Witchcraft in Salem Massachusetts and their Persecution
Three hundred years ago the largest witch hunt in American history gripped
Salem, Massachusetts. Before the hysteria finally subsided, nineteen people
were executed and more than a hundred others convicted of or charged with
Early in 1692, several young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts were "led
away with little sorceries," according to Cotton Mather, Boston's eminent man
of God. Their experiments, which involved little more than divining what their
future husbands would be like, began in the household of the village minister,
the Reverend Samuel Parris.
Elizabeth, Parris's nine-year-old daughter, and Abigail Williams, his eleven-
year-old niece, under the guidance of Tituba, the family's West Indian slave,
fashioned a crude crystal ball by dropping an egg into a bowl of water. To the
impressionable girls, the undulating egg white appeared to float in the shape of
Confronted with this horrific image, the frightened youngsters began to act in
peculiar ways. Neighbors were shocked by their "afflictions," which seemed to
worsen each day.
One clergyman claimed that the children "were bitten and pinched by invisible
agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and
returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and
beyond the power of any epileptic fits, or natural disease to effect."
Unable to determine a physical cause for their "distempter," William Griggs,
the village doctor, confided to Parris that the children were "under an Evil
Hand"--the blanket seventeenth-century diagnosis for maladies physicians
were unable to understand.
Anxious to ease the girls' suffering and to prevent further spread of the
afflictions (several teens who lived near the parsonage had begun to exhibit
similar symptoms), Parris consulted with neighboring ministers.
Upon observing the girls, the clergymen confirmed the physician's diagnosis--
"the hand of Satan was in them." The reactions of the Reverend Parris and
civil authorities to these assessments led to the largest witch hunt in
To the modern mind, the tragic epic of the Salem witch trials seems virtually
incomprehensible. But to the seventeenth-century mind, sorcery and the
occult were very real. With few exceptions, everyone--even the most highly
educated individuals--believed in witchcraft and feared the evil associated
When Parris and the other ministers repeatedly asked the girls who was
afflicting them, they finally obliged by naming Tituba and two other village
women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne--both likely candidates fitting the
stereotypical witch "mold."
The destitute pipe-smoking Good wandered from house to house begging food,
while Osborne was a semi-invalid old woman known for depression and erratic
behavior. Salem magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne swiftly
issued warrants for the arrest of the accused, and on March 1 constables took
them into custody for questioning.
The large crowd that filed into the village meetinghouse to witness the
"examination" of the suspects brought with them their profound belief in the
Well educated and poorly educated alike gleaned from almanacs the
astronomical data needed to practice astrology, relied on charms, and heeded
the words of fortune tellers. They considered comets, lightning, and thunder
as omens of catastrophe and gossiped about prophecies, visions, and
Cotton Mather claimed many "would often cure hurts with spells, and practice
detestable conjurations with sieves, and keys, and peas, and nails, and other
implements, to learn the things for which they had a forbidden and impious
curiosity." What most worried the Puritan divine was his conviction that this
interest inevitably led to a greater fascination with the more insidious
practice of witchcraft.
Mather had good reason for his concern. Many seventeenth-century immigrants
to New England brought with them their Old World belief that witches or
wizards, through curses, charms, or the evil eye, could cause harm in their
livestock, or making someone in their family ill, Mather and some of his clerical
colleagues had a much greater fear. They had come to believe that a well-
organized witch conspiracy existed in New England, bent upon the overthrow
While the community's members might disagree on the threat posed by
witchcraft, most agreed on the means employed by Satan to recruit witches.
Preying upon those with financial difficulty, marital problems, or religious
cares, the devil offered happiness and material success for their allegiance.
Two aspects of this alleged pact became important in the witch prosecutions
of 1692. Puritans believed that the devil gave to witches natural and unnatural
creatures known as "familiars" to aid them in carrying out their evil deeds.
Some also contended that the witch, in turn, granted Satan permission to use
her shape or her "specter" to afflict others. Indeed, testimony of someone's
specter doing harm became the most crucial form of evidence in the 1692
For four days during the first week of March, Salem Villagers heard
magistrates Corwin and Hathorne interrogate the first three suspects about
familiars, specters, and incidents in their past that might shed light on the
afflictions of the suffering girls.
Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne denied complicity in the affair, but Tituba,
impressed by the spectacle and fearful of reprisals, confessed to a number of
malicious actions. The devil had forced her to harm the girls on several
occasions and to sign a pact, she testified.
As she wrote in the devil's book, Tituba claimed she saw numerous names,
including Good's and Osborne's. Moreover, she offered detailed descriptions
of the two villagers' familiar Good had a yellow bird, a wolf, and a cat. Osborne
had one with "wings and two legs and a head like a woman" and the other "all
While the magistrates questioned Good and Osborne in the meetinghouse, the
afflicted girls, who listened during their testimony, suffered numerous fits--
convincing proof to the judges of the accused witches' frightful powers.
Even Sarah Good's husband and daughter offered evidence against her;
William Good admitted that he thought his wife was a witch, and six-year-old
Dorothy claimed to have seen her mother's familiars--three birds of various
Sarah Good's examination led some villagers to recall past confrontations with
her, and a few of them came forward later in the year to offer damning
evidence in her trial.
For example, Sarah Gadge remembered an argument that had ended with Good
threatening that "she should give [Gadge] something." The following day, one of
Gadge's cows had mysteriously died--an occurrence she attributed to Good's
On March 7, magistrates Corwin and Hathorne, convinced they had assembled
enough evidence to justify an indictment, ordered the three women held in a
Boston jail to await their day in court.
To seventeenth-century eyes, there had been little extraordinary about this
particular episode of accusations. The three women fit contemporary ideas on
witches and the practice of witchcraft.
Almost eighty percent of the roughly one hundred people accused of
witchcraft in New England prior to 1692 were women; most of them were poor
and more than forty years of age. Several had sullied reputations, being known
for supposedly having magical powers, criminal backgrounds, or simply
Robert Calef, in one of the contemporary accounts of the Salem trials,
explained that because the accused in this case included a confessing slave, as
well as :
woman, and one Osborne, an old bed-rid woman; which two were persons
so ill thought of, that the accusation was the more readily believed."
Initially, then, the accusations of early March seemed little different from
previous ones. As Salem's John Higginson recalled a decade later, the situation
several times in other places, and would be quickly over."
Usually, after suspects in witchcraft episodes were jailed, the afflicted
recovered. In 1692 Salem Village, however, not only did the girls' symptoms
worsen, the number of those suffering afflictions increased. When fasts and
prayer meetings failed to afford relief, villagers concluded that additional, as-
yet unidentified witches must be in their midst. Widespread panic, which
would soon escalate into mass hysteria, set in.
On March 11, the afflicted youths named Martha Corey, and days later they
accused Rebecca Nurse of harming them. Because both of these women were
members of the Congregational Church, their arrest posed a fundamental
crisis of faith for the people of Salem Village.
For three generations, ministers had taught settlers in Massachusetts that
even though man was born in sin and deserving of damnation, God had chosen to
save a few "elect" souls.
In most congregations, membership was based largely upon the applicant's
explanation of his or her conversion experience. In churches accepting this
evidence of God's gift of grace, few believed that an elect person could fall
from grace after having once been saved. But now two of God's apparent elect
stood accused of witchcraft. Confused Salem Villagers looked to their
spiritual leader for guidance.
On March 27, the Reverend Samuel Parris responded with a sermon entitled
This discourse became the key to the rapid acceleration in accusations that
made the Salem episode unique in American history.
explained, "that they are church members this you and I may be, and yet
devils for all that."
safely out of the devil's reach, but no more. "Christ knows how many devils
among us," said Parris, "whether one or ten or twenty."
When Parris said that the devil had breached the walls of the church and
entered into covenants with two of the elect, he was arguing that virtually
anyone could be suspect.
