The Salem Witch Trials, begun in 1692 (also known as the Salem witch hunt and the Salem Witchcraft Episode), resulted in a number of convictions and executions for witchcraft in both Salem Village and Salem Town, Massachusetts. Some have argued it was the result of a period of factional infighting and Puritan witch hysteria. The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people (14 women, 6 men) and the imprisonment of between 175 and 200 people. In addition to those executed, at least five people died in prison. One man who refused to plead to the charges was pressed to death with rocks (the medieval torture of peine forte et dure, which, if fatal, did not result in forfeiture of property).Background
In 1692, Salem Village was torn by internal disputes between neighbors who disagreed about the choice of Samuel Parris as their first ordained minister. In January 1692, York, at the “Eastward” frontier of Maine, was attacked by the Abenaki Indians, and many of its citizens were massacred or taken captive, echoing the brutality of King Philip’s War of 1675-76.
Increasing family size fueled disputes over land between neighbors and within families, especially on the frontier where the economy was based on farming. Changes in the weather or blights could easily wipe out a year’s crop. A farm that could support an average-sized family could not support the many families of the next generation, prompting farmers to push further into the wilderness to find farmland and encroach upon the indigenous peoples there. As the Puritans had vowed to create a theocracy in this new land, religious fervor added another tension to the mix. Losses of crops, of livestock, and of children, as well as earthquakes and bad weather were typically attributed to the wrath of God. Within the Puritan faith, one’s soul was considered predestined from birth as to whether it had been chosen for Heaven or condemned to Hell. Puritans constantly searched for hints to this predestination, assuming God’s pleasure and displeasure could be read in signs given in the visible world. The invisible world was inhabited by God and the angels, including the Devil, a fallen angel. To Puritans, this invisible world was as real to them as the visible one around them.
The patriarchal beliefs that Puritans held in the community added further stresses. Women, they believed, should be totally subservient to men. By nature a woman was more likely to enlist in the Devil’s service than a man was, and that women were naturally lustful.
In addition, the small-town atmosphere made secrets very difficult to keep and people’s opinions about their neighbors were generally accepted as fact. In an age where the philosophy “children should be seen and not heard” was taken at face value, children were at the bottom of the social ladder. Toys and games were seen as idle and playing was discouraged. Girls had additional restrictions heaped upon them. Boys were able to go hunting, fishing, exploring in the forest, and often became apprentices to carpenters and smiths, while girls were trained from a tender age to spin yarn, cook, sew, weave, and to generally be servants to their husbands and mothers to their children.Origin of trials
In the village of Salem in 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece (respectively) of Reverend Samuel Parris, fell victim to what was recorded as fits “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect,” according to John Hale, minister in Beverly, in his book A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft (Boston, 1702). The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. They complained of being pricked with pins or cut with knives, and when Reverend Samuel Parris would preach, the girls would cover their ears, as if dreading to hear the sermons. A doctor, historically assumed to be William Griggs, could find no physical evidence of any ailment. Others in the village began to exhibit the same symptoms.
In his book Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689) , Cotton Mather describes the strange behavior exhibited by the four children of a Boston mason, John Goodwin, and attributed it to witchcraft practiced upon them by an Irish washerwoman, Mary Glover. Mather, a minister of Boston’s North Church (not to be confused with the Episcopalian Old North Church of Paul Revere fame), was a prolific publisher of pamphlets and a firm believer in witchcraft. Three of the five judges appointed to the Court of Oyer and Terminer were friends of his and members of his congregation. He wrote to one of the judges, John Richards, supporting the prosecutions, but cautioning him of the dangers of relying on spectral evidence and advising the court on how to proceed. Mather was present at the execution of the Reverend George Burroughs for witchcraft on August 19, 1692, and intervened after the condemned man had successfully recited the Lord’s Prayer (supposedly a sign of innocence) to remind the crowd that the man had been convicted before a jury. Mather was asked by Governor Phipps in September to write about the trials, and obtained access to the official records of the Salem trials from his friend Stephen Sewall, clerk of the court, upon which his account of the affair, Wonders of the Invisible World, was based.
Traditionally, the affected girls are said to have been “entertained” by Parris’ slave woman Tituba, during the winter of 1692, although there is no contemporary evidence to support the story (Reis 56). Tituba’s race is also often cited as Carib-Indian or that she was of African descent, but contemporary sources describe her only as an “Indian.” Research by Elaine Breslaw has suggested that she may well have been captured in what is now Venezuela and brought to Barbados, and so may have been an Arawak Indian, but other slightly later descriptions of her, by Gov. Hutchinson writing his history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 18th century, describe her as a “Spanish Indian.” In that day, that typically meant an Indian from the Carolinas/Georgia/Florida. Contrary to the folklore, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that Tituba told any of the girls any stories about using magic. The one supportable association with any kind of magical practices is that John Indian, another slave in the Parris household and assumed to have been Tituba’s husband, was told a recipe for discovering the identity of a witch, a British recipe given to him by a neighbor of the parsonage.
The first three people accused were arrested for allegedly afflicting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard were Sarah Good, Sarah Osburne and Tituba (Boyer 3). Tituba, as a slave of a different ethnicity than the Puritans, was an obvious target for accusations. Sarah Good, a poverty-worn, easily-angered woman, often muttered under her breath as she walked away from failed attempts of obtaining food and/or shelter from neighbors and people interpreted her muttering as curses. Sarah Osburne, an irritable old woman, was already marked for marrying her indentured servant. All of these women fit the description of the “usual suspects,” since nobody would likely stand up for them; neither Osburne nor Good attended church, which made them especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft.
