Salem Witchcraft Trials

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A witch stands accused in a seventeenth-century Massachusetts courtroom.

Salem Witchcraft Trials

The devil visited the village of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and let loose a host of his fearful witches on the innocent, God-fearing community.

The fear of witchcraft that possessed the village of Salem in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 remains in American popular culture as the single most celebrated of all witch hunts. Because of the accusations of a small circle of girls and young women who frightened themselves with their runaway imaginations and hysteric responses to real or imagined phenomena, an entire community became crazed and caught up in the fear that many of their neighbors were serving Satan in secret. The result of this witch hysteria was the deaths of twenty-four men and women, who were hanged, crushed to death, or died in prison.

The flame of witch-madness was ignited in the home of the Puritan preacher Samuel Parris when his female slave Tituba began telling stories of Voodoo and spirits to his nine-year-old daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams, eleven. While it is certain that Rev. Parris would have scolded Tituba for filling the girls’ heads with such ghost stories, Abigail and Betty cherished these secret times with the 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 sixteen-year-old Mary Walcott and eighteen-year-old Susanna Sheldon, who wanted Tituba to tell their fortunes and predict their future husbands, as well as tell them scary stories. Although Rev. Parris and the other village clergymen fulminated from the pulpits about the dangers of seeking occult knowledge, the girls of Salem ignored such warnings in favor of having an exciting diversion that could help them through a long, cold winter.

After hearing about the secret sessions at the Parrises’ home, Ann Putnam, a fragile, high-strung twelve-year-old, joined the circle in the company of the Putnams’ maid, nineteen-year-old Mercy Lewis. Ann was much more widely read than the other girls and was blessed with a quick wit, high intelligence, and a lively imagination. She soon became Tituba’s most avid and apt pupil. Ann was quite familiar with the imagery in the biblical 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 the girls, another aspect was racked with guilt and fear that they were courting devilish enchantment.

With their strict Puritan upbringing, there is little doubt that most of the other girls were also conflicted with conscience and the fear of discovery. As the days passed, little Betty fell subject to sudden fits of weeping and was often seen to be staring blankly at the wall. Shortly thereafter, Abigail 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 Mercy Lewis also began to suffer seizures. Something evil had come to Salem and possessed the girls.

About four years previously, in the north end of Boston, four children in the John Godwin family had fallen into such fits, babbling blasphemies and ignoring the prayers of the clergy. It took the famous preacher Cotton Mather to quiet the work of a 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 very much alive in the minds of the Salem clergy when they began to ask the girls who was tormenting them.

Tituba was the first name from the possessed children’s lips. Next was Sarah Good, an odd woman who smoked a foul-smelling pipe and who previously had been suspected of spreading smallpox through witchcraft. The church fathers were not surprised by the naming of these two women, but when the girls also named Sarah Osburne, the village was shocked. Mrs. Osburne was a well-to-do property owner who lived in one of the most substantial homes in Salem. Nevertheless, warrants were issued for all three women.

From this dramatic beginning, the list of names of the devil’s disciples grew steadily longer. The wealthy merchant Philip English; Goodwife Proctor, the wife of a 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 seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse was arrested for witchcraft against her neighbors, the townsfolk realized that if saintly Rebecca could be named as a witch, no one was safe from such accusations. Rebecca was noted for her piety and simplicity of heart. Although the jury initially acquitted her, the judge ordered them to reconsider, and 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 outrage 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.

In her study of the witchcraft trials, The Devil in Massachusetts, Marion L. Starkey makes the following observation: “No definitive history of the Salem witchcraft has ever been written or is likely to be, for it would take a lifetime and would be encyclopedic in dimension.”

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