The Salem Witch Trials are one of the darkest parts of modern American history.
Between February 1692 and May 1693, a series of hearings and trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts for those accused of witchcraft. There were more than 200 accusations. Thirty individuals were found guilty, and 19 of them were hanged (14 women and five men).
Giles Corey, another man, was put to death by being pressured to confess, and at least five inmates also passed away while they were being held.
In addition to Salem and Salem Village (now known as Danvers), arrests were also made in a number of other towns, most notably Andover and Topsfield. In Salem Town, where the hangings also took place, grand juries and trials for this capital offense were convened in 1692 by a Court of Oyer and Terminer and in 1693 by a Superior Court of Judicature.
The witch hunt was the bloodiest in colonial North America’s history. In the 17th century, just two men and fourteen additional women had been put to death in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The incident is one of the most infamous examples of public panic in Colonial America.
It has been exploited in political rhetoric and popular fiction as a vivid cautionary story about the risks of isolation, religious extremism, false allegations, and violations of due process wasn’t unique, but rather a Colonial American counterpart of the much more widespread early modern phenomenon of witch trials, which also occurred in Europe.
Many historians believe the trials’ long-term consequences have significantly impacted American history. The Salem witchcraft, according to historian George Lincoln Burr, “was the rock on which the theocracy broke.”
A park in Salem and a memorial in Danvers were established as part of the 300th-anniversary ceremonies in 1992 to remember the trial victims. Six persons were exonerated by a law introduced by the Massachusetts legislature in 1957, and five more victims were exonerated by a law passed in 2001.
Although some belief occurred in the 18th century when the Massachusetts colonial legislature was petitioned to overturn the attainders of “George Burroughs and others,” there was still discussion about exonerating all of the victims as of 2004.
The Gallows Hill Project team from the University of Virginia revealed in January 2016 that they have located the Salem execution site where the 19 “witches” had been hanged. In 2017, the city established the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial in honor of the fatalities.
What Happened in Salem Massachusetts in 1692?
By the middle of the 17th century, most of Europe had moved away from witch trials, although they persisted in the American colonies and areas of Europe’s periphery. While hysteria was already on the decline in most of Europe, the events in Salem in 1692–1693 caused a brief outbreak in the New World.
Joseph Glanvill asserted in 1668’s Against Modern Sadducism that he could demonstrate the reality of witches and ghosts as members of the paranormal world. The “rejection of the physical resurrection and the “supernatural] spirits,” according to Glanvill.
In his treatise, Glanvill argued that intelligent individuals should accept the reality of witches and apparitions because, if they did not, they would be rejecting not just demons but also the all-powerful God. Glanvill sought to demonstrate that the supernatural could not be refuted; those who did so were regarded as heretics since it refuted their belief in angels. Men like Glanvill and Cotton Mather attempted to demonstrate that “demons were alive” in their works.
What Was the Real Reason for The Salem Witch Trials?
People were put on trial after being accused of witchcraft, primarily by teenage girls like Elizabeth Hubbard, 17, and some others who were younger. When Dorothy Good was accused of witchcraft, she was between the ages of four and five.
Alse Young was executed for witchcraft in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1647, marking the beginning of the trials that would endure until 1663. In his 1881 book, historian Clarence F. Jewett included other individuals who had been hanged in New England.
Political backdrop religious dissenters who wanted to establish a community based on the Bible in accordance with their own chosen discipline had colonized New England. In 1684, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s 1629 Royal Charter was revoked, and King James II appointed Sir Edmund Andros as the Dominion of New England’s governor.
After the “Glorious Revolution” in England installed the Protestant co-rulers William and Mary in place of the Catholic James II, Andros was overthrown in 1689.
The colony’s final governor and deputy governor under the previous charter, Simon Bradstreet and Thomas Danforth, resumed their positions. Still, they needed more constitutional authority to rule because the previous charter had been revoked.
The Wabanaki Indians of that region, whom France aided, clashed with English colonists establishing on “the Eastward” (the modern-day coast of Maine) in what became known as King William’s War. 13 years had passed since the disastrous King Philip’s War in southern and western New England with the Wampanoag and other native nations.
Sir William Phips led an unsuccessful attack on Quebec, which was ruled by the French, in October 1690. Native Americans persisted in attacking numerous English villages along the Maine coast between 1689 and 1692, forcing some of the communities to be abandoned and sending a wave of refugees into places like Essex County.
On October 16, 1691, a new charter for the expanded Province of Massachusetts Bay received final approval in England. Increase Mather had been working on getting the charter for four years, frequently traveling to London with William Phips, who helped him access Whitehall. In 1684, Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather produced a treatise on witchcraft.
In 1690, Increase Mather published a London edition of his son’s book. Increase Mather asserted that he had chosen every man who would serve in the new government. Boston had heard about Mather’s charter and Phips’ selection as the new governor by late January, and on February 8th, a copy of the new charter arrived there.
Phips landed in Boston on May 14 and, together with Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, took the oath of office two days later. On May 27, 1692, the formal nomination of county justices of the peace, sheriffs, and the commission of a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer to deal with the vast number of persons who were “thronging” the jails were among the first items on the agenda for the new governor and council.
The Town of Salem in 1692
The populace of Salem Village (modern-day Danvers, Massachusetts) was notoriously contentious and engaged in several internal and external disputes (present-day Salem). Neighbors regarded the populace as “quarrelsome” because of the prevalence of disputes over property lines, grazing rights, and church privileges.
In contrast to Salem Town, the villagers appointed their own minister in 1672. The congregation should have paid its full fee. Therefore, the first two preachers, James Bayley (1673-1679) and George Burroughs (1680-1683) left after only a few years each. Burroughs was subsequently detained during the height of the witchcraft panic and hanged in August 1692 for being a witch.
