John Proctor was a successful farmer and the first male to be named a witch during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Proctor was born in Assington, England on October 9, 1631. He immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony with his parents, John Proctor, Sr, and Martha Harper Proctor, sometime between 1633 and 1635, and settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where is father became a successful yeoman farmer.
In 1651, John Proctor married his first wife, Martha. After Martha passed away in 1659, Proctor then married Elizabeth Thorndike in 1662. John Proctor, Jr, left Ipswich in 1666, at the age of 35, and moved to Salem where he leased a large 700-acre farm.
In 1668, Proctor obtained a license to operate a tavern, which he named the Proctor Tavern. This new business, which was located on Ipswich Road near the Salem Village boundary, became very lucrative for Proctor and made him a wealthy man.
After his father passed away in 1672, Proctor inherited one-third of his father’s estate, which included some houses and land in Ipswich.
Proctor’s wife Elizabeth also passed away in 1672, and he then married his third wife, Elizabeth Bassett, in April of 1674.
A few years later, John Proctor testified against Giles Corey, who was being tried for beating his farmhand, Jacob Goodale, to death in 1676.
Proctor testified that he heard Corey admit to beating Goodale. Despite Proctor’s testimony, Corey only received a fine, yet the beating death forever damaged Corey’s reputation in Salem.
When the witchcraft hysteria first began in Salem village in the winter of 1692, Proctor became an outspoken opponent of the trials and stated to many that the afflicted girls, who had been accusing many of the villagers of witchcraft, were frauds and liars.
When Proctor’s own young servant, Mary Warren, began having fits and behaving strangely in March of 1692, Proctor beat the girl in an attempt to get her to behave.
After her fits suddenly stopped on April 2nd, Warren tacked a note on the door of the local meetinghouse asking for prayers of thanks for this development.
Members of the congregation questioned Warren about the note the following day, during which she stated “the afflicted persons did but dissemble.” Although it is not clear what she meant by this, the congregation took it to mean that the afflicted girls were lying.
After Proctor left home on business a few days later, Warren’s fits returned and she joined the witch trials as a witness.
It wasn’t until Proctor’s wife Elizabeth, who was pregnant at the time, was accused of witchcraft on April 4th and examined in court, that John’s own witchcraft accusations came out. It was during Elizabeth’s examination that her accusers began to shift their focus from Elizabeth to her husband as well as to Mary Warren, according to court records:
Q. Abigail Williams! does this woman hurt you?
A. Yes, Sir, often.
Q. Does she bring the book to you?
Q. What would she have you do with it?
A. To write in it and I shall be well. — Did not you, said Abigail, tell me, that your maid had written?
A.(Proctor) Dear Child, it is not so. There is another judgement, dear child.
Then Abigail and Ann had fits. By and by they cried out, look you there is Goody Procter upon the beam. By and by, both of them cried out of Goodman Procter himself, and said he was a wizard. Immediately, many, if not all of the bewitched, had grievous fits.
Q. Ann Putman! who hurt you?
A. Goodman Procter and his wife too. — Afterwards some of the afflicted cried, there is Procter going to take up Mrs. Pope’s feet. — And her feet were immediately taken up.
Q. What do you say Goodman Proctor to these things?
A. I know not, I am innocent.
Abigail Williams cried out, there is Goodman Procter going to Mrs. Pope , and immediately, said Pope fell into a fit. — You see the devil will deceive you; the children could see what you was going to do before the woman was hurt. I would advise you to repentance, for the devil is bringing you out. Abigail Williams cried out again, there is Goodman Procter going to hurt Goody Bibber; and immediately Goody Bibber fell into a fit. There was the like of Mary Walcot, and divers others. Benjamin Gould gave in his testimony, that he had seen Goodman Corey and his wife, Procter and his wife, Goody Cloyse, Goody Nurse, and Goody Griggs in his chamber last Thursday night. Elizabeth Hubbard was in a trance during the whole examination. During the examination of Elizabeth Procter, Abigail Williams and Ann Putman, both made offer to strike at said Procter; but when Abigail’s hand came near, it opened, whereas it was made up into a fist before, and came done exceeding lightly, as it drew near to said Procter, and at length with open and extended fingers, touched Procter’s hood very lightly. Immediately Abigail cried out, her fingers, her fingers, burned, and Ann Putman took on most greviously, of her head, and sunk down.
In Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible.” Miller depicts Abigail Williams and John Proctor as former lovers and suggests jealousy was the reason behind the Proctor’s witchcraft accusations.
It is unlikely this affair even occurred since Proctor was 60 years old and Williams was 11 at the time of the witch trials and there is no evidence that they even knew each other before the trial.
