Photo of the Day

“The Witch, No. 1,” lithograph by Joseph E. Baker, published by George H. Walker & Co, circa 1892

The Salem Witch Trials

 O Christian Martyr Who for Truth could die
When all about thee Owned the hideous lie!
The world, redeemed from superstition’s sway,
Is breathing freer for thy sake today
–Words written by John Greenleaf Whittier and inscribed on a monument marking the grave of Rebecca Nurse, one of the condemned “witches” of Salem

The Salem Witch Trials were a series of witchcraft cases brought before local magistrates in a settlement called Salem which was a part of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 17th century.

More than 200 people were accused of practising witchcraft—the Devil’s magic—and 20 were executed. Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted. Since then, the story of the trials has become synonymous with paranoia and injustice, and it continues to beguile the popular imagination more than 330 years later.

Ever since those dark days ended, the trials have become synonymous with mass hysteria and scapegoating.
To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, a recent smallpox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem. Their names had been “cried out” by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England, the practice of witchcraft.

In 1688, four exemplary Boston children, the sons and daughters of a devout Boston stonelayer named John Goodwin, suffered from a baffling disorder. “They would bark at one another like dogs, and again purr like so many cats,” noted Mather, who observed Goodwin’s family and wrote of their afflictions in “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions” the following year. (The 1689 volume was a salute to his father’s “Illustrious Providences,” a grab bag of apparitions and portents, published five years earlier.) The Goodwin children flew like geese, on one occasion for twenty feet. They recoiled from blows of invisible sticks, shrieked that they were sliced by knives or wrapped in chains. Jaws, wrists, necks flew out of joint. Parental reproof sent the children into agonies. Chores defied them. But “nothing in the world would so discompose them as a religious exercise,” Mather reported. Thirteen-year-old Martha could read an Oxford compendium of humour, although she seized up when handed a volume he deemed “profitable and edifying,” or one with the name Mather on the cover.

To observe her symptoms more closely, Mather that summer took Martha Goodwin into his home. She cantered, trotted, and galloped about the household on her “aerial steed,” whistling through family prayer and pummeling anyone who attempted it in her presence—the worst house guest in history. She hurled books at Mather’s head. She read and reread his pages on her case, lampooning their author. The sauciness astonished him. “And she particularly told me,” Mather sputtered, four years before the Salem trials, “that I should quickly come to disgrace by that history.”

The cause of Martha’s afflictions was identified soon enough. The witch was the mother of a neighbourhood laundress. On the stand, the defendant was unable adequately to recite the Lord’s Prayer, understood to be proof of guilt. She was hanged in November 1688, on Boston Common.

Why did this travesty of justice occur? Why did it occur in Salem? Nothing about this tragedy was inevitable. Only an unfortunate combination of an ongoing frontier war, economic conditions, congregational strife, teenage boredom, and personal jealousies can account for the spiralling accusations, trials, and executions that occurred in the spring and summer of 1692.

Samuel Parris, the Salem minister, would have known every detail of the Goodwin family’s trials from Mather’s much reprinted “Memorable Providences.” The book included the pages Martha wildly ridiculed. The “agitations, writhings, tumblings, tossings, wallowings, foamings” in the parsonage were the same, only acuter. The girls cried that they were being stabbed with fine needles.

In 1692, a basic medical kit looked little different from an ancient Greek one, consisting as it did of beetle’s blood, fox lung, and dried dolphin heart. In plasters or powders, snails figured in many remedies. Salem village had one practising physician that winter. He owned nine medical texts; he could likely read but not write. His surgical arsenal consisted of lances, razors, and saws. The doctor who had examined a seizing Groton girl a generation earlier initially diagnosed a stomach disorder. On a second visit, he refused to administer to her further. The distemper was diabolical in origin.

The Salem Witch Trials was a classic example of scapegoating. Fear combined with a “trigger,” a traumatic or stressful event, is what often leads to scapegoating. Fear of the Devil and witches who did his bidding was very real in Salem at the time. Although we will never know the exact number of those formally charged with having “wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously” engaged in sorcery, somewhere between a hundred and forty-four and a hundred and eighty-five witches and wizards were named in twenty-five villages and towns. The youngest was five; the eldest nearly eighty. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; daughters their mothers; siblings each other. One minister discovered that he was related to no fewer than twenty witches.

In Massachusetts during the 17th century, people often feared that the Devil was constantly trying to find ways to infiltrate and destroy Christians and their communities.