Each of the two ministers decided to depart despite the General Court upholding their rights and reprimanding the parish. Deodat Lawson, the third preacher, served from 1684 until 1688. He left only after the Salem church declined to ordain him, not because of problems with the flock.
Samuel Parris was selected as Salem Village’s first ordained preacher, and this decision divided the church. The villagers agreed to pay Parris £66 a year, “one-third part in money and the other two third parts in food,” along with the use of the parsonage, on June 18, 1689.
However, they increased his perks by voting to give him the deed to the parsonage and two acres (0.8 hectares) of property on October 10, 1689. This went against a village decision from 1681 that prohibited residents from “conveying the houses, lands, or any other concerns pertaining to the Ministry to any particular persons or person: not for whatever cause by the vote or other ways.”
Rev. Parris delayed taking the appointment even though the outcomes of the previous pastors and the degree of discord in Salem Village were good reasons to be cautious. He did not appear to be able to resolve the conflicts of his new parishioners.
By actively hunting out “iniquitous behavior” among his flock and subjecting upstanding church members to public penance for minor offenses, he further increased the tension in the community. Its arguments got louder and louder. According to historian Marion Starkey, a major conflict may have been unavoidable in this setting.
The Church and Religious Setting
The history of the Puritans in North America is another resource.
Conservative Puritan secular officials had ruled the Massachusetts government before the constitutional unrest of the 1680s.
Although Calvinism was a common influence on both the Puritans and the Church of England, the Puritans opposed many of the Church of England’s customs, including the use of the Book of Common Prayer, clergy vestments during services, the use of the sign of the cross during baptism, and kneeling to receive communion, all of which they considered to be popery.
In the 1620s and 1630s, Anglican church authorities attempted to suppress these opposing viewpoints because King Charles I was hostile to them. Many Puritans and other religious minorities eventually migrated to colonial North America to start their own society after some had sought safety there.
These immigrants, who were mainly made up of families, founded several of the first colonies in New England, the largest and most significant of which was the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They had the intention of creating a society based on their religious convictions.
The colony’s freemen, or those who had their religious beliefs publicly reviewed and were accepted into one of the colony’s Puritan congregations, chose the colonial authorities.
The colonial leadership frequently conferred with the nearby clergy on matters affecting the colony because they were prominent members of their congregations.
Early in the 1640s, a civil war broke out in England. After the victory of the Puritan-dominated Parliamentarians, Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate replaced the Crown in 1653.
Due to its failure, Charles II reinstated the previous edict. In these years, emigration to New England drastically decreased. A prosperous merchant elite that was less driven by religion than the colony’s original inhabitants started to emerge in Massachusetts.
Why Were Women Hanged During the Salem Witch Trials?
Approximately 78% of those charged and found guilty of witchcraft were women. In general, women were viewed by Puritans and the dominant New England culture as being more sinful and subject to damnation than males.
Puritans, especially Puritan women, aggressively sought to thwart the Devil’s attempts to capture them and their souls throughout their daily lives. In fact, Puritans believed that while men and women were equal in God’s eyes, they were not in the Devil’s.
Women’s bodies were considered weak and defenseless, exposing their souls. Why women were more likely than males to plead guilty to witchcraft is likely due to a number of circumstances. According to historian Elizabeth Reis, some people may have thought they had actually succumbed to the Devil, while others might have thought they had only done so briefly.
Some women may have confessed, though, to save their own lives because those who did so were accepted back into society. Conflicts with neighbors frequently sparked accusations of witchcraft. Abigail Faulkner, who was charged in 1692, is one instance of this.
Faulkner said that she was “mad at what others said” and that the Devil may have briefly taken possession of her, harming her neighbors. Particularly those who were single or without children; women who did not fit the mold of Puritan society were more likely to be the subject of accusations.
Witchcraft in Salem in 1692
Boston’s North Church priest Cotton Mather was a prolific pamphlet publisher who also proclaimed his belief in witchcraft in several of his publications. Mather spoke about his “oracular observations” and how “stupendous witchcraft” had impacted the children of Boston mason John Goodwin in his book Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689).
Mather provides an example of how the Goodwins’ oldest child succumbed to the devil’s temptation and stole linen from washerwoman Goody Glover. Glover, who was of Irish Catholic ancestry and was regarded as an unpleasant old woman by her husband, may have been suspected of casting charms on the Goodwin children because of this.
Four of the six Goodwin kids started having weird fits after the incident, which some called “the sickness of amazement.” The disease’s symptoms gradually gained a negative connotation with witchcraft.
The signs included losing control of their bodies, such as becoming limber, flapping their arms like birds, or attempting to damage themselves and others. Other signs included loud, erratic yells, tongues being drawn from their necks, and neck and back problems. These symptoms fueled the 1692 craze.
How Did the Salem Witch Trials Begin?
Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, both residents of Salem Village and the daughter and niece of the Reverend Samuel Parris, started experiencing fits in February 1692 that were “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect,” according to John Hale, the minister of the nearby town of Beverly.
According to the eyewitness report of Reverend Deodat Lawson, a former pastor in Salem Village, the girls shouted, tossed objects around the room, making unusual noises, crawled behind furniture, and twisted themselves into odd configurations.
The girls said that they had been poked and pinched. A physician, historically considered William Griggs, could not discover any outward signs of disease. Similar patterns among the village’s young ladies started to emerge.
The outbursts of the sickened caused Lawson to have to stop preaching numerous times while he was a visitor in the Salem Village meetinghouse.
Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba were the first three people charged and detained for allegedly infecting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard. According to some historians, Ann Putnam Jr.’s charge implies that a family dispute may have been a significant factor in the witch trials.
