went on to describe her devotion to her blind husband, whom she assisted in every aspect of his daily life. Still, neither of these powerful testimonials budged the jury or the court. Howe was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The case of Sarah Wildes was almost identical to that of Howe. Wildes too lived on the treacherous Topsfield-Ipswich border and was considered by her neighbors to be elitist and stingy with her farm equipment. She was swiftly sentenced to hang with Howe.

Hangings on Gallows Hill

The hangings took place on Gallows Hill, outside of Salem Town. On July 19, 1692, Good, Nurse, Martin, Howe, and Wildes were carried by cart out of town on Boston road, past the North River, and to the foot of Gallows Hill. There they experienced abusive treatment from the crowd and the executioner. They were followed by an enormous group of spectators who taunted and threw things at them. Upon reaching the base of the hill they were forced to walk up to the top, to the Hanging Tree. The women had been weakened by starvation and illness during their time in jail, and this last walk was especially difficult for the elderly, such as Nurse. Some were actually too weak to walk and they begged for help from the crowd, but to no avail. Nobody wanted to risk being associated with a witch. As the women made their way up the hill the girls took turns jeering at them and further riling the crowd. One by one the women were told to stand on a wooden crate and insert their heads into the noose of the hanging rope. The executioner, Nicholas Noyes, was famous for his departing taunts to the witches and seemed to enjoy his role in the gruesome spectacle. Hanging was a slow and agonizing way to die: once the crate was kicked out of the way, the victim would drop and thrash in agony for several minutes. If a victim's neck did not break during the fall she would be suffocated and remain conscious for several minutes prior to death. In a few cases the hanging was unsuccessful and Noyes had to start the torturous process over again.

Each of the victims went with as much dignity possible, restating their innocence to the crowd. Noyes tried to elicit last-minute confessions, but none of the women budged from a denial of practicing witchcraft. When Good was waiting to be hanged she gave a powerful speech to Noyes as he taunted her for being a witch, as related in The Salem Witch Trials, "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard [magician] and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink." (Noyes died years later when he reportedly choked on his own blood.) Following the hangings the bodies were cut from the ropes then dragged to a shallow grave where they were dumped unceremoniously and covered with dirt. Relatives of the victims were charged for all transportation costs to the hill, as well as executioner's fees and burial charges.

The trials continue

During the next wave of trials George Burroughs, John Proctor, George Jacob, Sr., John Willard, and Martha Carrier were all sentenced to hang. Elizabeth Proctor was also found guilty but was allowed to stay in jail until her baby was born. John Proctor was found guilty for little more than defending his wife during her trial. He had burst into the courtroom in a final attempt to testify on her behalf. Abigail Williams had been quick to declare that he was as guilty as his wife, thus providing the magistrates enough evidence to condemn him.

Old and lame George Jacobs was found guilty on the basis of his granddaughter's testimony that he was a wizard. Although she later retracted (took back) her statement, it came too late and the court sentenced Burroughs to hang. According to Frances Hill in A Delusion of Satan, he replied to the guilty vedict by saying: "You tax me for a wizard; you may as well tax me for a buzzard. I have done no harm." He defended his innocence all the way to Gallows Hill, where he spoke of Christ's salvation through God. A similar defense came from George Burroughs, who had been accused of being a "Black Minister" by Abigail. As Burroughs stood on the gallows he began with the Lord's Prayer. Since this is the principal Christian prayer, Puritans believed that a witch could not recite it. Many of the onlookers were moved to tears as Burroughs gave a final speech in which he appealed to the spiritual conscience of the people in the crowd. Carrier made similarly emotional appeals. She had been found guilty on the basis of her own two children's evidence against her—evidence that authorities apparently extracted by tying the children's necks to their heels until they made a confession. When Carrier was declared guilty she accused the court and jury of lying and conspiring with the devil. Her children later retracted their so-called confessions when they felt it would be safe to speak, but by this time Carrier had already been cut down from the Hanging Tree.

The final phase

On September 9, 1692, six more alleged witches were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. They were Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Dorcas Hoar, and Mary Bradbury. Eight days later Margaret Scott, Wilmot Redd, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker were also sent to Gallows Hill. Several accused witches—Abigail Falkner, Nurse Eames, Mary Lacy, Ann Foster, and Abigail Hobbes—were spared from execution when they finally confessed their guilt. On September 10, Giles Corey was brought to court, but he contested the charges against him and refused to stand trial. The court decided to force him to accept a trial. By law authorities had a right to pile stones on a prisoner's body until he or she acknowledged the court's jurisdiction. Historians suggest that Corey must have known his case was hopeless, and therefore decided to defend the truth by refusing a trial. According to court records, as stones were being piled on top of him he continued to ask for more weight. Corey was slowly crushed to death over the course of nine days; he was finally killed on September 19. The final hangings took place three days later, bringing the death toll to twenty people. Unfortunately, this did not put an end to the witch-hunts.

Torture Produces "Confessions"

Martha Carrier was found guilty of practicing witchcraft on the basis of her own two children's evidence against her—evidence that authorities apparently extracted by tying the children's necks to their heels until they made a confession. The Carrier case marked the return of the use of torture to extract confessions. Though not so elaborate as the devices used in Europe (see Chapter 1), torture in the Salem trials often consisted of methods such as those used on the Carrier children. Many people were tied up in contorted and painful positions or forced to stand up for days at a time during an endless series of questions. A more subtle and enduring form of torture was the condition of the jails, into which hundreds of suspects were crammed together without light, food, water, or any form of hygiene. Since many were taken from families that depended upon them for survival, children of the accused often went hungry or died as their parents awaited trial.

