Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials 1692–1693
An infamous episode in American history, the Salem witch trials of 1692 resulted in the execution by hanging of fourteen women and five men accused of being witches. In addition, one man was pressed to death by heavy weights for refusing to enter a plea; at least eight people died in prison, including one infant and one child; and more than one hundred and fifty individuals were jailed while awaiting trial. Due to the survival of many relevant records, including notes, depositions, and official rulings, the main facts of the accusations, arrests, trials, and executions are known. What has always engaged scholars is the search for the causes of the "witch hysteria." The proffered explanations for the witchcraft occurrence are many and conflicting.
On January 20, 1692, in Salem Village, the Reverend Samuel Parris' nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and his eleven-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, began exhibiting odd behavior, including shouting blasphemies and entering into trances. Parris eventually called in the local physician, William Griggs, who found the girls experiencing convulsions and scurrying around the room and barking like dogs. The doctor was puzzled and unable to offer a medical explanation, but suggested that it might be the work of evil forces. Parris consulted with local ministers, who recommended he wait to see what happened. But word of the unexplained fits had already spread around Salem Village, and soon several other girls, including three from the home of Thomas Putnam, Jr., were exhibiting similar behavior. Pressured to explain what or who had caused their behavior, the girls named three Village women as witches. One named was Tituba, the Rev. Parris' slave, who had enthralled many local girls with fortune-telling in her master's kitchen. Another named as a witch was Sarah Good, an unpopular woman who had reportedly muttered threats against her neighbors; the third was Sarah Osborne, who had allowed a man to live with her for some months before they were married. Warrants for the three were issued on February 29. The next day Salem Town magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin examined the women in the Village meeting house. Good and Osborne declared that they were innocent and knew nothing of witchcraft, but Tituba exuberantly confessed, claiming that witchcraft was practiced by many in the area. Her confession excited the villagers. On March 21 Martha Corey became the fourth woman of Salem Village to be arrested. While she was examined in the meeting house in front of hundreds of people, the afflicted girls cried out in what appeared to be extreme agony. More individuals were accused and jailed as the weeks passed, but no trials could legally take place because, for the first three months of the witchcraft uproar, Massachusetts was without a legally-established government. On May 14, 1692, Governor William Phips arrived with a new charter and soon created a special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to determine). The chief justice for the Court of Oyer and Terminer was William Stoughton, and the others serving included John Hathorne and Samuel Sewall. The court's first session, held on June 2, resulted in a death sentence for the accused witch Bridget Bishop; she was hanged on June 10. (She was not the first accused to die, however; Sarah Osborne died of natural causes in a jail in Boston on May 10.) Cotton Mather of Boston's First Church wrote privately to the court expressing reservations on questions of evidence. On June 15 a group of ministers including Cotton Mather, wrote Governor Phips urging that special caution be taken in the use of evidence in the trials, but the ministers said no more publicly in July, August, or September. The court next met on June 29 and heard the cases of five accused women. When the jury tried to acquit one of them, Rebecca Nurse, Stoughton sent the jury back to deliberate some more. When they returned they had changed their verdict to guilty. The women were hanged on July 19. By this time the witchcraft hysteria had spread not only to Salem Town but to Andover. August and September brought more convictions and hangings. The last eight accused witches were hanged on September 22, in what would turn out to be the final executions. On October 3, Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather, delivered a sermon at a gathering of ministers in Cambridge. The sermon was soon published as Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (1692). The elder Mather insisted that proper evidence should be used in witchcraft cases just as in any other capital cases. He strongly opposed spectral evidence, or evidence based on ghost sightings. As accusations mounted against people of higher and more respectable positions, skepticism grew in the public as to the appropriateness of witchcraft charges. Thomas Brattle wrote an insightful letter to Governor Phips highly criticising the trials. On October 12, Phips, whose own wife had been accused of witchcraft, forbade any further imprisonments for witchcraft, and on the 29th dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. When a new special court convened in early 1693, with several of the same members and William Stoughton once more as chief justice, forty-nine accused persons were acquitted. The difference was in no small part due to the governor not permitting spectral evidence to be heard. When three prisoners were convicted, Phips immediately granted reprieves. Three months later Phips freed all the remaining prisoners and issued a general pardon. Soon many jurors and judges apologized, and Judge Sewall attempted to take full responsibility for the trials and hangings.