The Putnam and Porter families were engaged in a bitter competition during the time, which sharply divided the residents of Salem. Citizens frequently engaged in spirited discussions over the conflict that turned into full-fledged fights.
Physically, some of the symptoms were similar to convulsive ergot poisoning, which was postulated 284 years later.
Good was a poor woman who was falsely convicted of witchcraft due to her reputation. When she decided to punish and “scorn [children] instead of directing them towards the path of redemption,” she was charged with ignoring Puritan principles of self-control and discipline.
Sarah Osborne seldom went to religious services. Because the Puritans thought Osborne had her own self-interests in mind after her remarriage to an indentured servant, they accused her of witchcraft.
She attempted to manage her son’s inheritance from her former marriage, which the town’s residents needed to receive better.
Due to her ethnic differences from the majority of the other villagers, Tituba, a South American Indian lady who had been enslaved and lived in the West Indies, most certainly became a target.
She was charged with using tales of enchantment from Malleus Maleficarum to seduce women like Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. These stories of having sex with demons, controlling men’s thoughts, and fortune-telling were claimed to excite girls’ imaginations and made Tituba an apparent suspect.
Each of these women was a sort of pariah and had many of the “common suspect” personality qualities for allegations of witchcraft; they were allowed to defend themselves. They were detained for several days beginning on March 1, 1692, after being brought before the local magistrates on a charge of witchcraft.
Other people were charged with witchcraft in March, including Rachel Clinton in the nearby town of Ipswich, Martha Corey, Dorothy Good, and Rebecca Nurse in Salem Village. Martha Corey had attracted attention by expressing doubt about the veracity of the girls’ claims.
Because Martha Corey was a fully covenanted member of the Church in Salem Village and Rebecca Nurse was of the Church in Salem Town, the accusations against her and Rebecca Nurse caused great concern among the locals. The locals believed that if such morally upright people could be witches, then anyone could be a witch and church membership was no defense against accusations.
Despite being just four years old, the magistrates questioned Dorothy Good, Sarah Good’s daughter, because her responses were seen as a confession that named her mother. At the end of March, Rachel Clinton was detained for witchcraft in Ipswich on other accusations unconnected to the girls’ ailments in Salem Village.
The early tests included physical inspections where the accused were checked for distinctive characteristics like moles, birthmarks that were typically connected with the influence of the Devil, and so forth.
Those symbols were seen as the Devil sipping the accused women’s blood.
The Salem Witch Trials: The Madness Begins
After being detained in April, Nurse’s sister Sarah Cloyce and Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor were brought before John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin at a conference in Salem Town. The men were both local magistrates and Governor’s Council members.
Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, Assistants Samuel Sewall, Samuel Appleton, James Russell, and Isaac Addington were all present for the examination. John Proctor, Elizabeth’s husband, objected to the procedures, which led to his imprisonment that day.
Giles Corey, Martha’s husband and a covenanted church member in Salem Town, Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Mary Warren, a housekeeper, and occasionally accuser, and Deliverance Hobbs, Abigail Hobbs’ stepmother, were all detained and questioned within a week.
Deliverance Hobbs, Mary Warren, and Abigail Hobbs all admitted their involvement and started naming other persons as co-conspirators. More people were detained afterward, including Sarah Wildes, William Hobbs (Deliverance’s husband and Abigail’s father), Nehemiah Abbott Jr., Mary Eastey (Cloyce and Nurse’s sister), Edward Bishop Jr. and his wife Sarah Bishop, and Mary English.
The following people were taken into custody on April 30: Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, Dorcas Hoar, Sarah Morey, and Philip English (Mary’s husband). Nehemiah Abbott Jr. was freed after the accusers concluded that he was not the person whose ghost had haunted them.
After her initial arrest, Mary Eastey was freed for a few days since the accusers couldn’t prove that she was the one who had sickened them; when they changed their minds, she was imprisoned once more.
While charges persisted in May, some of the suspects started to elude capture. Before John Willard and Elizabeth Colson were found, several warrants had been issued; George Jacobs Jr. and Daniel Andrews were not found.
Up until this time, all of the processes had been investigative. Still, William Phips ordered the formation of a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer for the counties of Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex on May 27, 1692, so that the cases of those who were imprisoned might be prosecuted.
More people were the subject of warrants. On May 10, 1692, Sarah Osborne, one of the first three accused, passed away in custody.
Examinations continued in Salem Village, and warrants were issued for 36 more people: Sarah Dustin (the daughter of Lydia Dustin), Ann Sears, Bethiah Carter Sr., and Bethiah Carter Jr., George Jacobs Sr. and his granddaughter Margaret Jacobs, John Willard, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Abigail Soames, George Jacobs Jr. (the son of George Jacobs Sr. and the father of Margaret Jacobs), Daniel Andrew, and Rebecca Jacobs.
Included were also Elizabeth Colson, Elizabeth Hart, Thomas Farrar Sr., Roger Toothaker, Sarah Proctor (daughter of John and Elizabeth Proctor), Sarah Bassett (Elizabeth Proctor’s sister-in-law), Susannah Roots, Mary DeRich (Yet Another Sister-in-Law of Elizabeth Proctor), Sarah Pease, Elizabeth Cary, Martha Carrier, Elizabeth Fosdick, Wilmot Redd, Sarah Rice, Elizabeth Howe, there were 62 persons in detention in total when the Court of Oyer and Terminer met at the end of May.
On May 31, 1692, Cotton Mather wrote to John Richards, one of the judges and a member of his church, expressing his support for the proceedings but cautioning him,
Do not place more pressure than necessary on purely spectral evidence. It is a given that the Devils have occasionally taken the Forms of individuals who were not only innocent but also highly pious. Although I think that a righteous God will usually make a method for the swift vindication of those who have been mistreated.
