The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 were a dark time in American history. More than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were killed during the hysteria. Ever since those dark days ended, the trials have become synonymous with mass hysteria and scapegoating.
Salem, Massachusetts was not alone in its witch hunt. A wave of witch trials swept Europe from the 1300s to the 1600s. These witch hunts happened for a variety of reasons and were greatly influenced by the fear of the devil and the commonly accepted belief that he could give witches the power to hurt people as a reward for their loyalty.
Salem was settled by puritans in 1628 and was the beginning of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. King Charles I granted the puritans a royal charter to colonize the area, but Charles II revoked this charter in 1684 after colonists violated several of the charter’s rules. These violations included basing laws on religious beliefs, running an illegal mint and discriminating against Anglicans.
A newer, more anti-religious charter replaced the original one in 1691 and also combined the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony and several other colonies into one. The puritans, who had left England due to religious persecution, feared they were under attack again and were losing control of their colony. A feeling of uneasiness and discontent surrounded them.
The colony was also under a great deal of strain at the time due to a recent small pox epidemic, growing rivalries between families within the colony, a constant threat of attack from nearby Native-American tribes, and a recent influx of refugees trying to escape King William’s war with France in Canada and upstate New York. All of these factors created a tense environment in Salem.
The hysteria first began in January of 1692 when a group of young girls, who later came to be known as the “afflicted girls,” fell ill after playing a fortune-telling game and began behaving strangely.
The first of the girls to start experiencing symptoms was Betty Parris, followed by Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr, Mary Walcott and Mercy Lewis. Shortly after, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, Mary Warren and Elizabeth Booth all started to experience the same symptoms, which consisted of suffering “fits,” hiding under furniture, contorting in pain and experiencing fever. Many modern theories suggest the girls were suffering from epilepsy, boredom, child abuse, mental illness or even a disease brought on by eating rye infected with fungus.
In February, Samuel Parris called for a doctor, who is believed to be Dr. William Griggs, to examine the girls. The doctor was unable to find anything physically wrong with them and suggested they may be bewitched. Shortly after, two of the girls named the women they believed were bewitching them. These women were Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn and a slave named Tituba who worked for Samuel Parris. These three women were social outcasts and easy targets for the accusation of witchcraft. It was not difficult for the people of Salem to believe they were involved in witchcraft.
On March 1st, Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn were arrested and examined. During Tituba’s examination, she confessed that she had been approached by Satan, along with Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn, and they had all agreed to do his bidding as witches. The confession spurred the hunt for more witches and silenced any opposition to the idea of witchcraft invading the village. That same month, four more women were accused an arrested: Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey, Dorothy Good and Rachel Clinton from Ipswich.
Although the afflicted girls were the main accusers during the trials, many historians believe the girl’s parents, particularly Thomas Putnam and Samuel Parris, were egging the girls on and encouraging them to accuse specific people in the community that they didn’t like in an act of revenge.
In April, more women were accused, as well as a number of men:
Nehemiah Abbott Jr.
Reverend George Burroughs
In May, as the number of cases grew, Governor William Phips set up a special court, known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer, to hear the cases. This court consisted of eight judges. In June, Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned and was replaced by Jonathan Corwin.
Court of Oyer and Terminer:
William Stoughton, Chief Magistrate
The number of people accused and arrested in May surged to over 30 people:
Bethiah Carter Sr.
Bethiah Carter Jr.
George Jacobs Sr.
Thomas Farrar Sr.
John Alden Jr
Arrest warrants were issued for George Jacobs Jr. and Daniel Andrews but they evaded arrest.
The accusations and arrests began to decline in June but still continued and soon the local jails held more than 200 accused witches.
Not everyone in Salem believed in witchcraft or supported the trials. There were many critics of the witch hunt, such as a local farmer John Proctor, who scoffed at the idea of witchcraft in Salem and called the young girls scam artists. Critics such as Proctor were often accused of witchcraft as well, under the assumption that anyone who denied the existence of witches or defended the accused must be one of them, and were brought to trial. Proctor’s entire family was accused, including all of his children, his pregnant wife and sister-in-law.