A central problem in the trials themselves was the use of spectral evidence. Because the actual crime involved an agreement made between the accused witch and the devil, in which the devil was given the right to assume the witch's human form, and because, by its very nature, this compact would not have witnesses, finding acceptable evidence was difficult. Spectral evidence included testimony by the afflicted that they could see the specters of the witches tormenting their victims; the evil deeds were not perpetrated by the accused themselves, but by the evil spirits who assumed their shapes. One problem with spectral evidence was that apparitions of demons were invisible to other people in the same room; only the afflicted girls could see the shapes. Another concern was the possibility that Satan could appear in the shape of an innocent person. To overcome these obstacles, confessions were vigorously sought. The Salem cases are unusual in that the defendants who confessed were generally not executed, while those who were hanged adamantly maintained their innocence. Considered trustworthy was testimony to some supernatural attribute of the accused. George Burroughs was accused by six persons of performing superhuman feats of strength. One witness claimed Burroughs could read his thoughts. Another test made on the accused was for any "supernatural weaknesses" such as the inability to recite prayers correctly. Yet another criterion was the presence of a "witch's tit"—any small, unusual physical appendage, ordinarily quite small, through which the witch would give suck to the devil when he appeared in the form of some small animal or creature. Anger followed by mischief also indicated a person was a witch, especially when a curse uttered against a neighbor or his property came immediately before the misdeed occurred.
Many factors must be considered in examining the causes of the witchcraft hysteria. Fundamental is the recognition that among the settlers of New England, belief in witchcraft was prevalent. Additionally, Salem was beset with political problems and internal strife. Land disputes and personal feuds were common. Some scholars maintain that the Puritan villagers felt they had failed God and deserved to be punished for their sins. The role of the clergy has also been much debated; some historians see them as largely responsible for stirring up the people and making them expect retribution. Others credit the clergy with ending the trials. The afflicted girls have been variously described as outright liars and frauds, children looking for excitement, victims of disease, and sincere believers in the idea that they were victims of witchcraft.
Kai T. Erikson (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "The Shapes of the Devil," in Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1966, pp. 65–160.
[In the following excerpt, Erikson discusses the factors that prepared the village of Salem for the witchcraft hysteria, summarizes the events of the trials, and concludes that the year 1692 marked the end of the Puritan experiment in Massachusetts.]
… The witchcraft hysteria that began in Salem Village (a town some miles away from Salem itself) is probably the best known episode of Massachusetts history and has been described in a number of careful works. In the pages which follow, then, the story will be sketched in rather briefly: readers interested in a fuller account of those unusual events are urged to consult The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey, a book that captures all the grim drama of the period without losing any of its merit as a scholarly work.66
Between the end of the Quaker persecutions in 1665 and the beginning of the Salem witchcraft outbreak in 1692, the colony had experienced some very trying days. To begin with, the political outlines of the commonwealth had been subject to sudden, often violent, shifts, and the people of the colony were quite uncertain about their own future. The King's decrees during the Quaker troubles had provoked only...
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George Lyman Kittredge (essay date 1929)
SOURCE: "Witchcraft and the Puritans," in Witchcraft in Old and New England, 1929. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1958, pp. 329–74.
[In the following excerpt, Kittredge asserts that belief in witchcraft was common throughout history and points out that the witchcraft trials in the American colonies were remarkably limited in number.]
… It is frequently stated, and still oftener assumed, that the outbreak at Salem was peculiar in its virulence, or, at all events, in its intensity. This is a serious error, due, like other misapprehensions, to a neglect of the history of witchcraft as a whole. The fact is, the Salem excitement was the opposite of peculiar,—it was perfectly typical. The European belief in witchcraft, which our forefathers shared without exaggerating it, was a constant quantity. It was always present, and continuously fraught with direful possibilities. But it did not find expression in a steady and regular succession of witch-trials. On the contrary, it manifested itself at irregular intervals in spasmodic outbursts of prosecution. Notable examples occurred at Geneva from 1542 to 1546;102 at Wiesensteig, Bavaria, in 1562 and 1563;103 in the Electorate of Trier from 1587 to 1593;104 among the Basques of Labourd in 1609;105 at Mohra in Sweden in 1669 and 1670.106 In...
