Background on the Salem Witch Trials
The captivation of the supernatural- in particular, the devil bestowing powers upon mortals to be able to harm others in exchange for their undying loyalty- had already been popular in Europe before colonists came to America. From as early at the fourteenth century, there has been a keen interest in the occult across European countries and it was brought with the first settlers to America. This fascination gave the Salem witch trials fuel and spawned a months-long campaign against ‘witches’ everywhere- or rather, anyone at all who was accused of witchcraft.
Between June and September of 1692, nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft and hanged near Salem Village, while another man, over eighty years in age, was pressed to death under heavy stones. Dozens of others spent months in terrible prison conditions while awaiting trial for witchcraft. The Salem witch trials began and spread in a surprisingly short amount of time and abruptly ended just as quickly.
Life in Salem Town during this time was harsh and tough. They were still feeling the after-effects of the British war with France in the new colonies, tumultuous relationships with the neighboring Native Americans, and a recent smallpox epidemic. The Salem witch trials were no doubt sparked by a suspicion and resentment towards each other and a fear of any outsiders. With a setting that was a fertile ground for distrust and doubt, the hysteria spread through Massachusetts like wildfire. Conditions were perfect for panic to quickly ensue.
In 1688, John Putnam, a very influential elder of Salem Village, invited a man named Samuel Parris to preach in the Village church. Parris was a successful planter and merchant from Barbados who came with his wife, daughter Elizabeth (Betty), niece Abigail Williams, and slave Tituba. Parris became the minister of Salem Village and quickly established himself among the townspeople as a pillar of honesty and piety.
The town was in the midst of heavy changes. A mercantile elite was beginning to develop as the Village grew in prosperity. They were quickly beginning to become quite self-sufficient and debates raged about how independent they should be from the larger town of Salem (Linder). Two families, the Putnams and the Porters, were constantly fighting for power and control over the village pulpit.
Witches, voodoo practitioners, and other religious specialists were feared in Salem. The panic of the Salem witch trials began with nine-year-old Betty Parris in January of 1692. Betty, along with her cousin, eleven-year-old Abigail, began suddenly suffering from violent fits, painful contortions, and uncontrollable tantrums and outbursts. A doctor, William Griggs, examined the girls but was unable to find a logical explanation of their symptoms and behaviors. Thus, he diagnosed the girls with bewitchment (“The 1692 Salem Witch Trials”). Shortly after, other local girls began exhibiting the same symptoms.
Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, and Mary Warren all displayed the same symptoms as Betty and Abigail (“The Salem Witch Trials, 1692”). They told stories of seeing witches fly through the sky and vivid nightmares brought on by their tormentors. The powerful Putnam family supported the accusers and put serious impetus behind the prosecution of the accused.
Shortly after, they named their ‘witches’. In February of that year, arrest warrants were issued for three women accused of bewitching the young women; the Parris’ slave Tituba, a homeless beggar women named Sara Good, and an elderly woman living in poverty named Sarah Osborn.
Tituba came with the Parris family from the Caribbean and had always been seen as a mysterious outsider. It was no secret that Tituba often entertained Betty, Abigail, and their friends with stories of voodoo from her native folklore or by reading their palms. In an attempt to cure the young women, Tituba followed an old legend from her homeland and baked a rye cake made with the urine of the afflicted and fed the cake to a dog.
Though her act was her attempt to help Betty Parris, it was seen as further proof of her guilt. People in early America colonies didn’t understand the different world religions and strange practices. She was an obvious choice. Sarah Osborn was quarrelsome, unpopular, and had not attended church in over a year. Sarah Good was a social misfit and vagrant, living wherever she was allowed to sleep for the night.
The three women were brought before the magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne. Their accusers appeared in the courtroom, too, making grand displays of contortions, spasms, screaming, and writhing about on the floor (“Witchcraft in Salem”). They young women described being tormented at night by the three accused’s specters and reported seeing them flying through the skies at night.
The convictions in Salem
Other villagers came forth with tales of cheese and butter mysteriously going bad or animals being born deformed after visits from the accused women. The three women were asked the same questions; Did they hold contracts with the devil? Does he appear to them? If they are not witches, how could the condition of the afflicted possibly be explained? The style of questioning indicated that the women were already assumed to be guilty.
Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn vehemently denied their guilt but Tituba confessed. In what seems to be an attempt to save herself as much as she possibly could, she also claimed that there were other witches living among the Puritans who were in service to the devil (“Salem With Trials”). She said that she was approached by a tall, dark man in Boston who sometimes appears to her as a dog or a hog. The man asked her to sign his book and do his bidding. Both were wrongfully convicted under the current law.
Knowing this man to be Satan, Tituba reported that she tried to run to Reverend Parris for help, but the devil blocked her path and would not let her go. With this, the hysteria spread quickly throughout the rest of Massachusetts and a number of other women were accused. Among them were two upstanding members of the church and the community, Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Accused right along with them was the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good.