Although the witch hunt started in Salem, it quickly spread to the neighboring towns, including Amesbury, Andover, Topsfield, Ipswich and Gloucester, and numerous residents of those towns were brought to Salem and put on trial.
Bridget Bishop was the first person brought to trial. Bishop was a local tavern owner who often quarreled with her neighbors, dressed provocatively and entertained guests late at night in her home. Furthermore, Bishop had also been accused of witchcraft years before but was cleared of the crime. Bridget was accused by five of the afflicted girls, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott and Elizabeth Hubbard, who stated she had physically hurt them and tried to make them sign a pact with the devil. During her trial, Bishop repeatedly defended herself, stating “I am innocent, I know nothing of it, I have done no witchcraft …. I am as innocent as the child unborn…” Bishop was quickly convicted and hanged on June 10th at Gallows hill.
Five people were hanged in July, one of which was Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca Nurse’s execution was a pivotal moment in the Salem Witch Trials. Although many of the other accused women were unpopular social outcasts, Nurse was a pious, well-respected and well-loved member of the community. When she was first arrested, many members of the community signed a petition asking for her release. Although she wasn’t released, most people were confident she would be found not guilty and released. Her initial verdict was, in fact, not guilty, but upon hearing the verdict the afflicted girls began to have fits in the courtroom. Judge Stoughton asked the jury to reconsider their verdict. A week later, the jury changed their minds and declared Nurse guilty. After Nurse’s execution on July 19th, the residents of Salem started to seriously question the validity of the trials.
On July 23, Proctor wrote to the clergy in Boston. He knew the clergy did not fully approve of the witch hunts. Proctor told them about the torture inflicted on the accused and asked that the trials be moved to Boston where he felt he would get a fair trial. The clergy later held a meeting, on August 1, to discuss the trials but were not able to help Proctor before his execution. Proctor’s wife managed to escape execution because she was pregnant, but Proctor was hanged on August 19th along with five other people.
Another notable person who was accused of witchcraft was Captain John Alden Jr., the son of the Mayflower crew member John Alden. Alden was accused of witchcraft by a child during a trip to Salem while he was on his way home to Boston from Canada. Alden spent 15 weeks in jail before friends helped break him out and he escaped to New York. He was later exonerated.
Yet another crucial moment during the Salem Witch Trials was the public torture and death of Giles Corey. Corey was accused of witchcraft in April after his wife’s accusation and examination. Knowing that if he was convicted his large estate would be confiscated and wouldn’t be passed down to his children, Corey brought his trial to a halt by refusing to enter a plea. English law at the time dictated that anyone who refused to enter a plea could be tortured in an attempt to force a plea out of them. This legal tactic was known as “peine forte et dure” which means “until he either answered or died.” The torture consisted of laying the prisoner on the ground, naked, with a board placed on top of him. Heavy stones were loaded onto the board and the weight was gradually increased until the prison either entered a plea or died. In mid-September, Corey was tortured this way for three days in a field near Howard Street until he finally died on September 19th. His death was gruesome and cruel and strengthened the growing opposition to the Salem Witch Trials.
As the trials and executions continued, colonists began to doubt so many people could actually be guilty of this crime. They feared many innocent people were being executed. Local clergymen began speaking out against the witch hunt and tried to persuade officials to stop the trials.
Around the end of September, the use of spectral evidence was finally declared inadmissible, thus marking the beginning of the end of the Salem Witch Trials. Although spectral evidence, evidence based on dreams and visions, wasn’t the only evidence used in court during the Salem Witch Trails, it was the most common and the easiest evidence for accusers to fake. Other evidence used in the trials included confessions of the accused, possession of certain items such as poppets, ointments or books on the occult, as well as the presence of an alleged “witch’s teat,” which was a strange mole or blemish, on the accused person’s body.
On September 22, eight people were hanged. These were the last hangings of the Salem Witch Trials.
On October 29th, Phips dismissed the court that had been set up to hear the cases. The 52 remaining people in jail were tried in a new court, the Superior Court of Judicature, the following winter. The new court was presided over by William Stoughton, Thomas Danforth, John Richards, Waitstill Wintrhop and Samuel Sewall. Most of the prisoners were found not guilty or released due to a lack of real evidence. Those who were found guilty were pardoned by Governor Phips. The governor released the last few prisoners the following May.