Prosecution In a Court of Law: The Court of Oyer and Terminer
On June 2, 1692, the Court of Oyer and Terminer met in Salem Town with William Stoughton, the new Lieutenant Governor, presiding as Chief Magistrate, Thomas Newton representing the Crown in the legal proceedings, and Stephen Sewall serving as a clerk.
The grand jury heard Bridget Bishop’s case first and approved all of the charges against her. Bishop was accused of not leading a Puritan lifestyle because she dressed strangely and wore black, which was against Puritan tradition.
Bishop was questioned about her coat, which had been clumsily “cut or torn in two ways,” when she was inspected before her trial.
This supported the jury’s conclusion that Bishop was a witch, as did her “immoral” way of life. She appeared in court that day and was found guilty. Rebecca Nurse and John Willard were indicted on June 3, but the cases did not immediately proceed to trial for unknown reasons.
The hanging of Bishop occurred on June 10, 1692.
The court postponed for 20 days (until June 30) following this execution to consult the most renowned ministers in New England “about the situation of affairs as they then stood.” Their joint reply was received on June 15 and was written by Cotton Mather.
“We believe that the bad condition of our neighbors, who are currently experiencing molestation from the invisible world, necessitates the greatest assistance from everyone in their various capacities.
“We must gratefully acknowledge the success that the merciful God has granted to our honorable rulers’ diligent and persistent efforts to uncover the abhorrent witchcrafts that have been practiced throughout the nation. We must humbly pray that the discovery of those enigmatic and cunning wickednesses may be perfected.
“We believe that extreme skepticism and caution are required to carry out these and other similar witchcraft successfully. Otherwise, a door could be opened for a lengthy train of unhappy repercussions, and Satan could gain the upper hand because we should be aware of his schemes.
“Similar to complaints about witchcraft, there may be areas of inquiry that don’t amount to presumptions. There may be presumptions that aren’t necessarily grounds for conviction, so it is imperative that all proceedings be handled with an extreme degree of delicacy toward those who may be complained of, mainly if they were once people of impeccable reputation.
“We would hope that when the initial investigation is made into the circumstances of those who may be justifiably suspected of practicing witchcraft, as little noise, company, and openness as possible would be allowed and that nothing would be used as a test for the trial of the suspected whose legality might be questioned among the people of God.
“Instead, we hope that the guidelines provided by such wise writers as Perkins.
“Since it is an undeniable and well-known fact that a demon may, with God’s permission, appear, even for evil purposes, in the shape of an innocent, yea, and a virtuous man, suspicions whereupon persons may be committed, and, much more, convictions whereupon persons may be condemned as guilty of witchcrafts, ought unquestionably to be more significant than barely the accused person’s being represented by aspect.
“We, therefore, do not believe that changes brought about in the victims by the accused’s glance or touch constitute unflinching proof of guilt because such changes are usually susceptible to exploitation by the Devil’s legerdemains.
“We are unsure if the accusations of so many people, some of whom, we hope, are still free from the significant transgression laid to their charge, won’t put an end to the progression of the terrible calamity begun upon us by our refusal to believe those testimonies whose entire force and strength comes from them alone.
“However, we cannot help but respectfully urge the government to swiftly and vigorously prosecute those who have made themselves objectionable, in accordance with the guidance provided by God’s laws and the moral norms of the English countryside, for the purpose of finding witchcraft.”
The two first and last sections of this advice took away the force of all the others, and the prosecutions continued with more energy than before, according to Hutchinson’s letter summary.
(When Cotton Mather reprinted the letter in Magnalia years later, he omitted these “two first and the last” sections.) On or around June 16, Major Nathaniel Saltonstall, Esq., resigned from the court, likely due to his displeasure with the letter and the fact that it did not expressly forbid the acceptance of spectral evidence.
For “being the only public man of his day who had the insight or bravery to oppose the proceedings at the start,” according to Upham, Saltonstall merits praise.
Chapter Seven The previous Salem Town magistrates John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, and Bartholomew Gedney—who had now been appointed justices of the Court of Oyer and Terminer—made additional accusations against, detained, and interrogated individuals.
On June 16, 1692, suspect Roger Toothaker passed away in custody.
Grand juries approved the indictments of Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor, Martha Carrier, Sarah Wildes, and Dorcas Hoar between June 30 and early July. At this time, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes, and Rebecca Nurse went on trial and were convicted.
On July 19, 1692, all five ladies were killed by hanging. The Salem Village girls who had the ailments were invited to meet the constable in Andover in the middle of July in an effort to identify the culprit. All three, Ann Foster, Mary Lacey Sr., her daughter, and Mary Lacey Jr., admitted to being witches.
When Thomas Newton accepted a position in New Hampshire, Governor Phips selected Anthony Checkley to take over as the Crown’s Attorney.
Grand juries indicted Martha Corey, George Jacobs Sr., Mary Eastey, and George Burroughs in August. Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, Elizabeth Proctor, and John Proctor were found guilty by the jury.
Due to her pregnancy, Elizabeth Proctor was granted a temporary reprieve from being put to death. Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, and John Proctor were put to death on August 19, 1692.
Along with others, Mr. Burroughs was pulled through the streets of Salem in a cart to be put to death. When he was on the ladder, he delivered a speech in support of his innocence with solemn and serious facial expressions that won the admiration of everyone in attendance.
His prayer, which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer because witches were not believed to be able to recite it, was so skillfully phrased and delivered with such fervor that it caused many people to cry and gave the impression that the audience would obstruct the execution, according to some.
The accusations said that the dark man (Devil) stood and gave him instructions. As soon as Mr. Burroughs was hanged, Mr. Cotton Mather addressed the crowd while mounted on a horse, partly to admit that Mr. Burroughs was not an ordained minister and partially to convince the crowd of his guilt by claiming that the devil frequently assumed the appearance of an Angel of Light.
