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, known as “Groton.”
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 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.
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.”
Not only was John and Elizabeth Proctor both accused of witchcraft, three of their children, Benjamin, Sarah and William, were also accused and arrested as was 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, 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.
Knowing the danger he and his family were in, Proctor wrote a letter to the clergy of Boston, dated 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 trials, 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 shedding our innocent cloods, 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 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.
She 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.
Being stripped of her legal rights meant she 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 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.
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 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