A total of 19 victims were hanged at Gallows hill during the witch trials. The others were either found guilty but pardoned, found not guilty, were never indicted or simply evaded arrest or escaped from jail.
Found Guilty and Executed:
Bridget Bishop (June 10, 1692)
Sarah Good (July 19, 1692)
Elizabeth Howe (July 19, 1692)
Susannah Martin (July 19, 1692)
Rebecca Nurse (July 19, 1692)
Sarah Wildes (July 19, 1692)
George Burroughs (August 19, 1692)
Martha Carrier (August 19, 1692)
John Willard (August 19, 1692)
George Jacobs Sr. (August 19, 1692)
John Proctor (August 19, 1692)
Alice Parker (September 22, 1692)
Mary Parker (September 22, 1692)
Ann Pudeator (September 22, 1692)
Wilmot Redd (September 22, 1692)
Margaret Scott (September 22, 1692)
Samuel Wardwell Sr (September 22, 1692)
Martha Corey (September 22, 1692)
Mary Eastey (September 22, 1692)
Refused to enter a plea and tortured to death:
Giles Corey (September 19th, 1692)
Found Guilty and Pardoned:
Abigail Faulkner Sr
Elizabeth Johnson Jr
Pled Guilty and Pardoned:
Mary Lacy Sr
Mary Lacy Jr
Died in Prison:
Escaped from Prison:
John Alden Jr.
Edward Bishop Jr.
William Barker Sr.
Bethiah Carter, Jr
Bethiah Carter, Sr
Thomas Farrer, Sr
George Jacobs Jr.
Other victims include two dogs who were shot or killed after being suspected of witchcraft.
Historians have noted that many of the accused were wealthy and held different religious beliefs than their accusers. This, coupled with the fact that the accused also had their estates confiscated if they were convicted, has led many historians to believe that religious feuds and property disputes played a big part in the witch trials.
As the years went by, the colonists felt ashamed and remorseful for what had happened during the trials. Many of the judges, including Judge Samuel Sewall, confessed to their errors in the witch trials and issued public apologies. In 1706, afflicted girl Ann Putnam, Jr., issued a public apology for her role in the Salem Witch Trials, particularly in the case against her neighbor Rebecca Nurse. On January 15th in 1697, Salem held a day of fasting in honor of the victims, known as a Day of Official Humiliation.
In 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring some of the names of the accused and paid a total of £600 in restitution to their heirs. Since some families of the victims did not want their family member listed, not every victim was named.
In 1957, the state of Massachusetts officially apologized for the Salem witch trials and cleared the name of some of the remaining victims not listed in the 1711 law: “One Ann Pudeator and certain other persons” yet did not state the other victim’s names.
In November of 1991, Salem town officials announced plans for a Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem. At the announcement ceremony, playwright Arthur Miller made a speech and read from the last act of his 1953 play, “The Crucible,” which was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials.
In August of 1992, on the 300th anniversary of the trials, the Salem Witch Trials memorial was unveiled and dedicated by Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel.
On October 31 in 2001, the state amended the apology, stating: “Chapter 145 of the resolves of 1957 is hereby amended by striking out, in line 1, the words ‘One Ann Pudeator and certain other persons’ and inserting in place thereof the following words:- Ann Pudeator, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott and Wilmot Redd.”
“The Salem Witch Trials”; Sabrina Crewe; Michael V. Uschan; 2005
“Salem Witchcraft and Cotton Mather: A Reply”; Charles Wentworth Upham; 1869
The 187th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: Session Laws: http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2001/Chapter122
The Salem Witch Museum: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692: http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/education/index.shtml
Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities; Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature; Sarah Nell Walsh: http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/salem/people/bishop_court.html
University of Missouri-Kansas City: Bridget Bishop: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/sal_bbis.htm
University of Missouri-Kansas City: The Witchcraft Trials in Salem: A Commentary: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/sal_acct.htm
Smithsonian; A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials; Jess Blumberg: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/brief-salem.html