And while this did somewhat calm the populace, the executions continued. When Mr. Burroughs was killed, he was dragged by a Halter to a grave that was about two feet deep, his shirt and breeches were removed, and an old pair of executioner’s pants were placed over his lower body.
He was buried alongside Willard and Carrier, with one of their hands, chins, and feet exposed.
September 1692: The Salem Witch Trials Continues
Grand juries brought 18 further indictments in September. William Proctor was re-arrested on additional accusations after the grand jury declined to indict him. In an effort to get Giles Corey to submit a plea on September 19, 1692, he was slain through peine forte et dure, a method of torture in which the victim is squeezed beneath an increasing weight of stones.
11 others were tried and convicted guilty, while 4 entered guilty pleas.
Cotton Mather requested “a narrative of the evidence given in at the trials of half a dozen, or if you please, a dozen, of the principal witches that have been condemned” in a letter to Stephen Sewall dated September 20.
Cotton Mather wrote: “That I may be the more capable of lifting up a standard against the infernal enemy.” Eight more people were put to death on September 22, 1692. “After Execution, Mr. Noyes turning him to the bodies, remarked, ‘what a horrible thing it is to see Eight Firebrands of Hell hanging there,’” records the execution official.
With the backing of numerous ministers, Dorcas Hoar was granted a brief pardon to confess to being a witch. 77-year-old Mary Bradbury was assisted in escaping by relatives and friends. Due to her pregnancy, Abigail Faulkner Sr. was granted a temporary respite (other accounts from the time claim that Abigail’s reprieve eventually turned into a stay of charges).
Wonders of the Invisible World, Mather’s description of the trials, was finished quickly and presented to Phips when he returned from the battle in Maine in early October. Phips’ letter and Mather’s manuscript “must have gone to London on the same ship,” according to Burr, in the middle of October.
I hereby declare that before any application was made to me regarding it, I halted the Court’s proceedings, and they are now halted until their Majesty’s pleasure is known. This was done as soon as I returned from fighting and realized the danger some of their innocent subjects might be in if the evidence of the afflicted persons only did prevail to the committing or trying any of them.
— Governor Phips, October 12, 1692, Boston
The court of Oyer and Terminer count themselves discharged as a result, according to Judge Sewall’s report from October 29: “asked if the court of Oyer and Terminer should sit, expressing some dread of inconvenience by its fall, [the] Governor stated it must fall.”
By some strange coincidence, Lady Mary Phips, the wife of Governor Phips, was one of the people who had been “called out upon” at this time. Phips gave the order to stop all executions.
William Stoughton served as Chief Justice of the newly established Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Gaol [Jail] Delivery in Salem, Essex County, in January 1693. Anthony Checkley continued to serve as Attorney General, and Jonathan Elatson continued in his role as Court Clerk.
The first five instances in January 1693 involved the five defendants, Sarah Buckley, Margaret Jacobs, Rebecca Jacobs, Mary Whittredge (or Witheridge), and Job Tookey, who had been charged but not tried in September.
They were all declared innocent. For many of those who were still incarcerated, grand juries were held. Many of the accusations against them were dropped, but 16 more persons were indicted and put on trial; three of them, Mary Post, Sarah Wardwell, and Elizabeth Johnson Jr., were found guilty.
Governor Phips pardoned the three defendants and other defendants from the previous court when Stoughton wrote the warrants for their execution. The Court reconvened in Charlestown, Middlesex County, in late January or early February.
Grand juries were convened, and five defendants—Sarah Cole (of Lynn), Lydia and Sarah Dustin, Mary Taylor, and Mary Toothaker—were tried. Despite being declared not guilty, none of them could leave jail until they had paid their fines.
On March 10, 1693, Lydia Dustin passed away in prison.
Capt. John Alden was declared exonerated by the Boston, Suffolk County, court, which met at the end of April. It heard accusations against Mary Watkins, a servant girl, for making up accusations of witchcraft against her mistress.
In May, the Court met in Ipswich, Essex County, and held several grand juries. With the exception of five people, all charges were dropped. The string of trials and executions ended when Susannah Post, Eunice Frye, Mary Bridges Jr., Mary Barker, and William Barker Jr. were all found not guilty at trial.
How Many Were Killed at The Salem Witch Trials?
Someone filed a complaint against the accused witch with the local magistrates after concluding that a loss, illness, or death had been brought on by witchcraft. If the magistrates found the accusation to be credible, they had the defendant detained and brought in for a public examination, which was effectively an interrogation where the magistrates forced the defendant to confess.
The prisoner was transferred to a superior court to be heard if the local magistrates felt the complaint was well-founded. The magistrates decided in 1692 to wait to take action until the new charter and governor, who would set up a Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear these matters, arrived. The next stage was to call witnesses before a grand jury at the higher court level.
A person could be charged with witchcraft or for entering into a forbidden covenant with the Devil. When a defendant was indicted, they often went to trial the same day, as was the case with Bridget Bishop, who was the first to be indicted and tried on June 2 and was executed eight days later on June 10, 1692.
On June 10, 1692, there was one execution; on July 19, 1692, there were five (Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes); on August 19, 1692, there were another five (Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs Sr., and John Proctor).
On September 22, 1692, there were eight (Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, Ann Pudeator, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret Scott).
Others, like Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor and Abigail Faulkner, were found guilty but were granted short reprieves due to their pregnancies. The death penalty was never carried out for the following five women who were found guilty in 1692: Mary Bradbury (in absentia), Ann Foster (who later passed away in jail), Mary Lacey Sr. (Foster’s daughter), Dorcas Hoar, and Abigail Hobbs.