Nonetheless, in an essay Miller wrote for the New Yorker in 1996, he stated that he fully believed John Proctor had a relationship with Williams and based his entire play on the idea after he read in the court records about the moment Williams tried to strike Elizabeth Proctor during her examination:
“In this remarkably observed gesture of a troubled young girl, I believed, a play became possible. Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, and they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth. There was bad blood between the two women now. That Abigail started, in effect, to condemn Elizabeth to death with her touch, then stopped her hand, then went through with it, was quite suddenly the human center of all this turmoil.”
John Proctor was officially indicted on April 11th on three charges of witchcraft against Mary Walcott, Mary Warren and Mercy Lewis and was examined in court that same day.
There is no record of this examination but many of the afflicted girls, including Elizabeth Hubbard, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Abigail Williams, testified that Proctor’s spirit tortured and afflicted them and the other girls during his examination in court that day and had continued to do so ever since.
After the Proctors were arrested, many of their friends came to their defense and signed a petition asking for them to be released:
“We whose names are under written having several years known John Procter and his wife do testify that we never heard or understood that they were ever suspected to be guilty of the crime now charged upon them and several of us being their near neighbours do testify that to our apprehension they lived christian life in their family and were ever ready to help such as stood in need of their help
Nathaniel Felton sen: and mary his wife
Samuel Marsh and Prescilla his wife
James Houlton and Ruth his wife
Nathaniel Felton jun
Samuell Frayll and an his wife
Zachriah Marsh and mary his wife
Samuel Endecott and hanah his wife
Samuel Gaskil & provided his wife
Ed Edward: Gaskile”
Unfortunately, the petition did nothing to sway the court and John and Elizabeth Proctor remained in jail.
In May, three of the Proctor’s children, Benjamin, Sarah and William, were also accused of witchcraft and arrested as were Elizabeth Proctor’s sister, Mary Basset DeRich, and sister-in-law, Sarah Bassett.
The Proctor family and their in-laws were accused by many of the same people. Elizabeth’s sister and sister-in-law were both accused by John and Thomas Putnam, on behalf of Mary Walcott, Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewis and Ann Putnam, Jr., on May 21st and arrested shortly after.
The Proctor’s son Benjamin was accused on May 23rd, by Lieutenant Nathaniel Ingersoll and Thomas Rayment, on behalf of Mary Warren, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Hubbard, and arrested by Marshal Deputy John Putnam.
Their other son, William, was accused on May 28th by Mary Walcott and Susannah Sheldon and arrested by constable John Putnam.
According to court records, the jury decided not to indict William Proctor or Sarah Bassett due to a lack of evidence and there are no court records indicating that Sarah Proctor, Benjamin Proctor or Mary Basset DeRich were indicted either.
On June 2, John Proctor was searched and physically examined by seven men, John Rogers, Joshua Rea, Jr, John Cooke, Doctor J. Barton, John Gyles, William Hine and Ezekiel Cheever, for signs that he was a witch but his examiners reported that they didn’t find anything suspicious.
During his trial, the Proctor’s former servant, Mary Warren, who was later accused of witchcraft herself when the other afflicted girls turned on her, testified that Proctor’s spirit beat her and forced her to touch the Devil’s book:
“The deposition of Mary Warren aged 20 years old testified I have seen the apparition of John Procter Sr among the witches and he hath often tortured me by pinching me and biting me and choking me and pressing me one my stomach tell the blood came out of my mouth and all so I saw him torture Ms Pope and Mercy Lewis and John Indian upon the day of his examination and he hath also tempted me to right in his book and to eat bread which he brought to me which I refusing to do: John Proctor did most greviously torture me with variety of tortures all most ready to kill me.”
Although there was plenty of “spectral evidence” against John Proctor, which were claims that a person’s spirit visited a victim and caused them harm, his own words and actions often came back to haunt him when various witnesses testified that Proctor threatened or admitted to beating several people involved in the witch trials.
One such witness was, Samuel Sibley, who testified in court that Proctor admitted to beating Warren in an attempt to control her behavior, citing a conversation he had with Proctor at a local tavern the day after Rebecca Nurse‘s examination.
