John Proctor was a successful farmer and the first male to be named a witch during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
When the hysteria first began in Salem village, Proctor believed the afflicted girls accusing many of the villagers of witchcraft were frauds and liars. He spoke openly against the accusations and scoffed at the idea of witchcraft.
When his 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. When 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.
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. His accusers, Abigail Williams and Mary Walcott, stated that Proctor’s spirit tormented them and pinched them. According to court records, Mary Warren confirmed the accusations by stating that he 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.”
Another witness, Samuel Sibley, also 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 “and thresh the Devil out of her.”
Knowing the danger he and his family were in, Proctor wrote a letter to the clergy of Boston, on July 23, 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 and declared that the accused were innocent victims:
“The innocency of our Case with the Enmity of our Accusers and our Judges, and Jury, whom nothing but our Innocent Blood will serve their turn, having Condemned us already before our Tryals, being so much incensed and engaged against us by the Devil, makes us bold to Beg and Implore your Favourable Assistance of this our Humble Petition to his Excellency, That if it be possible our Innocent Blood may be spared, which undoubtedly otherwise will be shed, if the Lord doth not mercifully step in….If it cannot be granted that we can have our Trials at Boston, we humbly beg that you would endeavour to have these Magistrates changed, and others 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 be the means of saving the sheeding our Innocent Bloods, desiring your Prayers to the Lord in our behalf, we rest your Poor Afflicted Servants, JOHN PROCTER , etc.”
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. Elizabeth was eventually released from jail after the hysteria died down in 1693.
Proctor later appeared as a character in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible.” Although Miller depicts Abigail Williams and John Proctor as lovers, it is unlikely this occurred since Proctor was 60 years old and Williams was 11 at the time of the hysteria 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 court records indicating Williams tried to strike Elizabeth Proctor during her trial but could not bring herself to do it and instead lightly touched her hood, crying out that her touch burned:
“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.”
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
University of Virginia: The Salem Witch Trials: 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