The Salem Witchcraft trials in Massachusetts during 1692 resulted in nineteen innocent men and women being hanged, one man pressed to death, and in the deaths of more than seventeen who died in jail. It all began at the end of 1691 when a few girls in the town began to experiment with magic by gathering around a crystal ball to try to find the answer to questions such as “what trade their sweet harts should be of “. This conjuring took place in the Parris household where a woman named Tituba, an Indian slave, headed the rituals. Soon after they had begun to practice these rituals, girls who had been involved, including the Master Parris’ daughter and niece, became sick. They had constant fits, twitched, cried, made odd noises, and huddled in corners. The family called in doctors, and they were treated for many illnesses. Nothing helped. Many weeks later after running out of reasons for their strange behavior, all of their symptoms seemed to lead to one belief, “The evil hand is upon them.” They were possessed by the Devil.
At first the families of the children could not find anyone to accuse for being the witch responsible for possessing the children. Then, late in February of 1692, Parris’ neighbor, Mary Sibley recommended that Parris’ slaves, Tituba and John Indian, should work a spell to try to find the culprits. Even after trying this solution the girls’ condition worsened, and the people responsible still had not been found. The girls began to see hazy shadows and believed that these shadows were of the people who had done this to them. After more and more children became victims of this, the hunting for the witches who were to blame for the girls’ sickness began to get more serious. By the end of February 1692, not one, but three witches had been named. These women were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, all residents of Salem Village.
Sarah Good was a poor “socially undesirable” member of the village of Salem which made her susceptible to accusations of being a witch and of practicing black magic. She was well known in the village for her eccentric behavior, and in the past people had suspected her of being a witch. Her husband, William Good, was a simple laborer and his inadequate income forced the Goods to accept charity and to beg for goods from their neighbors. Sometimes they even had to live with their neighbors, but this never lasted long. Sarah Good’s actions and behaviors would often cause unrest in the hosts and their families, and then the Good family would be asked to leave. A few of the villagers they stayed with reported that their livestock would begin to sicken and die after the Goods were forced to leave. More than fifteen families claimed that Sarah Good bewitched their livestock while others reported that she could make objects disappear into thin air. When Good was questioned about these accusations, her answers were always tight-lipped and aggressive, further leading the people to believe that she was in fact a witch.
Sarah Osborne was also one of the first three women accused of putting spells on the girls and possessing them. Unlike Tituba and Sarah Good, however, she was from a very wealthy household. Although it is believed sometimes that only poor people were accused of being witches, in the Salem Witchcraft Trials, this was not true, as in the case of Osborne. Women and men accused of being witches were either looked down upon in the community or envied for their land and wealth, as Sarah Osborne was in Salem.
Tituba, like Good, was very poor. She worked as a servant in the Parris home and was a Carib Indian born in Barbados in the West Indies. Reverend Parris brought Tituba to New England when he was still a merchant, and after this she married John Indian who also worked as slave for Reverend Parris. Tituba was the person asked to aid with the girls’ illnesses by making a witch’s cake to find their culprit and after this did not work, she was arrested four days later for being a witch herself.
Each of these three women was examined by local Salem officials before they were sent off to await trial in a Boston jail. The girls, who these witches had supposedly inflicted sickness upon, were also present during these trials to show the court how much pain the three women had caused. During the trial Sarah Good kept insisting that she was not guilty but rather that she had been wrongly accused. When asked why she hurts the innocent children she responded, “I do not hurt them. I scorn it.” Then, she attempted to shift all blame onto Sarah Osborne who in turn responded with disbelief. She said that she “was more like to be bewitched than she was a witch.”
While Good and Osborne were trying to defend themselves, Tituba confessed, most likely in fear of her Master, Reverend Parris. When asked who was to blame for all the possessed girls she responded, “The devil for aught I know.” Tituba told the whole court about her pact with the Devil and the type of wonderful things he gave her in return for her service and loyalty to him. Then, after she was done telling her story, when the magistrate asked her who she had seen doing the witchcraft, Tituba says, “Goody Osborn and Sarah Good and I do not know who the other were. Sarah Good and Osborn would have me hurt the children but I would not . . . ” So according to Tituba there were still witches out there bewitching innocent children.
After Tituba’s confession, the entire community of Salem increased their efforts to find the witches who were bringing such horrible events to their village. The children still were not able to come up with names for their perpetrators until a little thirteen-year-old girl, Ann Putnam, cried out the name of Martha Corey. Corey, like Osborne, was not poor at all.
While she was being tried, Martha Corey had the audacity to laugh at questions presented to her. She acted naive and said she did not even know if there were any witches in New England She also labeled herself as a “Gospel-woman.” Her presence and attitude during the trial led many to believe that she was in fact guilty of practicing witchcraft.