Parris's dismal prospect that the church no longer offered refuge from evil
heightened the atmosphere of distrust enveloping Salem Village. As one
minister described the mood during the examination of Rebecca Nurse, "they
were afraid that those that sat next to them were under the influence of
There is little question that Parris's sermon changed the pace and character
of the accusations. During the following two months more than sixty people
stood accused of practicing witchcraft.
Increasingly the "specters" of people from across the social spectrum harmed
the afflicted. Farmers, merchants, artisans, and clergymen, or more often
their wives and daughters, as well as the deviants of the villages surrounding
Salem, now faced the prospect of a witchcraft trial.
By late May, Thomas Newton, who received a commission to handle the
prosecution of the witches, marveled that "the afflicted spare no person of
what quality soever."
On May 14, as the jails between Salem and Boston filled with suspects,
William Phips, the new royal governor of Massachusetts, arrived from England.
He was greeted with frightful stories of the sufferings of the increasing
number of afflicted. Their relatives told him of family members "taken with
preternatural torments some scalded with brimstone some had pins stuck in
their flesh others hurried into the fire and water and some dragged out of
their houses and carried over the tops of the trees and hills for many miles
Phips faced a legal dilemma. The Massachusetts Bay colony had made the
practice of witchcraft a felony under the authority of a charter granted by
Charles I in 1629.
That document, however, had been revoked in 1686. Two years later, the
colony became part of the Dominion of New England. Since the 1689 overthrow
of Edmund Andros, the Dominion governor, Massachusetts had existed in a
legal limbo while its agents negotiated with William III for a new charter.
Technically, then, no law against witchcraft existed. Governor Phips, who had
arrived with a new charter, was unable to convene another provincial
legislature to confirm the old statute until June 8.
Not wanting to wait that long, Phips appointed a special Court of Oyer and
Terminer (a judicial body to hear and determine) on May 27. He selected
Deputy Governor William Stoughton and eight leading merchants and
landowners to serve on the court. All but one of the nine had some experience
with witchcraft cases.
The judges spent the brief time between their appointment and the first trial
consulting clergymen, reviewing the transcripts of the preliminary
examinations, reading accounts of earlier trials, and studying English
guidebooks on proper procedures in witchcraft cases.
Out of their deliberations, the judges agreed to admit three types of
evidence. Accepting the proposition that a witch had to nourish her familiars,
the judges ordered a physical search of suspects for a "witch's teat," a
peculiar growth or "preternatural excrescence."
Acknowledging the tradition that the devil gave witches the power to harm
people by thrusting pins into or twisting images of them, the judges also
ordered constables to search suspects' homes for puppets or dolls. Beyond
this physical evidence, the judges decided to accept testimony from any who
recalled confrontations with the accused and then experienced some
Most importantly, however, they concluded that "specter evidence" would be
the key to convictions. If the afflicted or other villagers came forward with
testimony of the accused's shape or specter doing harm, the judges saw that
as the best evidence of complicity with Satan on the grounds that the devil
could not use humans' shapes without their permission.
In all, twenty-seven individuals in Salem underwent jury trials for witchcraft
between June 2 and September 17. Because prosecutors Thomas Newton and
Anthony Checkley were able to introduce specter evidence in all of the trials,
the juries rendered guilty verdicts in each case.
Among the convicted were George Burroughs, a former Salem Village minister,
and church members Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. The latter's trial drew
particular attention because of the high regard most people held for her.
Perhaps no one had been more surprised by the charges against her than Nurse
herself. Upon learning of her impending arrest, the pious seventy-one-year-old
Nurse asked, "what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of that he should
lay such an affliction upon me in my old age?"
For Nurse's June 30 trial, almost forty people signed a petition attesting
that "her life and conversation" had always been that of a Christian and they
"never had any cause or grounds to suspect her of any such thing as she is now
When the jury, on the strength of this overwhelming affirmation of Nurse's
character, found her innocent, the afflicted "made an hideous outcry." Justice
Stoughton then asked the jury to reconsider their verdict.
Jury foreman Thomas Fisk agreed to do so on the basis of a puzzling remark
Nurse had made upon seeing accused witch Deliverance Hobbs and her
daughter being led into the courtroom.