As a devout and strongly religious community living in near isolation in the mysterious New World, the community of Salem had a heightened sense of fear of the Devil and then experienced a “trigger” when Tituba, one of the accused witches, confessed that she and others were in fact witches working for the Devil.

This induced panic and hysteria and quickly sparked a massive witch hunt. The fact is, although there were many other contributing factors, Tituba’s confession is the main reason why the Salem Witch Trials happened.

Several centuries ago, many practising Christians and those of other religions had a strong belief that the Devil could give certain people known as witches the power to harm others in return for their loyalty. A “witchcraft craze” rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s. Tens of thousands of supposed witches—mostly women—were executed. Though the Salem trials came on just as the European craze was winding down, local circumstances explain their onset.

In 1689, English rulers William and Mary started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as King William’s War to colonists, it-ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Salem Village is present-day Danvers, Massachusetts; colonial Salem Town became what’s now Salem.)

“Examination of a Witch”

There were two Salems in the late 17th century: a bustling commerce-oriented port community on Massachusetts Bay known as Salem Town, which would evolve into modern Salem, and, roughly 10 miles (16 km) inland from it, a smaller, poorer farming community of some 500 persons known as Salem Village. The village itself had a noticeable social divide that was exacerbated by a rivalry between its two leading families—the well-heeled Porters, who had strong connections with Salem Town’s wealthy merchants, and the Putnams, who sought greater autonomy for the village and were the standard-bearers for the less-prosperous farm families. Squabbles over property were commonplace, and litigiousness was rampant.

In 1689, through the influence of the Putnams, Samuel Parris, a merchant from Boston by way of Barbados, became the pastor of the village’s Congregational church. Parris, whose largely theological studies at Harvard College (now Harvard University) had been interrupted before he could graduate, was in the process of changing careers from business to the ministry. He brought to Salem Village his wife, their three children, a niece, and two slaves who were originally from Barbados: John Indian, a man, and Tituba, a woman. (There is uncertainty regarding the relationship between the slaves and their ethnic origins. Some scholars believe that they were of African heritage; others think that they may have been of Caribbean Native American stock.)

If it weren’t for the Salem witchcraft proceedings, we would know nothing about Tituba. And precious little is known about her. Almost nothing is written about lower-class people of that era. There is evidence that suggests that Tituba was not black but an Indian. After her imprisonment, Tituba was sold by the Reverend Parris, and the rest of her existence was lost to history.

Parris had shrewdly negotiated his contract with the congregation, but relatively early in his tenure, he sought greater compensation, including ownership of the parsonage, which did not sit well with many members of the congregation. Parris’s orthodox Puritan theology and preaching also divided the congregation, a split that became demonstrably visible when he routinely insisted that nonmembers of the congregation leave before communion was celebrated. In the process, Salem divided into pro- and anti-Parris factions.

The displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources. This aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. Controversy also brewed over Reverend Samuel Parris, who became Salem Village’s first ordained minister in 1689, and was disliked because of his rigid ways and greedy nature. The Puritan villagers believed all the quarrelling was the work of the Devil.

The Salem that became the new home of Parris was in the midst of change: a mercantile elite was beginning to develop, prominent people were becoming less willing to assume positions as town leaders. Two clans (the Putnams and the Porters) were competing for control of the village and its pulpit, and a debate was raging over how independent Salem Village, tied more to the interior agricultural regions, should be from Salem, a centre of sea trade.

In January of 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits.” They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds, and contorted themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural.

It was easy to believe in 1692 in Salem, with an Indian war raging less than seventy miles away (and many refugees from the war in the area) that the devil was close at hand. Sudden and violent death occupied minds.

Probably stimulated by voodoo tales told to them by Tituba, Parris’s daughter Betty his niece Abigail Williams and their friend Ann Putnam, began indulging in fortune-telling. In January 1692 Betty’s and Abigail’s increasingly strange behaviour (described by at least one historian as juvenile delinquency) came to include fits. They screamed, making odd sounds, complained of biting and pinching sensations.

The girls “turned themselves from a circle of friends into a gang of juvenile delinquents.” (Many people of the period complained that young people lacked the piety and sense of purpose of the founders’ generation.) The girls contorted into grotesque poses, fell down into frozen postures, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. In a village where everyone believed that the devil was real, close at hand, and acted in the real world, the suspected affliction of the girls became an obsession.