Giles Corey, an 81-year-old farmer from Salem Farms in the southeast part of the city, declined to enter a plea during his trial in September. The judges subjected him to peine forte et dure, a medieval penalty involving heaping stones on his chest until he could not breathe.
After two days of hard and prolonged torture, Corey passed away without making a plea. Although historian Chadwick Hansen claims that much of Corey’s property had already been seized and that he had already made a will while incarcerated, his refusal to enter a plea is typically attributed to him wanting to avoid having the Crown seize his estate.
Hansen also claims that Corey’s death was a protest against the court’s procedures. “Giles Corey pleaded not guilty to his indictment, but would not put himself upon trial by the jury (they having cleared none upon trial) and knowing there would be the same Witnesses against him, rather chose to undergo what Death they would put him to,” Robert Calef, a contemporaneous critic of the trials, wrote.
Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey were refused appropriate burials and were banished from their churches after being found guilty of witchcraft. The throng withdrew as soon as the bodies of the accused were removed from the trees and put into a little grave.
According to oral history, the deceased’s families retrieved their remains after sundown and interred them in unmarked graves on private property. No executioner’s death is recorded in the historical records of the time.
The testimony of the affected who claimed to have seen the apparition or the shape of the person who was purportedly harming them made up a large portion, but not all, of the evidence used against the accused.
The theological debate that followed the use of this evidence focused on whether or not someone had to give the Devil permission to use their shape to harm them.
The Court argued that the Devil could not use a person’s shape without that person’s permission, so when the afflicted claimed to see the apparition of a specific person, that was accepted as evidence that the accused had been complicit with the Devil.
Opponents claimed that the Devil could use anyone’s shape to afflict people, but the Court contended that the Devil could not use a person’s shape without that person’s permission.
The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather was published with the intention of demonstrating how meticulously the court conducted the trials. Sadly, the work was not published until after the trials were already over.
Mather wrote in his book about his belief that spectral evidence was presumptive and that it was insufficient by itself to support a conviction. Cotton Mather’s fiercest opponent, Robert Calef, wrote in his own book, More Wonders of the Invisible World, that by confessing, a suspect would avoid going to trial, as was the case with Tituba and Dorcas Good.
Increase Mather and other ministers pleaded with the magistrates in a letter to the court titled “The Return of Several Ministers Consulted” not to convict based only on spectral evidence. (The court later decided that spectral evidence wasn’t admissible, drastically decreasing the number of convictions and might have accelerated the trials’ conclusion.)
This letter was reproduced in the 1693 publication Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience. The Salem magistrates looked to the book A Tryal of Witches, which dealt with the 1662 Bury St Edmunds witch trial, as a precedent for permitting spectral evidence.
The colonial magistrates accepted the validity of this evidence because judge Sir Matthew Hale had allowed it to be used in the Bury St Edmunds witch trial and the accusations against two Lowestoft women. This evidence was supported by the eminent philosopher, physician, and author Thomas Browne.
What Was the Pumpkin Cake at The Salem Witch Trials?
According to a March 27, 1692 record by Parris in the Records of the Salem-Village Church, Mary Sibley (aunt of Mary Walcott), a churchgoer and close neighbor of Rev. Parris, gave instructions to John Indian, a man who was Parris’ slave, to bake a witch cake.
It’s possible that this was done out of superstition to keep off malevolent spirits. This occurred around March 8, more than a week after the initial accusations went out and three ladies were jailed, according to a report ascribed to Deodat Lawson (“collected by Deodat Lawson”).
In Lawson’s description, this cake is referred to as “a means to find witchcraft,” and further information is included, such as the fact that it was created with rye meal and the affected girls’ pee and fed to a dog.
According to the Church Records, Parris confided in Sibley personally on March 25, 1692, and accepted her “sorrowful confession” over her “great wrong.” On March 27, after the main sermon and the dismissal of the general congregation, Parris spoke to the covenanted church members about it and warned them against “turning to the Devil for help against the Devil.”
While he acknowledged that there had been “calamities” in his home, he said that “until satanic tactics were utilized, through the preparation of a cake by my Indian man, who got his instruction from this our sister, Mary Sibley,” nothing of significance had come to light.
This doesn’t fit Lawson’s account, which places the incident around March 8. February 29 saw the first complaints, and March 1 saw the first arrests.
The reportedly ill girls were allegedly amused by Parris’ slave Tituba, according to tradition. Many secondary sources, beginning with Charles W. Upham in the 19th century, often mention that a group of girls attempted fortune-telling with Tituba’s assistance.
They made a crude crystal ball out of egg white and a mirror to predict the occupations of their future husbands, and they startled each other when one thought they saw the shape of a coffin instead. The narrative is based on John Hale’s account of the experiments; however, according to Hale, just one girl—not a bunch of them—confessed to him later that she had previously done this.
Hale didn’t say Tituba had anything to do with it, nor did he say when it happened. However, the pre-trial examination record shows Tituba making an animated confession and speaking to the court about “creatures who inhabit the invisible world” and “the dark rituals which bind them together in service of Satan.”
She also accuses Good and Osborne of being involved in the devil’s conspiracy against the Bay while claiming that “many other people in the colony were engaged in it.”
Although Tituba’s race has frequently been portrayed as being of Carib-Indian or African heritage in later stories, contemporary sources merely refer to her as an “Indian.” According to Elaine Breslaw’s research, Tituba may have been an Arawak Indian who was abducted in what is now Venezuela and sent to Barbados.
The Salem Witch Trial Test by Touch
The touch test employed in Andover during the preliminary exams in September 1692 is considered to be the most notorious use of the effluvia theory. Parris had forcibly discouraged such tests among his congregation.
