Salem Witch Trials
Updated: Jan 11
This month I thought to go a bit further back in our history to a time when our fears took the better of us as a people. I recently realized many in the U.S. believe hundreds were killed during the witch trials, and most of those burned at the stake. This could not be further from the truth. Let us take a look at what happened back in 1692-1693.
The hunt for those practicing witchcraft had swept through Europe through the centuries. Trials peaked in the 15th and 16th centuries, before subsiding until it became a major issue again in the 17th century. It is a rough estimate that between the 1500's to 1800, a total of 200,000 people had been tortured, burnt, or hanged for witchcraft.
In the area surrounding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first accusations of witchcraft occurred in 1645. Oddly, it was husband Hugh Parsons, accusing his wife, Mary Parsons and vice versa. Hugh was found innocent, and though Mary had been acquitted of witchcraft herself, she eventually was sentenced to hang for the death of her child. She never made it to the hangman as she passed in prison. All told, about eighty people in the Bay Colony area were accused of practicing witchcraft between 1645-1663. Thirteen women and two men were executed for these crimes.
In 1689, Reverend Samuel Parris became Salem Village's first ordained minister. Before becoming a minister, Parris had gone to Harvard College, though there is nothing to prove that he completed study there by the time of his father's death (ministers were college graduates, so he must have completed study at some point afterward). Upon the death of his father, Parris moved to Barbados where he inherited and maintained a sugar plantation. A hurricane hitting Barbados in 1680 damaged enough of his property that he sold some of the land to return to Boston with his slaves Tituba and John Indian. He married a notably incredibly beautiful woman, Elizabeth Eldridge, and had three children; Thomas, Elizabeth, and Suzannah. His move from merchant to minister is believed to be due to his dissatisfaction of financial security with his merchant ventures.
The Scare Begins
In January of 1692, Salem Village (now Danvers), became ground zero for a witch hunt that would last close to two years. Parris and his wife, spending much of their time away from home visiting members of the congregation, left their slave Tituba to watch over the children. At some point, she began telling them stories from her Barbados background, eventually showing them little tricks on how to discover who they would marry. The girls slowly told their friends and they would gather around Tituba, possibly feeling a thrill of doing something their Puritan nature told them was wrong. It was this particular trick that eventually scared the girls when one of the eggs used appeared like a coffin. Shortly after this scare, Reverend Parris' daughter Elizabeth (Betty), age 9, and their niece Abigail Williams, age 11 began having "fits". Ann Putnam Jr, age 11, daughter to the wealthy Putnam family, also showed the same signs of screaming, throwing things, peculiar sounds and contortions. Unable to find a physical answer, the local doctor placed the blame on the supernatural.
Pressured by magistrates, Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed Tituba for their affliction on February 29th. Tituba, then gave up the names of Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne, an elderly woman, as those also practicing witchcraft (these two already under arrest for possible witchcraft). If it had been just those two, things may have calmed down, but Tituba hinted that there were others, possibly another half dozen members of Parris' congregation, that were witches. This began the frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials.
From February 1692, through May the following year, a few hundred people were accused and charged with witchcraft. The main issue circling the accusations was the inclusion of "spectral evidence." As no one could see the spirits attacking the afflicted, except the afflicted themselves, it was deemed necessary to allow these spectral attacks as evidence in court. The afflicted were all young girls: Elizabeth Booth, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mercy Lewis, Betty Parris, Ann Putnam, Jr., Susannah Sheldon, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott, and Mary Warren. Spectacles of the girls; writhing in pain, repeating the words of the accused, screaming in fear at spirits no one but themselves could see, filled the court as more people were arrested.
Not entirely proven, Thomas Putnam was thought to have used his daughter and others to accuse wealthy people so he could buy up their land. At the time, anyone accused of a crime would have their estates confiscated if convicted. It is believed that religious feuds and property disputes played a big part in the witch trials.
By April 21st 1692, the following people had been accused, arrested, and sent to a Boston prison on suspicion of witchcraft: Tituba, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, Sarah Cloyce, Giles Corey, John Proctor, Dorcas Good, Mary Easty, Edward Bishop, Sarah Bishop, Deliverence Hobbs, William Hobbs, Sarah Wilds, Mary Black, Nehemiah Abbott Jr, Mary English. This day also had Abigail Williams identifying the Reverend George Burroughs as the "Black Minister." Reverend Burroughs had been the minister for Salem Village from 1680-1683, but had left due to non payment of salary, an arrest instigated by Putnam for not paying a past debt for Burroughs' wife's funeral, and general discord with the congregation.
April 30th, a warrant was issued for Reverend Burroughs who was arrested at his home in Wells, Maine, then extradited to Salem Town. Just days later, George Jacobs Sr. (70 year old farmer) and John Willard (constable) were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft. Willard began doubting the accusations and refused to make any more arrests. Possibly in retaliation, Ann Putnam Jr, and some of the other girls claimed he had killed a dozen people, as well as, being a witch. Sarah Osborne died in prison that May 10th.