“Witchcraft at Salem Village,” illustration published in Pioneers in the Settlement of America, by William A. Crafts, circa 1876

Looking back with the perspective provided by modern science, some scholars have speculated that the strange behaviour may have resulted from some combination of asthma, encephalitis, Lyme disease, epilepsy, child abuse, delusional psychosis, or convulsive ergotism—the last a disease caused by eating bread or cereal made of rye that has been infected with the fungus ergot, which can elicit vomiting, choking, fits, hallucinations, and the sense of something crawling on one’s skin. (The hallucinogen LSD is a derivative of ergot.) Given the subsequent spread of the strange behaviour to other girls and young women in the community and the timing of its display, however, those physiological and psychological explanations are not very convincing. The litany of odd behaviour also mirrored that of the children of a Boston family who in 1688 were believed to have been bewitched.

Another girl, Ann Putnam, age 11, experienced similar episodes. On February 29, under pressure from magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.

In February, unable to account for their behaviour medically, the local doctor, William Griggs, put the blame on the supernatural. At the suggestion of a neighbour, a “witch cake” (made with the urine of the victims) was baked by Tituba to try to ferret out the supernatural perpetrator of the girls’ illness. Although it provided no answers, its baking outraged Parris, who saw it as a blasphemous act.

Pressured by Parris to identify their tormentor, Betty and Abigail claimed to have been bewitched by Tituba and two other marginalized members of the community, neither of whom attended church regularly: Sarah Good, an irascible beggar, and Sarah Osborn (also spelled Osborne), an elderly bed-ridden woman who was scorned for her romantic involvement with an indentured servant. On March 1 two magistrates from Salem Town, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, went to the village to conduct a public inquiry. Both Good and Osborn protested their own innocence, though Good accused Osborn. Initially, Tituba also claimed to be blameless, but after being repeatedly badgered (and undoubtedly fearful owing to her vulnerable status as a slave), she told the magistrates what they apparently wanted to hear—that she had been visited by the devil and made a deal with him. In three days of vivid testimony, she described encounters with Satan’s animal familiars and with a tall, dark man from Boston who had called upon her to sign the devil’s book, in which she saw the names of Good and Osborn along with those of seven others that she could not read.

The magistrates then had not only a confession but also what they accepted as evidence of the presence of more witches in the community, and hysteria mounted. Other girls and young women began experiencing fits, among them Ann Putnam, Jr.; her mother; her cousin, Mary Walcott; and the Putnams’s servant, Mercy Lewis. Significantly, those that they began identifying as other witches were no longer just outsiders and outcasts but rather upstanding members of the community, beginning with Rebecca Nurse, a mature woman of some prominence. As the weeks passed, many of the accused proved to be enemies of the Putnams, and Putnam family members and in-laws would end up being the accusers in dozens of cases.

The “hunts” were efforts to identify witches rather than pursuits of individuals who were already thought to be witches. Witches were considered to be followers of Satan who had traded their souls for his assistance. It was believed that they employed demons to accomplish magical deeds that they changed from human to animal form or from one human form to another, that animals acted as their “familiar spirits,” and that they rode through the air at night to secret meetings and orgies. There is little doubt that some individuals did worship the devil and attempt to practice sorcery with harmful intent; however, no one ever embodied the concept of a “witch” as previously described.

The process of identifying witches began with suspicions or rumours. Accusations followed, often escalating to convictions and executions. The Salem witch trials and executions came about as the result of a combination of church politics, family feuds, and hysterical children, all of which unfolded in a vacuum of political authority.

Map of Salem Village in 1692, by W.P. Upham, circa 1856

In March the afflicted girls accused Martha Corey. The three women previously denounced as colluding with the devil were marginal to the community. Martha Corey was different; she was an upstanding member of the Puritan congregation – her revelation as a witch demonstrated that Satan’s influence reached to the very core of the community. Events snowballed as the accusatory atmosphere intensified and reached a fever pitch. During the period from March into the fall, many were charged, examined, tried and condemned to death.