During their conversation, Proctor, who lived on the outskirts of Salem Village in what is now modern day Peabody, said he was on his way to Salem to retrieve Warren so he could take her home and beat her and also said the afflicted girls should be whipped and hanged for lying, according to court records:
“The morning after the examination of Goody Nurse. Sam Sibley met John Proctor about Mr Phillips w’o called to said Sibley as he was going to sd Phillips & asked how the folks did at the village. He answered he heard they were very bad last night but he had heard nothing this morning. Proctor replied he was going to fetch home his jade he left her there last night & had rather given 40d than let her come up. sd Sibley asked why he talked so. Proctor replied if they were let alone so we should all be Devils & witches quickly they should rather be had to the whipping post but he would fetch his jade home & thresh the Devil out of her & more to the like purpose, crying hang them, hang them. And also added that when she [Warren] was first taken with fits he kept her close to the [spinning] wheel & threatened to thresh her, & then she had no more fits till the next day he was gone forth, & then she must have her fits again firsooth.”
Another witness, Joseph Pope, testified that Proctor threatened to beat Reverend Samuel Parris’ slave, John Indian, who was one of the accusers in the witch trials, according to court records:
“aged forty one years or thereabouts Joseph Pope testifyeth and saith that on the said day this deponent heard John Proctor say that if Mr. Parris would let him have his Indian he the said Proctor would soon drive the devil out of him and father saith not.”
On July 23, Proctor wrote a letter to the clergy of Boston pleading with them to appoint different judges or move the trials to Boston where he felt they would get a fair trial. In his letter, he described the torture used against the prisoners, particularly against his son William, and declared that the accused were innocent victims:
“Reverend Gentlemen, The innocency of our case, with the enmity of our accusers an our judges and jury, whom nothing but our innocent blood will serve, having condemned us already before our trials, being so much incensed and enraged against us by the devil, makes us bold to beg and implore your favourable assistance of this our humble tradition to his excellency, that if possible our innocent blood may be spared, which undoubtedly otherwise will be shed, if the Lord doth not mercifully step in; the magistrates, ministers, juries and all the people in general, being so much enraged and incensed against us by the delusions of the devil, which we can term no other, by reason we know in our own consciences we are all innocent persons. Here are five persons who have lately confessed themselves to be witches, and do accuse some of us being along with them at a sacrament, since we were committed into close prison, which we know to be lies. Two of the five are (Carrier’s sons) young men, who would not confess anything till they tied them neck and heels, till the blood was ready to come out their noses; and it is credibly believed and reported that this was the occasion of making them confess what they never did, by reason the said one had been a witch a month. And another five weeks my son William Proctor, when he was examined, because he would not confess that he was guilty, when he was innocent, they tied him neck and heels till the blood gushed out at his nose, and would have kept him so twenty-four hours, if one, more merciful than the rest, had not taken pity on him, and caused him to be unbound. These actions are very like the popish cruelties. They have already undone us in our estates, and that will not serve their turns without our innocent blood. If I cannot be granted that we can have our trials in Boston, we humble beg that you would endeavour to have these magistrates change, and other’s in their rooms; begging also and beseeching you would be pleased to be here. if not all, some of you, at our trials, hoping thereby you may by means of saving the shedding of our innocent blood. Desiring your prayers to the Lord on our behalf, we rest your poor afflicted servants.”
On August 1, eight Boston ministers met to discuss Proctor’s letter and eventually changed their stance on allowing the use of spectral evidence in the trials, but it was too late to save Proctor’s life.
John Proctor and his wife were both convicted of witchcraft on August 5, 1692. The couple were sentenced to the gallows but Elizabeth’s sentence was delayed until the birth of her child.
John Proctor was hanged at Gallows hill on August 19 along with George Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs Sr. and Martha Carrier.