Others suffered under the Salem Trials
Several other accused witches confessed and named others as their associates in service to the devil. Trials of witchcraft soon overwhelmed the justice system. In the spring of 1692, Massachusetts appointed a new governor by the name of William Phips. Phips established a special Court of Oyer and Terminer that would hear and decide on all witchcraft cases in Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties. Judges of the court included John Hathorne, Samuel Sewall, and William Stoughton.
The first conviction handed down by the Court of Oyer and Terminer was against Bridget Bishop on the second of June that year. Bishop was publicly hanged eight days later on what would come to be known as Gallows Hill in Salem Town. During the next two months, ten more accused were hanged there while eight more faced the same fate the next month. Several other accused witches perished in prison while they awaited trial or execution while Martha Corey’s elderly husband Giles Corey was pressed to death by stones upon refusing to enter a plea during his arraignment (Blumberg 2007).
The Salem Witch Trials: An unflattering legacy
During the Salem Witch Trials, respected and well-known minister Cotton Mather continuously wanted the people of the dubious value of spectral evidence, which included testimony about dreams or visions, often used as evidence against the accused. His incredibly valid concerns went unheeded during the trials in Salem. Increase Mather, Cotton’s father and the president of Harvard College at the time, joined his son in arguing that the standards for evidence in these trials should be the same as it would be for any other crime.
“It would be better than ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.” (“Salem Witch Trials”).
When public support for the trials dwindled, Governor Phips quietly dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer in October of 1692 and ruled that from now on, trials for witchcraft should disregard spectral evidence. Trials continued with diminished fervor until the beginning of 1693 and by May, Governor Phips had pardoned and released those who awaited witchcraft charges in prison.
In January of 1697, a day of fasting was declared by the Massachusetts General Court for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials. The trials were deemed unlawful and Samuel Sewall, the leading justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, publicly apologized for his role in the matter (Schiff 2015). In 1711, the Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restoring the names of the condemned and provided financial restitution to their heirs. The painful legacy of the Salem witch trials has survived and thrived well into twentieth century when playwright Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” in 1953 as an analogy for the anti-Communist fever lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s (“Salem Witch Trials”). There are museums dedicated to preserving the history of the Salem Witch Trials and it continues to be a popular topic of
The painful legacy of the Salem witch trials has survived and thrived well into twentieth century when playwright Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” in 1953 as an analogy for the anti-Communist fever lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s (“Salem Witch Trials”). There are museums dedicated to preserving the history of the Salem Witch Trials and it continues to be a popular topic of early American political thought.
What really happened?
Even today, there is much debate on whether the accusers were really afflicted with any condition that caused them to act out the way they did or if they were simply bored children telling stories. Theories include such things as mental illness, stress, asthma, guilt, boredom, child abuse, epilepsy, and delusional psychosis (Linder). An article in Science magazine argued that the women’s symptoms could have been caused by a disease known as convulsive ergotism.
This condition is brought on by ingesting rye that has been infected with ergot, a fungus that invades developing kernels of rye grain, especially in the warm and damp conditions of the previous rye harvest in Salem (Linder). Convulsive ergotism can cause violent fits, hallucinations, choking, vomiting, and a crawling sensation on the skin of the afflicted. In fact, the drug LSD is a derivative of ergot. While convulsive ergotism could be the cause of the young ladies’ symptoms, there is, of course, no way to tell now.
Another possible explanation is the power of suggestion. At the time, Cotton Mather has recently published the very popular Memorable Providences, a book describing an Irish washerwoman in Boston who was suspected of witchcraft. The accusers’ behavior closely mirrors the behavior detailed in the book, which was widely read and discussed throughout Salem. It was easy for readers to believe that, with the turmoil of life in the colonies during this time, the devil was nearby, watching and waiting. It is believed by some that the girls had read or heard of Mather’s book and mimicked its descriptions out of boredom or desire for attention.
The well-documented hysteria of the Salem witch trials is an unflattering piece of American history that remains popular to this day. Men and women were wrongfully executed because some young girls accused them of practicing witchcraft, conversing with the devil, and possessing magical powers. Despite confessions by a number of the accused, it is clear that there was some other cause for the erratic and irrational behavior of the afflicted girls. Whether it was boredom, infected rye grain, suggestion, or some other affliction, we may never truly know. It can be confidently said, though, that the frenzy of the Salem witch trials will remain a point of interest and mystery.
Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian.com, 23 Oct. 2007. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
Linder, Douglas. “The Witchcraft Trials in Salem: A Commentary.” University of Missouri-Kansas City. UMKC, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
“Salem Witch Trials”. History.com. A+E Networks, 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Schiff, Stacy. “The Witches of Salem.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 7 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
“The 1692 Salem Witch Trials.” Salem Witch Museum. Salem Witch Museum, 2016. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
“The Salem Witch Trials, 1692.” EyeWitnesstoHistory.com. Ibis Communications, Inc., 2000. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
“Witchcraft in Salem.” U.S. History. U.S.History.com, 20114. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.