Colonists accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials did not have a lot of options.
Salem was ruled by English law at the time which dictated that if a grand jury handed up a “true bill,” which indicates that there is evidence of misbehavior, the person would be indicted and a formal trial by jury would follow.
During a formal trial, the accused were not represented by lawyers but were allowed to directly ask accusers and witnesses questions. This often did not work out in the accused person’s favor because they were often not educated enough or emotionally equipped enough to defend themselves against the accusation of witchcraft.
In addition, the accused often faced overwhelming and easily faked evidence, such as spectral evidence which was the claim that a person visits his or her victim in spirit form to hurt them. Even if the accused did cross-examine the witness, there wasn’t much they could say to debunk these types of claims.
Many times, once a person was accused, scores of witnesses, particularly the afflicted girls, came out against them and provided this type of damning testimony.
As a result, the accused often weighed their options by waiting and watching what happened to others accused before them. This made it quite difficult for some of the first people accused in the trials because they didn’t have any type of guidance.
The following is a list of options an accused witch had in the Salem Witch Trials:
Confess and Plead Guilty:
Historically, a confession was the single best way for the court to gain a conviction and an execution for charges of witchcraft. The irony is that none of the accused Salem witches who confessed were convicted or executed but all 19 people who refused to confess were found guilty and executed.
The accused witches quickly figured out by watching the early trials that a confession could spare you from the gallows. The problem is that a confession may spare them death but it damned them in many other ways.
The biggest concern with confessing to being a witch was that it was a sin. Puritans believed that such a confession, even if it wasn’t true, could damn a person’s soul to hell.
In addition, puritans believed that lying was a sin as well. This comes up many times in the trials, particularly during the examination of Elizabeth Proctor in April of 1692, during which Judge John Hathorne said to both Proctor and the afflicted girls: “Speak the truth, and so you that are afflicted, you must speak the truth, as you will answer it before God another day.”
It came up a second time during this examination when Abigail Williams accused Elizabeth Proctor of forcing her to write in the Devil’s book, to which Proctor replied “Dear Child, it is not so. There is another judgement, dear child.” Proctor was reminding Williams that there is a judgment for those who lie.
Puritans were very strict and devout and spent their whole lives trying trying to honor traditional puritan values so they could go to heaven after they died.
The puritans believed in predestination, which meant that God had already selected who was going to heaven and who was going to hell at the beginning of time.
There was no way for the puritans to know which group they were in, but they believed if they exhibited the characteristics of someone chosen to go to heaven, by honoring puritan values of honesty, piety, humility, and etc, they were most likely in that group.
If they exhibited the characteristics of someone who was not among the chosen ones, by sinning, they were most likely in that group. Therefore, confessing and lying meant that they were not among the chosen ones selected to go to heaven after all and were most likely going to hell.
Another problem with confessing is that it would leave the person susceptible to other witchcraft accusations for the rest of their life. Although it might spare them in the present, a confession could put them in danger again later on so it was not exactly a safe gamble to take.
In addition, the accused had families and deep roots in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A confession would leave them ostracized from their community and most likely meant they would have to leave the colony to escape the shame. With nowhere else to go, for most colonists, this was not an option.
So why did some of the accused confess? The people who did confess were often either tortured, forced or pressured into confessing. A number of these people later recanted their confessions, according to the book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience:
“In October, Increase Mather visited eleven of the confessed witches in prison and recorded their recantations, which included their reasons for initially confessing. Mary Tyler said that her brother and Reverend Emerson put so much pressure on her that she felt she ‘would be hanged if she did not confess,’ and other women spoke to similar pressures. Thomas Brattle complained about ‘what methods from damnation were taken; with what violence urged; how unseasonably they were kept up; what buzzings and chuckings of the hand were used, and the like; I am sure that you would call them, (as I do), rude and barbarous methods.’ Nathaniel Cary referred to his wife being ‘forced to stand with her arms outstretched’ and having heavy shackles that gave her convulsions. John Proctor wrote from prison to five ministers complaining that three boys, including his son William, had their neck and heels tied together until blood gushed from their noses, to coerce confessions.”
According to the testimony of Sarah Ingersoll, she stated that accused witch Sarah Churchill came to her very distraught after her examination and admitted she had falsely confessed to being a witch:
“I asked her what ailed her. She answered she had undone herself. I asked in what. She said in belying herself and others in saying she had set her hand to the devil’s book whereas she said she never did….I asked then what made her say she did. She answered because they threatened her, and told her they would put her in the dungeon and put her along with Mr. Burroughs [in jail]…She said, also, that if she told Mr. Noyes but once she had set her hand to the book, he would not believe her, but if she told the truth, and said she had not set her hand to the book a hundred times he would not believe her.”
According to the book, In the Devil’s Snare, a number of these confessors, particularly in the accusations in Andover, were young people under 25 and it may have been their youth and naivete that spurred them to not only confess but also to name new suspected witches:
“Another, related dynamic also lay behind the Andover confessions. A careful reading of the surviving records reveals the crucial significance of confessions by children and youths (below the age of twenty-five) both in confirming earlier identifications of witches and in creating new ones…Furthermore, as the proceeding narrative has suggested, young people seemed especially likely to identify as witches not only ‘them that are [already] brought out’ but also to mention others for the first time…These unmarried Andover young people, like their parents and unlike the afflicted girls of Salem Village (who gloried in saying ‘no,’ if only to the devil), obediently did as they were told. Directed by the magistrates to confess, they readily did so. Their mothers, aunts, fathers, and uncles sometimes initially resisted the demands for confession, but they did not. Dutifully, they acknowledged their culpability and that of others. Ironically, precisely because they behaved like ideal New England children, they – in company with afflicted, who went to the opposite extreme – helped to cause the executions of several Andover residents.”
