Witchcraft Trials

Salem, massachusetts

The Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials of 1692 provide a classic example of what scholars mean when they refer to the "witch craze" or "witch hysteria" that swept through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Because of the accusations of a small circle of prepubescent girls, an entire community became crazed and caught up in the fear that many of their neighbors were serving Satan in secret. The witch hysteria in Salem village resulted in the deaths of 24 men and women, who were hanged, were crushed to death, or died in prison.

The reign of terror that seized the village of Salem in Massachusetts Bay Colony in

Salem village witchcraft trials in the 1690s. (THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Salem village witchcraft trials in the 1690s. (
1692 remains perhaps the single most celebrated of all witch hunts. Playwright Arthur Miller's (1915– ) moving stage treatment of the nightmare at Salem, The Crucible (1953), receives periodic revivals on Broadway, and in 1996 Miller wrote the screenplay for the motion picture version, starring Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Scofield, and Joan Allen. In her study of the witchcraft trials The Devil in Massachusetts (1961), Marion L. Starkey made the following observation: "No definitive history of the Salem witchcraft trials has ever been written or is likely to be, for it would take a lifetime and would be encyclopedic in dimension."

The madness began innocently enough in the home of the Rev. Samuel Parris when his slave Tituba began telling stories of voodoo and restless spirits to his nine-year-old daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams, 11. While it is certain that the Puritan preacher would have either scolded or beaten Tituba for filling the girls' heads with such spooky tales, Abigail and Betty cherished these secret times with the slave woman and kept quiet about the nature of their conversation. Soon the exciting storytelling sessions in the Parris household were attracting older girls, such as 16-year-old Mary Walcott and 18-year-old Susanna Sheldon, who wanted Tituba to tell their fortunes and predict their future husbands, as well as tell them ghost stories. Although Rev. Parris and the other preachers fulminated from the pulpits about the dangers of seeking occult knowledge, the girls of Salem ignored such warnings in favor of having a thrilling pastime that could help them through a long, cold winter.

Then came the fateful afternoon when Ann Putnam, a fragile, highly strung 12-year-old, joined the circle in the company of the Putnams' maid, 19-year-old Mercy Lewis. Ann was much more widely read than the other girls and was blessed with a quick wit, a high intelligence, and a lively imagination. She soon became Tituba's most avid and apt pupil. Together with her literate mother, Ann had read far more than the other girls in the circle, and she was quite familiar with the imagery in the Book of Revelation with its dragons, horned beasts, devils, and damnation. It seems that while part of Ann's psyche was thrilled with the forbidden knowledge Tituba shared with them, another aspect was conflicted with guilt that they were flirting with devilish enchantment.

Undoubtedly most of the other girls were also conflicted with conscience and the fear of discovery. As the days passed, little Betty seemed distracted from her chores, subject to sudden fits of weeping, often noted to be staring blankly at the wall. Shortly thereafter, Abigail went far beyond weeping and blank stares. She got down on all fours and began barking like a dog or braying like a donkey. Mary Walcott and Susanna Sheldon fell into convulsions. Ann Putnam and the family maid, Mercy Lewis, also began to suffer seizures. Something evil seemed to have come to Salem.

About four years previously in the north end of Boston, four children in the John Godwin family had fallen into such fits, babbling blasphemies, ignoring the prayers of the clergy. It took the famous preacher Cotton Mather (1663–1728) to quiet the work of an alleged witch, an Irish washerwoman named Glover, and restore the children to normalcy. The memories of this horrid event, including the hanging of Witch Glover, were much alive in the minds of the Salem clergy when they began to ask the girls who it was who was tormenting them.

To no one's surprise, Tituba was the first name from the possessed childrens' lips. Nor did anyone doubt the naming of Sarah Good, considered by the townsfolk to be a bit of a tramp with a foul-smelling pipe, who had been suspected of spreading smallpox through witchcraft. But when the children named Sarah Osburne a witch, the village was shocked. Osburne was a property owner, who lived in one of the most substantial homes in Salem. Nevertheless, warrants were issued for all three women.

And from such a dramatic beginning, the list of names of the devil's disciples who were tormenting the girls grew steadily longer. The wealthy merchant Philip English; Goodwife Proctor, the wife of successful farmer and tavern keeper, John Proctor; Martha Cory, the wife of another prosperous farmer, Giles Cory. Sarah Good's four-year-old daughter, Dorcas, was also put in chains as an accused witch. Two magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, were sent out from the General Court of Massachusetts Colony to hear testimony that described tales of talking animals, dark shapes, red cats, and a tall man, who was undoubtedly the devil himself.

When 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse was arrested for witchcraft against her neighbors, the townsfolk realized that if she could be named as a witch, no one was safe from such accusations. Nurse was considered a veritable saint by the village, a woman noted for her piety and simplicity of heart. Although the jury initially acquitted her, the judge ordered the jury to reconsider and she was found guilty. She was hanged on Gallows Hill on July 19, 1692.

Several hundred people in and around Salem were accused of witchcraft, even the wife of Massachusetts governor William Phips. Such an absurdity provoked Phips into taking a stand against any further imprisonments and he forbade any more executions for witchcraft in Salem. Because of the governor's actions, the nearly 150 men and women who were still chained to prison walls were set free and many who had been convicted of witchcraft were pardoned.

In 1711, the Massachusetts legislature passed a general amnesty that exonerated all but six of the accused witches. In 1957, the state legislature passed a resolution exonerating Ann Pudeator, who had been hanged. Finally, on November 1, 2001, acting Massachusetts governor Jane Swift approved a bill that cleared all the accused witches hanged in Salem in 1692 and 1693. The bill exonerated the final five who had not been cleared by the previous amnesty resolutions—Susannah Martin, Bridget Bishop, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmot Redd.

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