June 2 1692, Susannah Sheldon reports the specters of Mary English, Bridget Bishop (60 years old, tavern owner, and outspoken) and Giles Corey (80 years old, prosperous land-owning farmer) appeared to her. Bridget Bishop's trial begins and ends this day with her guilty. Modern myth is the Salem Witch Trials victims were burned at the stake. This is not true. Salem, under English rule and law at the time, only allowed death by burning against men who committed high treason. This was only done after they had been hanged, quartered and drawn.
June 10 1692, Bridget Bishop is hanged on Gallows Hill, as it would later be known. This would be followed on July 19 1692 with Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Wilds, Susannah Martin and Rebecca Nurse hanged on Gallows Hill. It is an interesting point that every person who confessed to witchcraft were eventually released, not hanged. In the Puritan thought process, it was God's prerogative to judge a person once they confessed guilt or innocence. All those hung refused to lie in order to save their lives.
July 23 1692, John Proctor and other prisoners wrote a letter from prison to the Reverends Increase Mather, James Allen, Joshua Moody, Samuel Willard and John Bayley, asking for a change in venue for the trials as they feared they would not receive fair treatment in Salem Town.
August 19 1692, before a decision could be made on the letter, George Burroughs, John Proctor, George Jacobs Sr., John Willard and Martha Carrier are hanged on Gallows Hill. Elizabeth Proctor escapes the noose as she is found to be pregnant. The court stays her execution until after she will give birth.
September 19 1692, Giles Corey, having refused to stand trial, is tortured by Pressing. The attempt is to make him give a plea of yea or nay to the accusations. Corey is stripped naked, placed under a wooden board, and rocks are placed atop. The only words Giles Corey says before his chest is crushed are "More weight." He is the only person to die who was not hanged nor convicted of a crime. Corey was not a fool, at 80 years of age, he knew any plea would cause forfeiture of his lands. By remaining silent, his family were able to keep everything.
September 22 1692, the last of the hangings occur with the deaths of Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Margaret Scott, Wilmot Reed, Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker on Gallows Hill. As a footnote on the killings, two dogs were shot or killed after being suspected of witchcraft at some point during the whole affair. Animals were "known" to be familiars of witches.
By November 25, A Superior Court of Judicature was created to try those remaining persons accused of witchcraft. Increase Mather, though making no attempt to denounce the witch trials themselves, did write "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." (His son Cotton Mather had warned of the dubious value of spectral evidence but was unheeded during the trials). With this new court and on this date, spectral evidence would no longer be considered. It took until May 1693, going through the court system, before Governor Phips pardons the remaining accused of witchcraft. Apologies and some money restitutions were eventually given to the families of the deceased.
Those that had been found guilty but were pardoned before hanging: Elizabeth Proctor, Abigail Faulkner Sr, Mary Post, Sarah Wardwell, Elizabeth Johnson Jr, Dorcas Hoar.
Those who pled guilty and pardoned before trial: Rebecca Earnes, Abigail Hobbs, Mary Lacy Sr, Mary Osgood.
Others that died in prison awaiting trial: Roger Toothaker, Ann Foster, Lydia Dustin.
Escaped from Prison: Edward Bishop Jr, Sarah Bishop, Mary Bradbury, William Barker Sr, Andrew Carrier, Katherine Cary, Phillip English, Mary English, Edward Farrington, John Alden Jr.
Those never indicted: Sarah Bassett, Mary Black, Bethiah Carter Jr, Bethiah Carter Sr, Sarah Cloyce, Elizabeth Hart, William Hobbs, Thomas Farrer Sr, William Proctor, Sarah Proctor, Susannah Roots, Ann Sears, Tituba.
Evaded arrest: George Jacobs Jr, Daniel Andrews.
Interesting notations: John Alden Jr, son to John Alden of the Mayflower, had been coming home to Boston from Quebec when he stopped in Salem. As best as can be put together, Mercy Lewis was one of the girls who accused him of witchcraft. Mercy had lost her parents in an Indian attack in Maine, and could have accused him for revenge. Alden was held four months in a Boston jail before friends were able to gain his escape in the middle of September. He hid in New York with others accused of witchcraft, but returned to Salem in April of 1693 to post bail and stand before the court. His case was dismissed.
Tituba, having plead quilty to witchcraft, had not been tried by the court. She later recanted, stating she only said she had served Satan to stop Parris from whipping and beating her. She remained in a Boston jail, as Samuel Parris refused to pay her jail fees. No one knows for sure why, but it is possible he wished to be rid of the reminder of the witch trials, or possibly due to her recanting her confession. In April of 1693, Tituba was sold to an unknown person for the price of her jail fees. It is unknown what happened to her or her husband John Indian after that.
There has been speculation over the years that the fits the girls originally were under could have been from some fungus or mold in the grain used to make their rye bread. It would answer some of the initial questions. It is also possible, after recovering from such an illness, they wished to keep themselves the center of attention. The Puritan life of the time was not kind to women, even less kind to children.
In 1992, on the 300th anniversary of the trials in Salem (now Danvers), a memorial park was dedicated in Salem which included stone slab benches inserted in the stone wall of the park for each of those executed in 1692.