These women were brought before the local magistrates on the complaint of witchcraft and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692, then sent to jail (Boyer 3). Other accusations followed in March: Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and Rachel Clinton. Martha Corey, ever an outspoken woman, was skeptical about the credence of the girls from the start and scoffed at the hearings by the magistrates, unfortunately drawing attention to herself. Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was only 4 years old, and easily manipulated by the magistrates to say things that were taken as a confession, implicating her own mother. In order to be with her mother after the accusations, she claimed to herself be a witch, thereby she was arrested. The charges against Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey greatly disturbed the community. Martha Corey was a full covenanted member of the Church in Salem Village, as was Rebecca Nurse in the Church in Salem Town. If such upstanding people could be accused of witchcraft and seen as possible witches, then anybody could be a witch and Church membership was no protection from accusation.
Throughout April, many more were arrested: Sarah Cloyce (Nurse’s sister), Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor and her husband John Proctor, Giles Corey (Martha’s husband, and a covenanted church member in Salem Town), Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Mary Warren (a servant in the Proctor household and sometime accuser herself), Deliverance Hobbs (step-mother of Abigail Hobbs), Sarah Wilds, William Hobbs (husband of Deliverance and father of Abigail), Nehemiah Abbott Jr., Mary Esty (sister of Cloyce and Nurse), Edward Bishop Jr. and his wife Sarah Bishop, and Mary English, and finally on April 30, the Reverend George Burroughs, Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, Dorcas Hoar, Sarah Morey and Philip English (Mary’s husband). Nehemiah Abbott Jr. was released because the accusers agreed he was not the person whose spectre had afflicted them. Mary Esty was released for a few days after her initial arrest because the accusers failed to confirm that it was she who had afflicted them, and then she was rearrested when the accusers reconsidered.
Much, but not all, of the evidence used against the accused was “spectral evidence,” or the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition or the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. The theological dispute that ensued about the use of this evidence centered on whether a person had to give their permission to the Devil for their “shape” to be used to afflict. Opponents claimed that the Devil was able to use anyone’s “shape” to afflict people, but the Court contended that the Devil could not use a person’s shape without their permission, therefore when the afflicted claimed to “see” the apparition of a specific person, that was accepted as evidence that the accused had been complicit with the Devil. Increase Mather and other ministers sent a letter to the Court, “The Return of Several Ministers Consulted,” urging the magistrates not to convict on spectral evidence alone. A copy of this letter was printed in Increase Mather’s [“Cases of Conscience”] published in 1693. Other evidence included the confession of the accused, the testimony of another confessing “witch” identifying others as witches, the discovery of “poppits,” books of palmistry and horoscopes, or pots of ointments in the possession or home of the accused, and the existence of so-called “witch’s teats” on the body of the accused.
As the number of accusations grew, the jail populations of Salem, Ipswich, Charlestown, Cambridge, and Boston swelled. The new governor and charter for the colony did not arrive until May. Some have postulated that without this, there was no legitimate form of government to try capital cases (Boyer 6), but this was not true. In the years between charters, according to the Records of the Court of Assistants, a group of thirteen pirates led by Thomas Johnson, a mariner of Boston, were tried and hanged on January 27, 1690 for acts of piracy and murder in August and October of 1689.Elizabeth Emerson of Haverhill, Massachusetts was tried and hanged for double-infanticide in May 1691.The fact that none of the witchcraft cases were tried until late May, after Governor Sir William Phips arrived and instituted a Court of Oyer and Terminer (to “hear and determine”), was likely in deference to his imminent arrival. Phips appointed William Stoughton, who had theological training but no legal training, as the Chief Justice of this court (Boyer 7). By then, Sarah Osborne had died of natural causes in jail on May 10 without a trial (Boyer 3), as had Sarah Good’s infant.
In May, warrants were issued for 36 more people: Sarah Dustin (daughter of Lydia Dustin), Ann Sears, Bethiah Carter Sr. and her daughter Bethiah Carter Jr., George Jacobs Sr. and his granddaughter Margaret Jacobs, John Willard, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Abigail Soames, George Jacobs Jr. (son of George Jacobs Sr. and father of Margaret Jacobs), Daniel Andrew, Rebecca Jacobs (wife of George Jacobs Jr. and sister of Daniel Andrew), Sarah Buckley and her daughter Mary Witheridge, Elizabeth Colson, Elizabeth Hart, Thomas Farrar Sr., Roger Toothaker, Sarah Proctor (daughter of John and Elilzabeth Proctor), Sarah Bassett (sister-in-law of Elizabeth Proctor), Susannah Roots, Mary DeRich (another sister-in-law of Elizabeth Proctor), Sarah Pease, Elizabeth Cary, Martha Carrier, Elizabeth Fosdick, Wilmot Redd, Sarah Rice, Elizabeth How, Capt. John Alden (son of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Plymouth Colony), William Proctor (son of John and Elizabeth Proctor), John Flood, Mary Toothaker (wife of Roger Toothaker and sister of Martha Carrier) and her daughter Margaret Toothaker, and Arthur Abbott. John Willard and Elizabeth Colson managed to evade capture for a while but were finally taken into custody, whereas Daniel Andrew and George Jacobs Jr. were never apprehended. When the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened at the end of May, this brought the total number of people in custody for the court to handle to 62.