As the witch-hunts continued through October more and more people of high social status were being accused and jail cells were filling up throughout the area. Even the wives of Governor Phipps and Increase Mather found themselves accused of being witches. Then public opinion underwent a sudden shift, as people began saying that the accused should be seen as merely being "possessed" rather than bewitched. This was a significant distinction, since a possessed person was not aware of doing the work of the devil. As a result the girls were no longer considered expert witnesses in trials and a sense of caution overtook the courts. This shift was made official when Increase Mather delivered a speech titled "Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men," in which he indirectly cast doubt on the use of spectral evidence and questioned the reliability of the girls' visions. On October 12 Phipps declared a full moratorium on (end to) witch trials. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved seventeen days later. By then the court had heard thirty-one cases and declared a death sentence for each defendant. Eleven people were still in jails awaiting execution. Eventually five received reprieves after confessing their guilt, while two died in jail before they were set free. One woman was pardoned because of pregnancy, and the rest escaped from jail. Tituba, the first person to be charged and jailed, was never hanged. Samuel Parris apparently sold her into slavery to recover the costs of her jailing and trials.

The last days of the Salem hysteria

Another significant change occurred in October 1692: the English government granted Massachusetts a new charter that gave jury power to all males in the community. Formerly only church members had the right to sit on a jury, thus ensuring that the opinions and beliefs of the church would determine the fate of the accused. Now that juries would be drawn from the general public, who tended to be more aware of social problems than the Puritan elite, the accused stood a better chance of not being put to death. As an extension of this new provision, on November 25 a superior court was created to hear cases. The court did not have its first hearing, however, until a full year later. In the meantime jails were being packed to full capacity as accusations of witchcraft continued to circulate throughout the colony. The general court finally decided to issue an emergency plan to deal with people who were languishing in jail cells. On December 16 the court passed a special act to allow trials for the remaining accused witches.

Several of the judges involved in the new hearings had also sat in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, yet no one questioned whether these men had sent innocent people to the gallows. Instead the focus was on the use of spectral evidence and the girls' courtroom antics, rather than on the credibility of the judges involved in the previous trials. The girls immediately encountered a different reception when they were called to Gloucester in November for the trial of a young woman who was supposedly possessed by the devil. In their usual fashion the girls declared that the young woman had been bewitched by three other Gloucester women. Yet village officials took no steps to imprison or try the women. On the journey home from Gloucester the girls met with even greater indifference. While crossing a crowded bridge they passed an old woman and proceeded to go into fits. They screamed that the woman was a witch, but to their surprise not a single person reacted to their hysterics—they were treated as if they were invisible. People walked around them and went about their business, causing the girls to realize their reign was ending. When they returned to Salem not one girl had a public fit or made another accusation. With the girls now effectively silenced, the courts acted to free and pardon the remaining prisoners.

The Crucible

In 1953 American playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, a drama based on the Salem witch-hunts. Featuring characters drawn from actual participants in the trials, The Crucible addresses the complex moral dilemmas of John Proctor, who is wrongly accused of practicing witchcraft. Through a depiction of the mass frenzy of the witch hunt, Miller examined the social and psychological aspects of group pressure and the effect on individual ethics (knowledge of right and wrong), dignity, and beliefs. The play has been interpreted as a thinly disguised critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious investigations of communism in the United States in the 1950s. In a personal experience reminiscent of (similar to) the Salem trials, Miller himself was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1957. Although he admitted that he had attended a meeting of communist writers, he refused to identify anyone he had met there and denied ever having been a member of the Communist Party. As a result, Miller was found guilty of contempt of Congress, a conviction that was later overturned. The Crucible is still performed throughout the world and was most recently adapted as a feature film in 1996, with Daniel Day-Lewis starring as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams.

On January 3, 1693, during a special trial, charges against thirty of the accused were dismissed on the basis of insufficient evidence, namely the fact that spectral evidence had been the primary evidence against them. When the jury inquired as to how much worth they should grant spectral evidence, Judge William Stoughton responded, as quoted by Frances Hill in A Delusion of Satan, "As much as of chips in wort," which meant it should be worth nothing. Twenty-six more people were actually tried, but only three women were found guilty. Since they were developmentally handicapped and mildly retarded, they could not formally defend themselves during the trial. Thus the women became convenient scapegoats: the court was determined to find someone guilty to show that the judges had not been wrong in the previous trials. All three were sentenced to be hanged immediately as a symbolic end to the trials. At this point Phipps stepped in and granted a reprieve for the women as well as five others who were still awaiting executions ordered by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. In response, as recounted by Hill, Stoughton stormed off the bench and screamed in fury: "We were in a position to have cleared the land . . . who is it then that obstructs the course of justice I know not; the Lord be merciful to the country."

The following April the remaining defendants were freed after a superior court hearing in Boston. In May Phipps demanded the discharge of all prisoners awaiting trial, many of whom had been forced to stay in jail until their families could pay their fees. By this time several people had perished in the intolerable conditions and others were so financially ruined that they could not pay for their own freedom. Prisoners were charged dearly for maintenance, clothing, fuel, transport to jail, court and prison fees, discharge from jail, and even reprieve from execution. By autumn people were petitioning for waivers on their fees and were asking to be placed under "house arrest" so they could care for their families or receive the care they needed themselves. Phipps granted an amnesty to some prisoners, but innocent people had already been robbed of property, family, health, money, and social standing. Many did not live to tell the tale or recover from the devastation. Apologies and reprieves from the courts simply came too late. In just one year twenty people had been executed and countless others had lost their lives in jail cells. The Salem tragedy had reached enormous proportions, and nothing could undo the destruction.

For Further Study

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

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.

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Salem Witch Trials and Executions

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