List of some of the accused who pled guilty or confessed:
Mary Lacy Sr
Mary Bridges Jr
Thomas Carrier Jr
Plead Not Guilty:
This was the option that many of the accused witches chose for a variety of reasons. Pleading not guilty meant they could save their souls from sin. If they pled not guilty and were convicted anyway and sentenced to hang, the accused knew that at least they were innocent in the eyes of God and they would still go to heaven.
The problem with pleading not guilty is that the case would then go to trial and if the accused was found guilty their estate would be confiscated by the crown.
This happened to many of the convicted witches and, in 1711, the Massachusetts legislature actually passed a bill clearing the names of the convicted witches and paying restitution to their families for their imprisonments, deaths and any financial loss they incurred as a result.
The importance of honesty in puritan society might explain why those who confessed were spared the gallows while those who refused to confess were executed.
Although they maintained their innocence until their deaths, it was not believed that those who pled innocent actually were. It was believed they were merely lying to protect themselves, according to the book The Religious History of American Women:
“It can be argued that a confession of witchcraft, the most grievous of sins, reintroduced an element of ambiguity into the question of a witch’s salvation. If she confessed and repented, then was she not entitled to the same measure of redemption afforded any other sinner? A witch’s fate became uncertain after a confession, and the community left the judgment to God. Deniers, on the other hand, were not believed to be innocent. An accused witch who denied her involvement with the devil, despite evidence to the contrary, placed herself even more firmly in the devil’s camp in the eyes of contemporaries. Her guilt as both a sinner and a liar proved that she was indeed the devil’s accomplice and thus confirmed that she should be hanged. Her indisputable consignment to perdition justified her execution.”
List of the accused who pled not guilty, and were convicted and executed:
George Jacobs, Sr,
Samuel Wardwell Sr
Refuse to Plea:
Yet another option available to the accused was a legal tactic known as “standing mute.” Standing mute meant that the accused refused to enter a plea in an attempt to prevent the case from going to trial. The tactic was so widely used in England that English law ordered that any accused person who stood mute would be tortured until they either entered a plea or died.
This torture tactic was known as peine forte et dure which translates to “strong and harsh punishment.” Piene forte et dure called for the prisoner to be placed under a board which was then loaded down with heavy weights until the person either entered a plea or they died.
The only accused witch who used this tactic in the trials was Giles Corey. As a result, he was tortured by Sheriff Corwin in a field near the Salem jail for three days until he died on September 19, 1692. Corey’s case was the first time peine forte de dure had been used in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Another option that some of the accused witches chose was to flee, either by evading arrest or breaking out of jail and fleeing the colony. This was illegal but for many people who made this choice, it was a measure of last resort.
Many of the accused who decided to flea were often outsiders who didn’t have deep roots in Salem. For a Salem native whose friends and family had lived in Salem for several generations, this would be a difficult option to choose since it might mean that the person could never return to their hometown.
For others, such as a visitor to Salem who had gotten caught up in the hysteria or a Salem resident who didn’t exactly fit in and wouldn’t be opposed to leaving and never coming back, it wasn’t a hard choice to make. Yet, some who fled were actually Salem natives with deep roots in the colony but they fled anyway because they felt they had no choice.
Accused witches who chose this option included John Alden, Jr, a Boston merchant who had stopped in Salem on his way home from an expedition in Canada and was accused by a local village girl.
Another person was Philip English, a wealthy Salem resident who was deemed an outsider because he was Anglican and of French descent. Both Alden and English broke out of jail and fled the colony.
Yet another person who fled was Salem deputy Constable John Willard, who was originally from another town far outside Salem but had married a woman from Salem Village and eventually moved there.
Willard evaded arrest but was caught in New Hampshire and brought back to Salem where he was tried and hanged. The others who fled were never caught.
Despite the fact that the accused who fled were never convicted, Sheriff George Corwin still seized the personal property of several people who fled Salem after they were charged.
List of the accused who fled, evaded arrest or escaped from prison:
George Jacobs Jr
John Alden Jr
Edward Bishop Jr.
William Barker Sr
When the accused felt they had run out of options, they often turned to other methods. John Proctor was one such person who did this.
Knowing the odds were stacked against him, in July of 1692, he wrote a letter to the Boston clergy begging them to move the trials to Boston where he felt they would get a fair trial. In his letter, he explains the torture the accused were subjected to and blatantly stated that the court was out to get them and would not rest until they were found guilty and hanged:
“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 endeavor to have these magistrates change, 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 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.”
Another person who chose a similar option was Mary Easty. Easty felt it was too late to save herself but hoped she could save others by writing a letter to the court, shortly after she was sentenced to death in September of 1692, begging them to think twice about what they were doing:
“I petition to your honours not for my own life for I know I must die and my appointed time is set but the Lord he knows it is that if it be possible no more innocent blood may be shed which undoubtedly cannot be avoid in the way and course you go in I question not but your honours does to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft and witches and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world but by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way the Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work if it be his blessed will that no more innocent blood be shed I would humbly beg of you that your honors would be pleased to examine this afflicted persons strictly and keep them apart some time and like-wise to try some of these confessing witches…”
It is believed both letters had an effect on their recipients, although it was too late for them to help the people who wrote them.
The accused were put into a very difficult situation in the Salem Witch Trials and had to do what they thought was best. The results didn’t always work out in their favor and some of them paid dearly for the choice they made.
Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Cornell University Press, 1997.
The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past. Edited by Catherine A. Brekus, University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Baker, Emerson W. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard University Press, 1974.
“Ask the Archivist.” Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, n.d., salem.lib.virginia.edu/archivist.html