Friday, March 11, 1692, was a day of fasting and prayer in Salem. During the day the community’s minister, the Rev. Samuel Parris, asked the girls to reveal another witch. They did, and the accusation shocked those who heard it for it implicated Martha Corey (Goodwife Corey) a new but upstanding member of the congregation. Immediately a delegation was sent to the Corey farm to interview the accused in the hope of clearing up this discrepancy. Martha Corey’s sarcastic response to the accusation disheartened the delegation who immediately called for her arrest. Her trial was the scene of much agitation. In the courtroom, Martha’s accusers writhed in agony as they were forced by an unseen power to mimic the witch’s every movement. When Martha shifted her feet the girls did also when Martha bit her lip the girls were compelled to bit their own lips, crying out in pain. They saw the spectre of a black man bending over the accused and heard the drum beat calling the witches to convene on the meetinghouse lawn. Deodat Lawson, a visiting minister, describes the scene:

“On, Monday, the 21st. of March, the magistrates of Salem appointed to come to the examination of Goodwife Corey. And about twelve of the clock they went into the meeting-house, which was thronged with spectators. Mr Noyes began with a very pertinent and pathetic prayer, and Goodwife Corey being called to answer to what was alleged against her, she desired to go to prayer, which was much wondered at, in the presence of so many hundred people. The magistrates told her they would not admit it; they came not there to hear her pray, but to examine her in what was alleged against her. The worshipful Mr Hathorne asked her why she afflicted those children. She said she did not afflict them. He asked her, ‘Who did then?’ She said, ‘I do not know; how should I know?’

With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed for the next few months. Charges against Martha Corey, a loyal member of the Church in Salem Village, greatly concerned the community; if she could be a witch, then anyone could. Magistrates even questioned Sarah Good’s 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy, and her timid answers were construed as a confession. The questioning got more serious in April when Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and his assistants attended the hearings. Dozens of people from Salem and other Massachusetts villages were brought in for questioning.

On May 27, 1692, after weeks of informal hearings accompanied by imprisonments, Sir William Phips (also spelt Phipps), the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, interceded and ordered the convening of an official Court of Oyer (“to hear”) and Terminer (“to decide”) in Salem Town. Presided over by William Stoughton, the colony’s lieutenant governor, the court consisted of seven judges. The accused were forced to defend themselves without the aid of counsel. Most damning for them was the admission of “spectral evidence”—that is, claims by the victims that they had seen and been attacked (pinched, bitten, contorted) by spectres of the accused, whose forms Satan allegedly had assumed to work his evil. Even as the accused testified on the witness stand, the girls and young women who had accused them writhed, whimpered, and babbled in the gallery, seemingly providing evidence of the spectre’s demonic presence. Those who confessed—or who confessed and named other witches—were spared the court’s vengeance, owing to the Puritan belief that they would receive their punishment from God. Those who insisted upon their innocence met harsher fates, becoming martyrs to their own sense of justice. Many in the community who viewed the unfolding events as travesties remained mute, afraid that they would be punished for raising objections to the proceedings by being accused of witchcraft themselves.

The first case brought to the special court was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity. When asked if she committed witchcraft, Bishop responded, “I am as innocent as the child unborn.” The defence must not have been convincing, because she was found guilty and, on June 10, became the first person hanged on what was later called Gallows Hill.

Five days later, respected minister Cotton Mather wrote a letter imploring the court not to allow spectral evidence—testimony about dreams and visions. The court largely ignored this request.

On July 19 five more convicted persons were hanged, including Nurse and Good (the latter of whom responded to her conviction by saying that she was no more a witch than the judge was a wizard). George Burroughs, who had served as a minister in Salem Village from 1680 to 1683, was summoned from his new home in Maine and accused of being the witches’ ringleader. He too was convicted and, along with four others, was hanged on August 19.

As he stood on the gallows, he recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly—something no witch was thought to be capable of doing—raising doubts about his guilt for some in attendance, though their protests were refuted, most notably by Mather, who was present. (Mather’s role in the trials, in general, was complex, as he at various times seemingly both condoned and questioned aspects of the proceedings.) On September 22, eight more convicted persons were hanged, including Martha Corey, whose octogenarian husband, Giles, upon being accused of witchcraft and refusing to enter a plea, had been subjected to peine forte et dure (“strong and hard punishment”) and pressed beneath heavy stones for two days until he died.

“Site of Court House Where Witch Trials Took Place,” illustration published in the New England Magazine, Volume 5, circa 1892

On October 3, following in his son’s footsteps, Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, denounced the use of spectral evidence: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”

Governor Phipps, in response to Mather’s plea and his own wife being questioned for witchcraft, prohibited further arrests, released many accused witches and dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer on October 29. Phipps replaced it with a Superior Court of Judicature, which disallowed spectral evidence and only condemned 3 out of 56 defendants. Phipps eventually pardoned all who were in prison on witchcraft charges by May 1693. But the damage had been done: 19 were hanged on Gallows Hill, a 71-year-old man was pressed to death with heavy stones, several people died in jail and nearly 200 people, overall, had been accused of practising “the Devil’s magic.”

