About The Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials
From June through September of 1692, nineteen people convicted of practicing witchcraft were hung on Gallows Hill. One elderly man was pressed to death when he refused to attend his own trial. Rumors that certain people were witches spread like wildfire and hundreds were accused, many wasting away in jail for months, waiting nervously for their trial. This is the story of the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Salem Witch Trials took place only in America, but the idea of witches has existed in many parts of the world. In Europe witches were believed to be anti-Christian, and to have sold his or her soul to the devil in order to obtain magical abilities, usually to harm others. However, witches in Africa and the West Indies involved concepts other than the devil. From the 1400’s to the 1700’s, the annihilation of witches and witchcraft in England, France, Germany, Italy, Scotland, and Spain was promoted by church officials.
Between 1484 and 1782, around 300,000 women were accused of practicing witchcraft, and were put to death. *** People who practiced “white magic” were hardly punished at all, because it only consisted of luck charms and love potions. Only the people who practiced “black magic” – witchcraft that was intended to injure or kill other civilians – were executed. Hysterical fear of witchcraft spread through Europe like wild fire between the 1600’s and 1700’s. When English colonists began the new American colonies, they brought the fear of witchcraft with them across the sea.
Before the American colonies had even begun, England experienced a similar witch hunting phase. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull called the “Summis desiderantes” which openly called for hunting down, torturing and finally executing Satan worshipers, otherwise known as witches. Even when this persecution finally ended in England, it did not stop for long.
When the Puritans started colonies on the newly discovered neighboring continent, America, they brought their teachings and beliefs about witches and religion with them. One by one, colonies were formed, bringing the radical Puritan beliefs with them.
The Puritans believed that the Bible was God’s true law, and that it provided a plan for living. The established church of the day described access to God as monastic and possible only within the confines of “church authority”. Puritans stripped away the traditional trappings and formalities of Christianity which had been slowly building throughout the previous 1500 years. Theirs was an attempt to “purify” the church and their own lives. They contended that the Church of England had become a product of political struggles and man-made doctrines. The Puritans were one branch of dissenters who decided that the Church of England was beyond reform. Escaping persecution from church leadership and the King, they came to America.
Most of the Puritans settled in the New England area. As they immigrated and formed individual colonies, their numbers rose from 17,800 in 1640 to 106,000 in 1700.*** Religious exclusiveness was the foremost principle of their society. The spiritual beliefs that they held were strong. This strength held over to include community laws and customs. Since God was at the forefront of their minds, He was to motivate all of their actions.
In 1688, a minister named Samuel Parris was asked to preach in the Puritan Salem Village church. Within a year, he moved there along with his wife, his six-year-old daughter Betty, his niece Abigail, and his Indian slave, Tituba.
In the winter, Betty began to have violent fits and fevers. Her friends, Ann Putnum and Mercy Lewis, 11 and 17, began to behave similarly. The girls twisted into bizarre poses, fell down into frozen positions, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. Since the doctor couldn’t find a cure or even explain what was going on, he declared that it was the work of witches.
Tituba decided to make a “witch cake” in order to find out who the witch was. A witch cake was a cake concocted of the urine of a witch’s victim. It is then fed to a dog, since dogs are believed to be familiar to the devil. After eating the cake, the dog would supposedly run immediately to the “witch”. However, when the dog ate the witch cake Tituba fed it, it just got sick. Tituba was then suspected of witchcraft because she had made the cake, but also because she told stories to Betty and Abigail about voodoo and witches in her native folklore.
After Tituba and a few other women accused of witchcraft were arrested, Betty and Abigail started to name their afflicters. Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn were the quickly accused and arrested on March 1, 1688 for witchcraft. *** Tituba was evidently blamed since she cooked the witch cake. Sarah Good was a poor homeless women who often begged for food and shelter, and hadn’t gone to church for over a year. Hundreds of people showed up for their trial in a meeting house. Whenever one of the suspects entered the room, they would fall on the floor and have a fit. Neighbors turned on neighbors, blurting stories of their animals and crops dying after the accused had visited their house and offering other stories that would raise suspicions about those accused.
Tituba was the first one who actually confessed to practicing witchcraft. She previously said she had done no such thing, but then changed her story completely. She alleged that a Boston man, sometimes in dog or boar form, told her to sign his book. Tituba not only declare that she was a witch herself, but she also named four other people that were witches too. When she confessed, Tituba was free of all charges. This is because the Puritans believed that if a witch confessed, only God could decide where her soul would go to heaven or hell. Tituba’s confession saved her from the gallows, but it was bought with the price of other lives. The confession lengthened the prosecutions and lead Parris and other civilians to hunt down, arraign, and execute many more accused witches.
The accusations by the girls spread. Martha Corey, Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca Nurse, and Mary Easty were also accused and arrested. The daughter of Sarah Good, four year old Dorcas Good, was also accused, and sent to jail.
In order to keep their lives, many suspects turned to confession. Soon after Tituba, Osborn admitted to being a witch and hurting the girls too. When he returned from England, Governor Phips saw that all of the jails were filled to the brim with people waiting for their trial. *** He needed to get those people to trial fast.
For the witchcraft cases, Phips invented a new court: the “Court of Oyer and Terminer”. The Chief Justice of the court was a cutthroat witch hunter named William Stoughton. The judges allowed the “touching test”, where the accused witch would touch the skin of an afflicted person. If the accused was a witch, the person they touched would stop their fits. This was believed to be the “touch of a witch”. They also allowed people to search the suspect’s body for moles, or any other kind of “witch mark”.