Local legend suggests that Proctor’s family secretly retrieved John Proctor’s body from the execution site and buried it on the Proctor’s farm on Lowell Street in Peabody, according to William P. Upham, who rediscovered the location of Proctor’s farm in the early 1900s and wrote a paper about it titled “House of Proctor, Witchcraft Martyr, 1692” for the Peabody Historical Society in 1903:
“The discovery that this was John Procter’s land called to mind a conversation I had with Mrs. Jacobs, an aged lady who lived in the old Jacobs house, now the Wyman place, and of which I made the following memorandum about thirty years ago:—’Mrs. Jacobs (Munroe) says that it was always said that Procters were buried near the bars as you go into the Philip H. Saunders place. Mr. James Marsh says he always heard that John Procter, of witch time, was buried there’…Upon inquiring lately of Mrs. Osborn, the librarian of the Peabody Historical Society, as to what was the family tradition, I learned that it was said by Mrs. Hannah B. Mansfield, of Danvers, that John Procter was buried ‘opposite to the Colcord’ (now the Wyman) ‘pasture, amongst the rocks.’ In answer to an inquiry by Mrs. Osborn, Mrs. Mansfield wrote to her as follows:—’A great aunt took me, when a little girl, with her to a spot in a rocky hill where she picked blackberries, and said there was the place ‘among birch trees and rocks where our ancestor of witchcraft notoriety was buried.’ It was on the north side of Lowell Street in what was then called the Marsh pasture nearly opposite the Jacobs farm which is on the south side of Lowell Street. The Marsh pasture from which Mrs. Mansfield’s aunt pointed out the ‘birch trees and rocks’ near by where John Procter was buried was, no doubt, the pasture conveyed by James Marsh to Philip H. Saunders, 11 June, 1863, and then described as ‘thirteen acres known by the name of Bates Pasture.’ I do not know of any other place near there that would be called the Marsh pasture at the time Mrs. Mansfield mentions. This thirteen acre pasture was conveyed by Ezekiel Marsh to John Marsh, 15 Oct., 1819, having been devised to him by his father Ezekiel Marsh. It had a way leading to it from Lowell Street over the eastern end of the John Procter lot as shown on my map. This way is still used as well as the bars opening into it on Lowell Street a few rods east of the westerly way leading southerly to the Jacobs, or Wyman, place. These are the ‘bars as you go into the Philip H. Saunders place’ mentioned by Mrs. Jacobs as stated above, unless we suppose the expression to mean bars leading from the John Procter lot where the way enters the Philip H. Saunders place, or Marsh pasture, as Mrs. Mansfield calls it. Perhaps the latter locality is the most probable since it is high rocky ground; but which bars were meant is uncertain.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Proctor remained in jail to await the birth of her child. Even after she gave birth to her son on January 27th, she was not executed.
Elizabeth remained in jail until May, when Governor Phipps released the last few prisoners of the witch trials. It’s not clear if her child survived the jail time.
Once Elizabeth Proctor was freed, not only had she and her deceased husband been stripped of their legal rights due to their convictions, but Elizabeth also discovered John had written her out of his will. John Proctor had probably done so because he expected Elizabeth to be convicted along with him and knew she would not be able to inherit his estate. To make matters worse, most of the Proctor’s belongings had been confiscated to pay for their imprisonment fees.
Being stripped of her legal rights meant Elizabeth also could not inherit her widow’s third or her dowry that she brought to her marriage. As a result, she was left penniless.
Finally, in April of 1695, the Probate Court of Essex County awarded Thomas Very and his wife Elizabeth, who was John Proctor’s daughter from his marriage to Elizabeth Thorndike, a portion of Proctor’s estate.
Although there are no records confirming it, it can be assumed by this turn of events that John Proctor’s legal rights had been restored at some point and his family finally had access to his estate.
In May of 1696, Elizabeth Proctor petitioned the General Court to restore her own legal rights and asked for access to her husband’s estate, or at least, the dowry she brought to the marriage. A year later, on April 19, 1697, the court restored her legal rights and awarded Elizabeth her dowry.
Although much of Elizabeth Proctor’s life after the Salem Witch Trials remains a mystery, it is known that on September 22, 1699, Elizabeth married Daniel Richards, in Lynn, Massachusetts.
When the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill in 1711 restoring some of the names of the Salem Witch Trial victims, it cleared the Proctors of their witchcraft convictions and awarded the family £150 in restitution for John Proctor’s death and the family’s imprisonment.
According to William P. Upham’s paper, after Proctor’s execution, the Proctor farm, including the land John Proctor was buried on, was passed down to the Proctor’s son, Benjamin, and it remained in the family until the 1800s:
“It appears from various deeds and other records that the title descended from John Procter to his son Benjamin, and then to his son John, the grandson of the first named John Procter. From him it passed to his son Benjamin, and then to this Benjamin’s sons, James and Francis Procter. Francis gave a deed of it to James April 19, 1802. Desire Procter, widow and administratrix of James Procter, conveyed it to Zachariah King Aug. 9, 1811…From Desire Procter the title descended to Rebecca P. Osborne, her granddaughter, and others who, in 1889, conveyed the lot to Harriet A. Walcott, wife of John G. Walcott…John G. Walcott and Harriet A. Walcott, wife, conveyed the same to Mary E. Collins, wife of William F. M. Collins, by deed dated June 27, 1898.”
The Proctor farm is currently occupied and owned by a private owner and is not open to the public.
The Crucible; Arthur Miller; 1953
The New Yorker; Why I Wrote the Crucible; Arthur Miller; October 21 1996: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1996/10/21/1996_10_21_158_TNY_CARDS_000373902
House of John Proctor: Witchcraft Martyr, 1692; William P. Upham, 1904: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27386/27386-h/27386-h.htm
University of Virginia: The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Volume I: Case File for John Proctor: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/BoySal2R?div_id=n107
University of Missouri-Kansas City: John Proctor: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_BPRO.HTM