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Thomas Fisk et al. (essay date 1692)
SOURCE: "The Penitance of the Jurors," in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648–1706, edited by George Lincoln Burr, 1914. Reprint by Barnes & Noble Books, 1972, pp. 387–88.
[In the following excerpt from a document written in the year of the trials, Fisk, representing the Salem jurors, admits that they were deluded and mistaken in convicting the accused witches, and humbly asks forgiveness.]
… We whose names are under written, being in the Year 1692 called to serve as Jurors, in Court at Salem, on Tryal of many, who were by some suspected Guilty of doing Acts of Witchcraft upon the Bodies of sundry Persons:
We confess that we our selves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the Powers of Darkness, and Prince of the Air; but were for want of Knowledge in our selves, and better Information from others, prevailed with to take up with such Evidence against the Accused, as on further consideration, and better Information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the Lives of any, Deut. 17. 6, whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, tho Ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon our selves, and this People of the Lord, the Guilt of Innocent Blood; which Sin the Lord saith in Scripture, he would not pardon, 2 Kings 24. 4, that is we suppose in regard of...
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The Search For Causes
Linnda R. Caporael (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?" in Science, Vol. 192, No. 4234, April 2, 1976, pp. 21–6.
[In the following excerpt, Caporael suggests that convulsive ergotism (an illness caused by a rye fungus) may have initiated and furthered the Salem witchcraft delusion.]
Numerous hypotheses have been devised to explain the occurrence of the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, yet a sense of bewilderment and doubt pervades most of the historical perspectives on the subject. The physical afflictions of the accusing girls and the imagery of the testimony offered at the trials seem to defy rational explanation. A large portion of the testimony, therefore, is dismissed as imaginary in foundation. One avenue of understanding that has yet to be sufficiently explored is that a physiological condition, unrecognized at the time, may have been a factor in the Salem incident. Assuming that the content of the court records is basically an honest account of the deponents' experiences, the evidence suggests that convulsive ergotism, a disorder resulting from the ingestion of grain contaminated with ergot, may have initiated the witchcraft delusion.
Suggestions of physical origins of the afflicted girls' behavior have been dismissed without research into the matter. In looking back, the complexity of the psychological and social factors in...
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The Role Of Women In The Trials
John Demos (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Underlying Themes in Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England," in The American Historical Review, Vol. LXXV, No. 5, June, 1970, pp. 1311–26.
[In the following excerpt, Demos comments on the significance of the fact that most of the accused Salem witches were eccentric and / or anti-social, middle-aged women, while their accusers were girls a generation younger.]
It is faintly embarrassing for a historian to summon his colleagues to still another consideration of early New England witchcraft. Here, surely, is a topic that previous generations of writers have sufficiently worked, indeed overworked. Samuel Eliot Morison once commented that the Salem witch-hunt was, after all, "but a small incident in the history of a great superstition"; and Perry Miller noted that with only minor qualifications "the intellectual history of New England can be written as though no such thing ever happened. It had no effect on the ecclesiastical or political situation, it does not figure in the institutional or ideological development."1 Popular interest in the subject is, then, badly out of proportion to its actual historical significance, and perhaps the sane course for the future would be silence.
This assessment seems, on the face of it, eminently sound. Witchcraft was not an important matter from the standpoint of the...
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Booth, Sally Smith. "The Law and Trial of Witchcraft," pp. 141–67. In The Witches of Early America, New York: Hastings House, 1975.
Describes the laws and procedures involved in the witchcraft trials.
Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds. Salem-Village Witchcraft. Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1972, 416 p.
Reference work of primary material that contains trial records, sermons, deeds, wills, depositions, petitions, maps, and genealogies.
——. The Salem Witchcraft Papers. 3 vols. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977.
Essential reference work that contains historical documents pertaining to the trials, including testimony of the accused, letters, petitions, and official court judgments. Also features an introduction and extensive notes by Boyer and Nissenbaum.
Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem. New York: New York University Press, 1996, 243 p.
Biography of the slave woman accused of launching the Salem witchcraft hysteria with her vivid confessions. Breslaw maintains that Tituba was an American Indian.
Gragg, Larry. The Salem Witch Crisis. New York: Praeger, 1992, 228 p.
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