If the victim was experiencing a fit when the accused witch touched her, and the fit ended, witnesses assumed the accused was the one who had caused the victim’s condition. According to numerous of those implicated who afterward recalled,
“The ill individuals were in fits as we entered their vicinity, according to what they reported, so we were blindfolded and placed our hands on them. We were all taken as prisoners by a warrant from the justice of the peace and immediately transported to Salem after some of them led us to them and allowed us to touch them.
“They afterward claimed they were OK and that we were to blame for their condition.”
The Rev. John Hale described the alleged mechanism for how it operated as follows: “The Witch by the cast of her eye sends forth a Malefick Venome into the Bewitched to cast him into a fit, and the touch of the hand doth through sympathy cause that venom to return into the Body of the Witch again.”
The accused’s confessions, testimony from a confessed witch who identified other people as witches, the discovery of poppits (poppets), books of palmistry and horoscopes, or pots of ointments in the accused’s possession or home, and the observation of what was known as witch’s teats on the accused’s body were all considered to be additional evidence.
A mole or imperfection on the body that was impervious to touch was referred to as a witch’s teat, and its finding was taken as conclusive proof of witchcraft.
Early Discussions and Primary Sources
The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Puritan preachers were very interested in the trial. A number of people went to Salem to learn more about the trial. Beginning in 1692, these preachers offered a variety of perspectives on trial after personally experiencing the trials and gathering accounts.
In March and April of 1692, Deodat Lawson, a former preacher in Salem Village, paid a visit there. A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village: Which Happened from the Nineteenth of March to the Fifth of April 1692, was the book that resulted.
It was published during the trials and contains information intended to convict the defendants. In early June 1692, William Milbourne, a Boston Baptist clergyman who filed a formal petition with the General Assembly at the same time as Lawson, criticized the Court’s use of spectral evidence. For “contriving, composing, and publishing the said scandalous Papers,” Milbourne had to pay a £200 bond (about £33,310 today, or around $42,000 US).
Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches, Recently Executed in New England by Cotton Mather, published in October 1692, is the most well-known primary source regarding the trials.
This book underwent a difficult publishing process. Originally intended to celebrate Mather’s leadership and promote the trials, Mather was forced to alter the language and deny any personal involvement as doubt about the spectral evidence grew.
In any case, William Stoughton, the Chief Magistrate, wrote an opening letter endorsing its publication in Boston and London. The book comprised details of five trials, with much of the information taken directly from the court documents that Stephen Sewall, a court clerk, sent to Mather.
Cotton Mather’s father finished cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, Increase Mather, at the same time as Wonders and released in November 1692. This book was written with the intention of accurately preserving Cotton’s altered, whitewashed text while also deftly acknowledging the mounting skepticism regarding spectral evidence.
Increase downplayed his own involvement, much like his son, although he did give the complete text of his plea to the Salem court from August in support of spectral evidence. Thomas Brattle publicly mocked Increase’s defense of his son and the “superstitions” of Salem in a letter because he assumed the moral panic had passed based on the apologetic tone of Cases of Conscience.
A former ardent supporter of the trials and of spectral evidence, Samuel Willard, minister of the Third Church in Boston, grew worried as the Mathers quashed dissent. He produced a brief tract titled “Some Miscellany Observations On our Present Debates Regarding Witchcrafts, in a Dialogue Between S. & B.” while writing under an assumed name to hide his disagreement.
Although Philip English and John Alden were listed as the writers, Willard is typically given credit for the work. In it, two characters, S (Salem) and B (Boston), talk about how the proceedings were going. “B” urges care when it comes to employing or giving them too much credit, saying that “everything comes from them is to be doubted.” This book’s publication site is listed as Philadelphia, but it was likely covertly printed in Boston.
How Did the Salem Witch Trials End?
Even though the final trial took place in May 1693, reactions from the people persisted. In the decades that followed the trials, victims’ survivors, family members, and allies worked to prove the defendants’ innocence and secure restitution.
The descendants of those wrongfully accused and imprisoned have worked to preserve their memory over the decades. 1992 saw events in Salem and Danvers that served as a reminder of the trials.
With the exception of Elizabeth Johnson, whose conviction was overturned by the Massachusetts Senate on May 26, 2022, under pressure from students who noticed the anomaly, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act in November 2001 absolving all those who had been found guilty and naming each of the innocent.
This was done years after celebrating the 300th anniversary of the trials. Numerous art, literature, and film pieces have explored the trials as they have become a part of American society.
Revoking Attainder and Paying Survivors’ Compensation
The first sign that the public’s demands for justice were not yet overcome in 1695, when renowned Quaker Thomas Maule, building on Increase Mather, publicly criticized the way the Puritan leaders handled the trials by saying, “it was better that one person is put to death for a witch, which is not a Witch,” in Chapter 29 of his book Truth Held Forth and Maintained.
Maule spent a year in jail for publishing this book before going on trial and being exonerated.
A fast day would be observed on January 14, 1697, according to a decision made by the General Court on December 17, 1696, “pointing to the late Tragedy, created among us by Satan and his Instruments.”
Samuel Sewall requested that Rev. Samuel Willard read his apologies to the Boston South Church congregation that day, asking them to “bear the blame & shame” of the “late Commission of Oyer & Terminer at Salem.” Eleven other trial jurors, including Thomas Fiske, also begged for pardon.
Robert Calef, a “weaver” and cloth dealer in Boston, gathered correspondence, court documents, petitions, and other accounts of the trials between 1693 and 1697. He published them under the title More Wonders of the Invisible World as a comparison to Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World.
It was published in London in 1700 after Calef could not get it published in Boston. Hutchinson, Upham, Burr, and even Poole, among other trial scholars, have referred to Calef’s collection of records.
A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, written by Beverly’s John Hale, a minister who attended many of the proceedings, was finished in 1697 but wasn’t released until 1702, after his death and presumably in response to Calef’s work.