From this point on, after Ann Putnam’s accusation, the females of Salem showed no hesitation in naming the witches who had brought this upon them. The number of women accused was monumental, and the court had very little time to examine each accusation thoroughly. Soon, anyone who was called a witch was jailed, whether it was a man, woman, child, or adult. Even Dorcas Good, the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good was accused and thrown into jail; a four-year-old child who was barely old enough to make coherent sentences, was convicted of being a witch and “taking supernatural revenge on the possessed for taking away her parents.” This is how paranoid the people of Salem had become. Everyone jumped at the mention of a witch, afraid that they would be the next person to become a possessed victim of their mysterious black magic. The villagers went from the four-year-old girl to seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse followed by forty-seven-year-old Elizabeth Proctor. Both of these women who were from very wealthy, prosperous homes, were imprisoned because people thought Rebecca Nurse’s mother and Proctor’s grandmother practiced black magic when they were alive. At this point, anyone who was a family member of an accused witch was most likely to wind up in jail also.
Next, John Proctor became the first male to be charged for being a witch because he stood by his belief that his wife was innocent and spoke out against the court. The Salem Witchcraft Trials were completely outrageous, convicting women with no solid evidence other than a villager saying that they themselves had seen the person practicing black magic. No one in the court bothered to think that the witnesses could be lying and presenting false testimonies.
After John Proctor a long list of alleged witches followed. Mary Easty and Sarah Cloyce, sisters of Rebecca Nurse who had expressed their negative feelings about the trials were locked up in jail. Dorcas Hoar of Beverly, Susanna Martin of Amesbury, and Bridget Bishop of Salem Town were all taken to jail to be put on trial because they had been convicted of committing witchcraft crimes in the 1660′s, 16670′s, or 1680′s. Afterwards, many of Elizabeth Proctor’s children were named along with her sister and sister-in-law. Likewise, Martha Corey’s husband was put in jail to be brought to trial. The most shocking was the arrest of George Burroughs, the onetime pastor of Salem Village church. Many villagers thought that he would have become the “Ring Leader of them all,” and so he was locked up.
While accusations were occurring as routine events for the people of Salem, some came to think that perhaps this outbreak was not related to witchcraft after all. A few in the village had doubted the validity of the trials from the beginning, and as time went on they felt more confident and sure that their beliefs were true. The protests from the people against the trials were not heard at first, and the members of the court insisted on treating people accused of being witches as the Devil’s servants. Most ministers of Salem warned the government against accepting these testimonies from the very start of the trials. They said the spirits the girls saw could be just hallucinations resulting from their sickness, or they could be the Devil in disguise, but the government officials simply ignored them.
Justice Nathanial Saltonstall also apparently disagreed with the ways of the court because he resigned from his position after the first witchcraft trial. Chief Justice Stoughton, however, thought that the evil spirits would not disguise themselves to people who were willing to cooperate with them. The trials now became even more complicated because people would confess out of fear of the magistrates’ accusations and the girls’ convulsions.
Now that the accusations were flying back and forth in full swing, anybody and everybody came to the court to put their two cents in. Hundreds of these local residents came into the court to help testify against crimes alleged witches had committed years, even decades, before. Although many people volunteered to come forward and speak out against these witches, they were very concerned about maleficium, the ability of a witch to do harm to another person through supernatural means. They were afraid that after testifying against the witch that she may put an evil spell on them. Another concern was that the possessed would be forced to sign a Satanic pact, and if they did not do so then the witches would inflict pain upon them until they did.
The number of accusations is what made the Salem case different from any other case of witchcraft. After the executions began in 1692, officials began to deal with the problem of credibility by ignoring any accusations made against the wealthy, well-to-do members of the Salem society. At this point, close to two hundred people had been accused of witchcraft, and more than twenty-five people had died because of the trials.
The trials in themselves were a big contradiction. People who pleaded innocent were tortured until they “confessed” that they were guilty. One form of torture was the accused would be pressed by a heavy weight until they confessed. Giles Corey, husband of Martha Corey, was pressed to death when he refused say that he was involved with the Devil, and that he was, in fact, guilty. One form of torture, though, was even more absurd. The witch’s head would be forced underwater and kept there for a certain period of time. If she came up alive everyone said she had magical powers which kept her from drowning, and then she would be executed. If when they lifted her up she was dead then she was presumed innocent, but that was completely pointless. Either way the accused were killed. These were a few examples of preposterous tortures against the people.
The credibility of these trials was challenged multiple times by many people. These people protesting against the trials varied. Some were villagers and some were authoritative figures in the community. One of these people was Increase Mather, who wrote Cases of Conscience. He stopped short of calling the possessed girls liars but instead called them “Deamoniacks” as “mouthpieces for the Father of Lyes.” He also argued that “no juror can with a safe Conscience look on the Testimony of such, as sufficient to take away the Life of any Man even if the possessed normally knew their real tormentors.” He said the supposed psychic abilities these girls came to have after being possessed should be ignored because God “has taught us not to receive the Devil’s Testimony in any thing.” Mather also claimed that confessing witches were also “not such credibly witnesses.” He told the people that witches sometimes lied outright with no shame about their rituals and about the names of their various “Associates in that Trade.” Other times Satan filled their heads to make them “dream strange things of themselves and others which are not so.” This work is what eventually led to the end of the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts.
