In the months of June to September 1692, nineteen men and women were hung near Salem Village, Massachusetts, for the crime of witchcraft. One man, Giles Corey, close to eighty years of age at the time of the accusations, was crushed to death under heavy stones for refusing to be tried. Hundreds of other people also faced accusations of witchcraft, and a large proportion of the accused spent many months in jail without the benefit of trial.
They hysteria that led to the Salem witchcraft trials has its roots in the strict Puritan religion of the colony of Massachusetts. However, economic conditions, personal jealousies, discontent within a congregation, and teenage boredom all played an important role in the events that swept Salem that summer.
Salem's hysteria over witchcraft sparked with the strange illness of Betty Parris, the daughter of the Salem minister. She exhibited a strange variety of symptoms, including contorting in pain, ducking under furniture, and complaints of fever.
Talk of witchcraft increased as several of Betty's playmates, including Ann Putnam and Mary Walcott began to show similar symptoms.
Salem's easy acceptance of the idea of witchcraft came partially from the ideas espoused in Cotton Mather's book, Memorable Providences. This book, popular just before the trial, described the suspected witchcraft of an Irish servant in Boston. The behavior of the woman in the book was eerily similar to that of young Betty Parris, who ultimately claimed that her afflictions were the result of witchcraft.
The Parris' slave Tituba, a West African native, soon became implicated in the growing hysteria. Her exotic origin and the tales of voodoo and omens from her folklore made her an easy scapegoat. The number of young girls who reported having the strange symptoms included to grow.
Soon, the accusations of witchcraft turned to the courts.
The slave Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn were the first to be accused of witchcraft. All three were socially disempowered, Tituba was a slave, Good a beggar, and Osborn was old, irritable, and did not often attend church.
County magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne scheduled examinations for the three women for March 1, 1692. The afflicted girls performed their contortions when presented with the three women on trial. Villagers offered stories of cheese and butter that had turned sour, and animals that were born with deformities after a visit my one of the three women.
Tituba's testimony brought the proceeding to a fevered pitch.
She declared that she was a witch, and that she and four other witches, including the other accused women had flown through the air. Her confession helped to quiet the sceptics, and local ministers, including Parris, soon began the witch-hunt with renewed zeal.
The afflicted girls quickly named other women as witches. These included Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Cloyce, and Mary Easty. The four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good, Doris soon became accused of witchcraft after the girls accused her spectre of biting them. The child spent eight months in jail, and watched her own mother be carried of to the gallows to be hanged.
Stuck in jail with the damning testimony of the afflicted girls widely accepted, suspects began to see confession as a way to avoid the gallows. Deliverance Hobbs became the second witch to confess, admitting to pinching three of the girls at the Devil's command and flying on a pole to attend a witches' Sabbath in an open field.
Jails approached capacity and the colony "teetered on the brink of chaos" when Governor Phips returned from England. Fast action, he decided, was required.
The accused witches, now stuck in jail, awaiting hanging began to confess. Imprisoned by the girl's damming testimony and the growing hysteria of the time, they saw confession as a way to escape hanging. Deliverance Hobbs was the second witch to confess, and jails began to overflow with accused witches.
A new court was created to try all the new witchcraft cases. Five judges were appointed, and they worked to extract confessions. The judges soon allowed the examination of the bodies of the accused for "witches' marks" - moles or marks that would allow the witch's familiar to suckle. Hearsay, gossip and assumptions were admitted as legal evidence. The witches had no legal counsel, and had no formal avenues of appeal.
The first woman accused of witchcraft, Bridge Bishop, was hung on June 10, 1692. The trials went on with a fevered pace, and even well-respected, pious women like Rebecca Nurse were convicted of witchcraft. Nurse was one of three Towne sisters, all members of a family that had a long-held fued with the Putnam family. Nurse and four other witches were hanged on July 19, 1692.
People like John Proctor, a local tavern owner, who had laughed at the accusations of witchcraft soon became targets of the continuing hysteria in Salem. The obnoxious and loud Proctor was quickly hanged for the crime of witchcraft, but his wife languished in jail, and was spared execution because she was pregnant.
Even Salem's ex-minister, George Burroughs, was soon accused of witchcraft. The young girls accused him of being the witches' ringleader, and he was hanged despite continued protestations of his innocence.
Eight more convicted witches were hanged on September 22, 1692. Soon after, the hysteria and fear in Salem began to subside. Members of Salem's educated elite began to speak out against the trials, and the spectral evidence was no longer allowed in the trials. No more accused witches went to the gallows in Salem that summer. During the Salem witch trials, approximately one to two hundred people were arrested and charged of witchcraft.
After the trials, Salem began to slowly rebuild. One of the judges, Samuel Sewall publicly apologised. Even Reverend Samuel Parris made some small admissions in errors of judgement, but quickly shifted blame to others. William Stroughton refused any blame in the trials, and solidly renounced then governor Phips for interfering in the trials.
William Stroughton was soon elected the next governor of Massachusetts.
Linder, Douglas. Famous American Trials. Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692. 08 October 2002. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SALEM.htm
Sir William Phips. Biographies of Key Figures in the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692. 08 October 2002. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_BPHI.htm
Starkey, Marion Lena. The Devil in Massachusetts: a modern inquiry into the Salem witch trials. New York: Dolphin Books, 1961.
Pilgrims and Puritans
Logan, Samuel T. Jr. The Pilgrims and Puritans: Total Reformation for the Glory of God. 08 October 2002. http://www.puritansermons.com/banner/logan1.htm
The New England Colonies - Major Events and Timeline
May 13, 1607
The first permanent English colony is founded in Jamestown, Virginia.
December 26, 1620
The Pilgrim Separatists land at Plymouth, Mass.
December 25, 1621
Massachusetts Governor William Bradford forbids game playing on Christmas day.
March 22, 1622
Indian attacks kill one-third of the English settlers in Virginia.
Charles I grants Lord Baltimore territory north of the Potomac River, which will become Maryland. Because the royal charter did not restrict settlement to Protestants, Catholics could settle in the colony.
After being expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams founds Rhode Island, which becomes the first English colony to grant complete religious tolerance.
Massachusetts forbids the celebration of Christmas.
September 19, 1676
Jamestown, Virginia, is burned during Bacon's Rebellion.
March 4, 1681
Charles II grants William Penn a charter to what is now Pennsylvania.
June 21, 1684
Charles II revokes Massachusetts' charter on the grounds that it had imposed religious qualifications for voting, discriminated against the Church of England, and set up an illegal mint.
The Salem Witch trials begin.
Connecticut prohibits Sunday travel except for attendance at worship.
The Great Awakening begins in New England, ignited by Jonathan Edwards, who sermons in Northampton, Mass., emphasize human depravity and divine omnipotence.