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 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 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, two of the girls mentioned the names of the women they believed were behind these invisible forces. These women were Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn and a slave name Tituba. 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. During the examination, Tituba eventually 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.
On May 27th, Governor William Phips set up a special court, known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer, to hear the cases. This court consisted of seven judges: William Stoughton, John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, Waitstill Winthrop, Samuel Sewall, John Richards, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney and Peter Sergeant.
More witches were named, the trials continued and eventually the local jail held more than 200 accused witches. The first person brought to trial was Bridget Bishop, 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 twice before in 1679 and 1687 but was cleared of the crime. Bridget was accused by five young women, 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 in June of 1692 at Gallows hill.
Not everyone in Salem believed in witchcraft. 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 and brought to trial. Proctor’s entire family was accused, including all of his children, his pregnant wife and sister-in-law. Proctor’s wife escaped execution because she was pregnant, but Proctor was hanged on August 19th, 1692.
Before his execution, 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 to discuss the trials but were not able to help Proctor before his execution.
Another person 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 business trip to Salem and was quickly arrested. Alden spent 15 weeks in jail before friends helped break him out and he escaped to New York. He was later exonerated.
Eventually, as the trials and executions continued, colonists began to wonder how many people could actually be guilty of this crime. Colonists slowly realized it was unlikely that so many people could be guilty of witchcraft. 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.
In September, a respected minister named Cotton Mather, advised the court and Governor Phips against allowing testimonies about dreams and visions as evidence. When Governor Phips’ own wife was accused of witchcraft, he agreed with Cotton Mather, and 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 following winter. 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. These names include: Bridget Bishop, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Wildes, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Jacobs Sr., John Proctor, Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Ann Pudeator, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell. Another victim, Giles Corey, was pressed to death with heavy stones during his examination and four people died in prison while awaiting trial: Sarah Osburn, Roger Toothaker, Ann Foster and Lydia Dustin. Other victims include two dogs who were shot or killed after being suspected of witchcraft.
Historians have noted that many of the accused were more financially stable 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. A few years later, the court ordered a day of fasting in honor of the victims, known as the Day of Official Humiliation.
In 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring some of the names of the accused and granted £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. 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