In courtrooms today, gossip, hearsay, unsupported assertions and assumptions would never be allowed as evidence. However, this type of evidence was often used in the Salem Witch Trials. In addition, accused Salem witches were not allowed legal counsel or formal avenues of appeal. They also were not allowed to testify under oath on their own behalf.
A typical Salem witch case started off with an afflicted person making a complaint about someone to the Magistrate and accusing the person of witchcraft. A warrant was ten made to arrest the person. Next, the accused was examined by some Magistrates. If the Magistrate believed that the person was a witch, then the accused would be sent to jail to await their trial. The Grand Jury would then convict them and the accused would be tried in court right before Oyer and Terminer. If the Court decided the defendant was guilty, they would be sentenced to be executed. ***
The first witch case brought to trial was 57-year-old Bridget Bishop on June 2. She owned a bar, but was snappy to her neighbors and refused to pay her bills, thus making her an easy target to accuse because of her bad attitude and poverty: stereotype of a witch. At her trial, many of her neighbors turned on her. Two confessed witches named her as a member of their group. A man told everyone that at night, Bishop came to his bed and tormented him. The accusers cried out in pain and said that Bishop’s specter (mental image or phantom) was hurting them. Many more of her neighbors used gossip to try to prove her guilt. Bishop was found guilty and hanged on June 10. ***
One interesting story was of Rebecca Nurse. Everyone loved Rebecca, and she was well respected throughout the town until Ann and Abigail accused her of using her specter to attack them and ordering them to sign the devil’s book. Rebecca was part of the Topsfield family, who were always arguing with Ann’s family, the Putnums. In fact, all three of Rebecca’s sisters were accused. Rebecca was originally found not guilty, but it was decided she should be tried again because of a statement she made during her first trial. She said, “…OK, I need the book for this quote I promise I’ll get it…” The judge asked her what she meant by it, but she didn’t respond. At the second trial, she was found guilty. After she heard her death sentence, Nurse said that she actually didn’t hear the question since she is hard of hearing, but it was too late. She was hanged along with four others on June 19. ***
One surprising execution was that of Salem’s former minister, Burroughs. He was brought to Salem to stand trial and was called the inciter of all the witches. Thirty people accused him of wizardry and he was found guilty. When he arrived at the gallows, instead of confessing (which is what most people did in order to save their soul), he flawlessly recited the Lord’s Prayer, which witches are supposed to mess-up every time. Nevertheless, he still was hanged. ***
The only person convicted and sentenced to death who wasn’t hanged was Giles Corey, an elderly man who was instead pressed to death under heavy stones. He spent over 5 months in prison with his wife, Martha Corey. She was accused when she didn’t believe the afflicted girls. When they heard about this, they accused her of witchcraft. Giles was certain that his wife was innocent, and protested against the girls. He was also accused of witchcraft, and was thrown in jail. He knew that when his trial came, he would be found guilty and hanged. He was afraid that the state would seize his land and his two son-in-laws would receive nothing, so he refused to stand for trial. The consequence for this refusal is a twisted punishment called pressing. On September 19, Giles was stripped naked and a wooden board was set on his chest. Heavy stones were then placed on the board until his death. The last victims of the Salem Witch Trials, including Martha, were hanged on September 22, 1688. ***
Finally, some uncertainly about the stories of the accusing girls started to grow in Salem when many respected citizens were convicted and eventually executed. One example was Rebecca Nurses’ case. She was well respected by almost everyone (except the Putnam family). Her family members even wrote letters to the Magistrate, begging them to let Rebecca keep her life and telling them how good a person she was. Another example was the Burrough’s trial. A lot of people were shocked and touched when he recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. They were uncertain that he was a witch and uneasy when he was hanged anyway. The people of Salem also started to not believe the stories when the wife of Governor Phips was accused because she was a very powerful member of the community.
It is still unknown why the behavior of the Salem girls was so peculiar. The causes of their symptoms may have been some combination of stress, asthma, guilt, boredom, child abuse, epilepsy, or delusional psychosis. These strange symptoms could also have been caused by simply eating bred. Rye, a common ingredient in bread, is often infected with a fungus called “ergot”. A reaction called “convulsive ergotism” can be brought on by ingesting infected rye grains. When convulsive ergotism occurs, it causes violent fits, a crawling sensation on the skin, vomiting, choking and hallucinations. The hallucinogenic drug LSD is an imitative of ergot, causing many of the same effects. *** Many of the symptoms of convulsive ergoism seem to match those of most of the girls believed to be afflicted by witches. There is no way of knowing that any of the girls actually suffered from this affliction, but it is a highly plausible explanation.
Over the course of the Salem Witch Trials, nineteen people were hung, four died in prison, and one man was pressed to death. In addition, two suspected dogs were killed, and close to 200 people were arrested and thrown in jail. The witch hunts are an example of the Puritan’s religious fanaticism and distrust for each other. They assumed that every one who was different was associated with the devil. Accusing some one of being a witch was also a convenient way to get rid of one’s enemies. Since there is no scientific evidence that the devil or witches actually exist, and there are many explanations for the strange behavior exhibited by the Salem villagers, we must assume that the Salem Witch Trials were the cause of many unnecessary deaths.