In an admission of remorse for the course of events, Hale said, “Such was the gloom of that day, the tortures and laments of the afflicted, and the influence of former presidents, that we walked in the clouds and could not see our way.”
The Massachusetts government received several petitions between 1700 and 1703 requesting the formal reversal of the sentences. In the eyes of the law, those who were tried and found guilty were already dead, and since their convictions were still on the record, those who were not put to death were open to new allegations.
The General Court initially only overturned the attainder for those who had submitted petitions. In 1703, a new petition was submitted asking for a more equitable resolution for those who had been falsely accused.
However, the General Court did not act on this request until 1709, when it received a new request. 22 people who had been found guilty of witchcraft or whose relatives had been found guilty of witchcraft petitioned the government in May 1709, pleading for the attainder to be reversed and for compensation for financial losses.
The Salem Village church was displaying repentance. After nearly two months of deliberation, the church’s members and Rev. Joseph Green decided to annul Martha Corey’s ex-communication on February 14, 1703.
When Ann Putnam Jr., one of the most vocal accusers, joined the Salem Village church on August 25, 1706, she formally begged for forgiveness. She was granted full membership despite her allegation that she had been led astray by Satan into accusing innocent individuals, specifically Rebecca Nurse, and that she had not done so maliciously.
The General Court passed a bill on October 17, 1711, overturning the verdict against the twenty-two parties named in the 1709 petition (seven additional people had been convicted but had not signed the petition, but there was no reversal of attainder for them).
Governor Joseph Dudley allowed monetary recompense for the 22 signatories to the 1709 petition two months later, on December 17, 1711. The survivors and relatives of those charged were authorized to receive a total of £578 12s.
Most of the accounts were settled within a year, but Phillip English’s large claims were not resolved until 1718. Finally, Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey’s ex-communications by Rev. Nicholas Noyes and members of the Salem church were revoked on March 6, 1712.
Memorials For the Salem Witch Trials Victims
On the grounds of the Nurse Homestead in Danvers, Rebecca Nurse’s heirs erected an obelisk-shaped granite monument in her honor in 1885. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an inscription on the monument. A second memorial was built in 1892 to recognize the forty neighbors who signed a petition in Nurse’s favor.
In the early eighteenth century, not all of the convicted had been freed. The General Court was ordered to officially clear the names of the six people who had been wrongfully condemned and executed in 1957 but who had yet to be included in the bill for a reversal of attainder in 1711 or added to it in 1712.
A law was created declaring the innocence of those convicted, but it only specifically mentioned Ann Pudeator. The remaining individuals were merely referred to as “certain other persons,” with Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret Scott going unmentioned.
In 1992, a number of events were held in Salem and Danvers to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the trials. For each of the 1692 executioners, stone slab seats were put into the park’s stone wall when the memorial park in Salem was established.
Playwright Arthur Miller and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel spoke at the event in August. In addition to building its own new monument, Danvers reinterred bones that were discovered in the 1950s and were thought to belong to George Jacobs Sr. in a new grave at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.
The Danvers Tercentennial Committee also succeeded in getting a memorial resolution for the deceased passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1992. Paula Keene, a Salem schoolteacher, worked hard to get the names of everyone who needed to be included in this resolution.
As a result of her efforts, state lawmakers J. Michael Ruane and Paul Tirone, among others, released a bill. More than 300 years later, on October 31, 2001, Governor Jane Swift declared everyone innocent.
Despite Salem’s 1936 acquisition of the land and renaming it “Witch Memorial Land,” no monument was ever built there. The widespread belief that the executions took place at the summit of Gallows Hill persisted.
When Rebecca Eames of Boxford was sent to Salem for interrogation, she said that while there, she could see people watching executions. This aided researchers in excluding the summit as the location of the execution. The execution site on Salem’s Gallows Hill, where nineteen “witches” were publicly hanged, had been identified, according to a project team from the University of Virginia, which announced in January 2016.
Members of the Gallows Hill Project had worked with the city of Salem to survey the area of what was later dubbed Proctor’s Ledge, which was situated at the base of the hill and, according to the project’s members, was simpler for onlookers to access than the top of Gallows Hill. They did this using old maps and records and cutting-edge GIS and ground-penetrating radar technology.
The city owns the area which established the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial in honor of the victims in 2017. Gallows Hill – Nineteen, a documentary on these events, is now in production.
Popular Representations of The Salem Witch Trials
In the years following the occurrence, writers and artists have been captivated by the tale of the accusations, trials, and deaths for witchcraft. The 1828 novel Rachel Dyer by John Neal is the first significant use of them as the inspiration for a work of popular fiction.
Because of literary and/or artistic license, many interpretations have distorted the historical episode’s facts. Some views highlight the distinctions between the medieval and post-medieval as cultural constructs because the trials involved torture and confessions and occurred at the confluence of a slowly vanishing medieval past and an emerging enlightenment.
The 2018 exploitation-teen comedy film Assassination Nation was the most current to interpret the Salem witch trials, placing the story in the modern day and adding heavy social criticism to highlight how ludicrous the original events were.
Medical Explanations for The Reported Ailments
The origin of persons who claimed to have an affliction’s symptoms remains a matter of study.
Researchers have looked into a number of medical and psychological explanations for the observed symptoms, such as psychological hysteria in response to Indian attacks, convulsive ergotism brought on by consuming rye bread made from grain infected by the fungus Claviceps purpurea (a naturally occurring substance from which LSD is derived).
Also, an epidemic of bird-borne encephalitis lethargica, and sleep paralysis to account for the nocturnal attacks claimed Some contemporary historians prefer to investigate motivations like jealousy, malice, and a need for attention to explain the behavior rather than concentrating on biological explanations.
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