"They used to come among us."
of witches. When Fisk asked the accused to clarify the statement, the nearly
deaf, distracted woman made no reply. Taking the suspect's failure to respond
as an admission of guilt, the jury reversed its verdict.
By September 22, nineteen of the convicted, including Rebecca Nurse, had
been wheeled in carts up Gallows' Hill in Salem and hanged. In addition, the
judges had ordered that one suspect, Giles Corey, be "pressed." Corey, in an
apparent protest against the trials, had pleaded not guilty but then refused to
put himself on trial "by God and my country."
This strategy prevented the court from trying him before a jury. Under
English law, however, the judges were permitted to impose the sentence of
piene forte et cure (hard and severe punishment) to coerce a change of mind.
Consequently, they ordered Sheriff George Corwin to pile great weights upon
Corey. The seventy-two-year-old man refused to relent and died after two
days of this torture.
More than one hundred suspects awaited their trial when Governor Phips
returned to Boston in early October from a military campaign against Native
Americans on the frontier. Appalled at the scope and spectacle of the trials
and upset because even his own wife was named by the afflicted, Phips
forbade any more arrests and, at the end of the month, dismissed the Court
of Oyer and Terminer. His decision reflected a rapidly developing opposition
to the trials.
Ever more people had grown skeptical of the testimony and actions of the
afflicted. In his May examination, John Alden had called them:
staring in peoples' faces." During Elizabeth Proctor's June 30 trial,
Daniel Elliott testified that he had overheard one of the afflicted claim
"she did it for sport they must have some sport." Mary Warren, one of
the afflicted who accused more than a dozen people, even admitted to
several villagers that "her head was distempered" when she had made
those allegations. Moreover, "when she was well again she could not say
that she saw any of [the] apparitions at the time aforesaid."
By early October many also came to realize that several of the more than
fifty people who had confessed to familiarity with the devil had done so under
great duress. They had been intimidated by the afflicted or by the persistent
questions of the magistrates and sometimes even family members who thought
a confession might spare their lives. Only those who refused to confess were
hanged; confession was one way to avoid death.
Those who later recanted their confessions had explanations similar to that of
Margaret Jacobs, who told the judges,
them; whereupon I was brought to my examination, which persons at the
sight of me fell down which did very much to startle and affright me.
The Lord above knows I knew nothing in the least measure how or who
afflicted them; they told me, without doubt I did, or else they would not
fall down at me; they told me, if I would not confess, I should be put
down into the dungeon and would be hanged, but if I would confess I
should have my life, the which did so affright me, with my own vile
wicked heart, to save my life; made me make the like confession I did,
which confession, may it please the honored court, is altogether false
accusations of the afflicted, many Salem villagers were impressed by the
deportment of the condemned. Shortly before her execution, Rebecca
Nurse's sister Mary Esty petitioned the court not for her own life but "that
no more innocent blood be shed." The five victims executed on August 19 had
likewise expressed the hope that "their blood might be the last innocent blood
The Reverend George Burroughs left a particularly vivid impression. According
to one contemporary, the former Salem Village minister's protestation of
innocence and recitation of the Lord's Prayer (that witches were allegedly
unable to utter) "drew tears from many" who had attended the public
The people of Salem Village and surrounding communities demonstrated their
opposition to the trials most forcefully by coming forward to support the
accused. Before Governor Phips halted the trials, almost three hundred family
members, neighbors, clergymen, and even jailers either had signed petitions or
testified on behalf of the accused.
As Cotton Mather reported on October 20, the "humors of this people now
run" against a continuation of the trials.
Although important, this shift in public opinion was not as significant to Phips as
the opinion of the colony's leading minister, Increase Mather (Cotton's
father). Phips had an obvious reason for his high regard for Increase. The
minister not only had been instrumental in securing the new charter for
Massachusetts but also in persuading the king to select Phips as the new
In late September, several clergymen persuaded Mather to draft a treatise
detailing the problems with the evidence used in the trials. In a work he called
Cases of Conscience, Mather presented a synthesis of what several ministers
had been arguing privately since late May.