Following the trials and executions, many involved, like Judge Samuel Sewall, publicly confessed error and guilt. On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem. In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted £600 restitution to their heirs. However, it was not until 1957—more than 250 years later—that Massachusetts formally apologised for the events of 1692.

The abuses of the Salem witch trials would contribute to changes in U.S. court procedures, playing a role in the advent of the guarantee of the right to legal representation, the right to cross-examine one’s accuser, and the presumption of innocence rather than of guilt. The Salem trials and the witch hunt as metaphors for the persecution of minority groups remained powerful symbols into the 20th and 21st centuries, owing in no small measure to playwright Arthur Miller’s use in The Crucible (1953) of the events and individuals from 1692 as allegorical stand-ins for the anticommunist hearing led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

There are no legal records, but some contemporary 17th-century observers mentioned the fact that at least two dogs were put to death, probably in Andover, Massachusetts, for being bewitched. It could be that someone fed a “witch cake” to the dogs, and they started acting strangely. Or, perhaps, they were simply rabid and it was looked upon as bewitchment. Unfortunately, historians have found few details.

Additionally, numerous hypotheses have been devised to explain the strange behaviour that occurred in Salem in 1692. One of the most concrete studies, published in Science in 1976 by psychologist Linnda Caporael, blamed the abnormal habits of the accused on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses. Toxicologists say that eating ergot-contaminated foods can lead to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. Also, the fungus thrives in warm and damp climates—not too unlike the swampy meadows in Salem Village, where rye was the staple grain during the spring and summer months.

Although several researchers postulated that the afflicted ones were suffering from ergot poisoning from spoiled rye grain, but unfortunately, the symptoms, period of fits, and information on the general population does not accord with classic ergot poisoning.

In August 1992, to mark the 300th anniversary of the trials, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel dedicated the Witch Trials Memorial in Salem. Also in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum houses the original court documents, and the town’s most-visited attraction, the Salem Witch Museum, attests to the public’s enthrallment with the 1692 hysteria.

  • What is a spectre?

In 17th-century witchcraft terms, a spectre is an active agent of a living witch. The spectre can interact with others but cannot generally be seen by anyone except the victim of the evil. In contrast, a ghost is the active agent of a deceased person.

  • What is a “witch cake”?

The reference to witch cake comes from a passage by the Rev. Samuel Parris, who said a meddling neighbour directed Parris’s Indian slave to make it. The scanty evidence indicates that the witch cake was a combination of some type of flour, such as rye, mixed with urine from the afflicted. We don’t know for sure how the cake was supposed to work; supposedly it was fed to an animal rather than to humans. Strange behaviour by the animal was considered evidence that the person who had provided the urine sample was indeed bewitched.

The practice of baking a witch cake was considered an act of witchcraft by anyone who was religiously inclined; doing so was condemned as going to the devil to discover the devil.

Urine was common in efforts to counter witchcraft. Some people also believed in boiling bent pins in urine.

From 1692 to the present, various observers, researchers, and scholars have attempted to explain what caused the hysteria at Salem. The theories are many: backsliding New Englanders being punished by God, power-hungry clergy, the pranks of bored adolescents, socioeconomic conflict, ergot poisoning, and so on. It seems that every new generation reflects its own time in trying to explain what happened in 1692 Salem.

Salem Witch Trials – Facts & Summary – HISTORY.com

Salem witch trials – Wikipedia

A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials | History | Smithsonian

Witch Trials – Salem Witch Museum

Salem witch trials | History & Causes | Britannica.com

Salem Witchcraft Trials – Famous Trials

History of the Salem Witch Trials – History of Massachusetts Blog

The Salem Witch Trials, 1692 – EyeWitness to History

Inside the Salem Witch Trials – The New Yorker

The Salem Witch Trials: How Evil Controlled a Community – The Story …

Witchcraft in Salem [ushistory.org]

Salem Massachusetts – What about Witches The Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials: A legal bibliography | The University of …

Victims of the Salem Witch Trials (1692) – ThoughtCo


Do you want ad-free access to our Daily Crossword?

Do you want access to daily Incite Politics Magazine articles?

Silver Subscriptions and above go in the draw to win a $500 prize to be drawn at the end of March

Not yet one of our awesome subscribers? Click Here and join us.

53%