Mather’s son, Cotton Mather, also agreed with his father on the matter of the witchcraft trials but he then reported in the Wonders of the Invisible World that the court had listened carefully to the different eyewitnesses and defendants along with the spectral evidence.
Finally, in October of 1693, so many people were doubting the guiltiness of the witches that Governor Phips, governor of Massachusetts, decided to stop the trials and the executions. They realized that the trials should not continue due to lack of evidence and credibility of the witnesses. Many people accused others of being witches if they disliked them or if they were outsiders in society. Witches on trial were encouraged to give names of their fellow witches and/or to confess to their evil deeds, and in exchange they would be granted a less severe punishment. Because of this, the witches on trial would confess even if they were innocent, and they would also accuse other innocent people of being witches. The government saw that there was no real way to make sure the person was a witch before executing them and that there was a great chance that they may be killing innocent people. People were still being accused of being witches even after the trials were suspended, but the charges were not taken seriously.
Now the question was how to handle the rest of the cases of the people still locked up in the jails awaiting their doom filled trials. Because the possessed could not testify and the magistrates were reluctant to accept any more false statements, by the month of May 1694, the few men and women left in the jails were sent back to their homes. Even the witches who had been tried already and convicted were let free to return to their normal lifestyles. Although there were still some being accused of witchcraft in other towns the cases went unheeded. This chaotic time was for the most part over.
Mostly all confessing witches during this period were females ranging in age from less than ten to more than seventy. Out of the forty-eight possessed, mostly were females. Forty-four percent of the possessed were females between the ages of sixteen to twenty who were “single-women” or “maids” in seventeenth century terms. Another 38 percent were over twenty while 18 percent were under sixteen. Three-fourths of the non-possessed accusers whose main concern was maleficium were men.
In 1711, the legislature passed the Reversal of Attainder, which was an act to clear the names of everyone jailed during the trials. Massachusetts also repaid the survivors and the heirs for jail and court fees and for some property that the government had taken away from them. The government also wrote up a sincere apology for their mistake in proceeding with the trials when there was no solid evidence and for possibly executing innocent people.(See Appendix 1A)
As time passed many people wondered what was the purpose of the Salem Witchcraft Trials? Why were so many innocent people jailed or even killed? How could anyone have hanged their neighbor for being a witch? People pondered on what kind of an illness could have been mistaken for the symptoms of possession, but some thought that the possessed were simply liars and fools.
Many times, the Puritans were blamed for the trials, encouraging witchcraft fears, and the number of people affected by them. Some people believe that the Puritans blamed anyone who was different as being a witch. This was because the Puritans had always suspected, as one of their main beliefs, that the Devil envied their way of life and was constantly trying his best to make their lives miserable. Their goal in life was to “purify the organization of their church” and to rid it of any sign of the Devil. By accusing so many people of being witches, they thought they were just purifying the church and their community.
Most of the time, credibility of an accusation was not checked thoroughly, instead the person accused was simply locked up in jail until their trial time came. Even then, if they did not confess to being guilty, they were punished sometimes even killed. Although the law is innocent until proven guilty, and had been practiced before the trials, in the case of the witchcraft trials, the accused witches were guilty until proven innocent. Not many were given the chance to prove themselves to be innocent.
1. Karlsen Carol, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (New York: Vintage Books,
2. Guilley Ellen, Witches and Witchcraft (New York: Facts on File, 1989), 152.
3. Trask Richard, Salem Village and the Witch Hysteria (New York: Golden Owl
Publishing Company, 1991), 185.
4. Wilson, Lori Lee, The Salem Witch Trials (Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Company, 1997)
5. Hoffer Peter, The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 212.
6. Rosenthal Bernard, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 (Cambridge
England: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 132.
7. Concle Maryse, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 178.
8. Concle, 178.
9. Roach, Marilynne, In the Days of the Salem Witchcraft Trials (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1996), 94.
10. Hill, Frances, A Delusion of Satan: the Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 76.
11. Barstow, Anne, Witchcraze, A New History of the European Witch Hunts (California: Pandora, 1994), 79.
12. Guilley, 17.
13. Karlsen, 41
14. Karlsen, 41
15. Karlsen, 41
16. Karlsen, 41
17. Karlsen, 41
18. Karlsen, 42
19. Karlsen, 42
20. Karlsen, 179
21. Zeinert, Karen. The Salem Witchcraft Trials, (New York: F. Watts, 1989),
22. Trask, 201.