He maintained that specter evidence, the most critical in all convictions, was
seriously flawed. Satan could assume any shape. Consequently, testimony of a
person's image doing harm did not provide conclusive proof that the individual
had made a pact with the devil.
Although specter evidence could be used to raise suspicion, it was insufficient
for a conviction. If the court accepted his argument, Mather acknowledged
that there was little chance it could gain any more convictions, and some
witches might escape justice.
That was a price, however, that Mather and most of the province's clergy
were willing to pay. "It were better," he wrote, "that ten suspected witches
should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned."
In explaining to officials in London his decision to suspend the trials, Phips
emphasized his reliance upon Mather and other ministers who "did give it as
their judgment that the Devil might afflict in the shape of an innocent person
and that the look and touch of the suspected persons was not sufficient proof
In December, Phips appointed a new court to deal with the remaining cases.
Because the judges agreed to use specter evidence only as presumptive
evidence, only three individuals were convicted; Phips subsequently pardoned
During the next two decades, Massachusetts colonists struggled with the
consequences of the witchcraft crisis. Several people who had been
instrumental in the accusations and trials acknowledged that they had
committed grievous errors.
In 1694, for example, the Reverend Samuel Parris admitted to his
congregation that his sermons two years earlier had contributed to the crisis
atmosphere in Salem Village. While he maintained that he had sought "to avoid
the wronging of any," Parris apologized to the families who had "unduly
suffered in these matters."
Twelve years later, Ann Putnam, Jr., who had accused twenty-one individuals of
witchcraft, sought membership in the Salem Village congregation. She pleaded
with the congregation to forgive her 1692 actions "particularly, as I was a
chief instrument of accusing Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters."
Samuel Sewall, a judge on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, likewise publicly
acknowledged his role. In 1696, as Sewall stood in front of his Boston
congregation he had his pastor read a confession in which the judge accepted
"the blame and shame" of agreeing to the executions of nineteen of the
convicted. Twelve of the jurors joined Sewall in expressing their sorrow in
the "condemning of any person" during the great witch hunt.
The entire colony sought to pay penance for the suffering of 1692 when the
provincial legislature ordered all to observe a day of prayer and fasting in
January 1697. Civil and religious leaders hoped this special day would bring a
pardon from God for "all the errors of his servants and people" in the
Slowly, civil and religious leaders came to the conclusion that true
reconciliation could not be achieved until the government reversed the
convictions of 1692 and compensated the victims or their surviving family
members. In 1703 and 1710, responding to petitions from these individuals and
groups, the provincial government reversed the guilty verdicts of all but seven
of those convicted.
In 1710, the legislature also voted to award partial compensation to many of
the accused witches or their survivors for jail expenses, court costs, and
property confiscated in 1692.
This cumulative effort to make amends for the errors and mass hysteria of
1692 did not eliminate all the bitterness resulting from the year of
prosecutions. For Salem Village, a community wracked by factional strife for
decades, controversy ultimately focused on the Reverend Parris's role in the
After a fierce five-year struggle with a faction led by Rebecca Nurse's
relatives, who never could forgive the man they called the "great prosecutor,"
Parris lost his job.
Nor did the provincials' attempt to heal the wounds caused by the
prosecutions prevent contemporary and subsequent generations from heaping
infamy upon the trials' supporters, notably Cotton Mather.
Because he had written an uncritical account of the trials called Wonders of
the Invisible World, Mather quickly gained an enduring reputation as the
leading apologist of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Boston merchant Robert
Calef made that charge in a 1700 work he sarcastically entitled More
Wonders of the Invisible World, in which he largely ignored Mather's advice to
the judges throughout the summer to use spectral evidence cautiously.
Instead, he focused upon the painfully deferential Mather's defense of
jurists he respected and found difficult to criticize in print.
The convictions of the accused witches, Bridget Bishop' Elizabeth Johnson,
Susanna Martin, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret
Scott remains on the court records because nobody came forward on their
Kars, A. C. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History. 2000.
Levack, B. P. Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. 2006.
Murray, M. A. Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. 2012.
Pavlac, B. A. Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment
from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials. 2009.
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