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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Salem Witch Trials

Written by Kevin Jennings


On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, bringing with it America’s first Puritans. The Puritans were extremely religious separatists from the Church of England who believed the reformation under Queen Elizabeth was not complete, and they believed in an extremely strict code by which people should live.

As they expanded into Massachusetts Bay Colony, their beliefs traveled with them, with much of the government being dominated by Puritans. Their influence was so strong that it was not until 1994 that Massachusetts repealed its blue laws permitting businesses to open on Sundays, and not until 2003 that the sale of alcohol on Sundays became legal in the state.

By 1626, the Puritans had reached Massachusetts’ north shore where they founded Salem. Modern day Salem was known as Salem Town at the time, but our story begins in the adjacent Salem Village in what is currently Danvers.

The year was 1692, and Massachusetts had grown far beyond the original settlers from the Mayflower. Though exact numbers are impossible to know, the best estimates for the population of Salem and the surrounding area is roughly 2,000 people, with about 500-600 in Salem Village. While this rapid expansion into uncharted territory could have been a time of great joy and prosperity, the reality was much bleaker.

To start, the territory may have been uncharted by the Europeans, but there were already upwards of 10 million Native Americans living on the continent. It had been over 70 years since the first Thanksgiving, and the indigenous people had plenty of time to learn the true colours of the colonists. It was little more than a decade since King Philip’s War between the Puritans and the Wampanoag, and it was now the third year of King William’s War between the Puritans and the Wabanaki, who were being backed by the French.

In addition to these wars against the native tribes, Massachusetts had recently undergone great political upheaval. The “Glorious Revolution” in England that saw the Catholic King James II replaced with the Protestant co-rulers King William III, also known as William of Orange, and Queen Mary II. This saw the governor of New England replaced, but because the charter was also vacated it left the colonies with a governor that had no actual authority until a new charter could be approved two years later.

One of the most influential voices in the establishment of the new Massachusetts charter was Increase Mather, a Puritan reverend and the president of Harvard College. He had written a book on witchcraft in 1684. His son, Cotton Mather, was also a reverend and was a frequent publisher of pamphlets, also writing a book on witchcraft in 1689. These were two prominent and well respected individuals within the community, and the supposed dangers they were writing about were nothing new. Witch trials had been relatively common in Europe at least as far back as the 14th century, though what would take place in Salem was one of the largest witch hunts in history.

In addition to the political and cultural setting, it’s important to bear in mind the specific location as well. The residents of Salem Village did not get along. They disliked Salem Town, and they disliked each other. Conflicts between neighbors were abundant and often related to land, but the major conflict between Salem Village and Salem Town was religious independence.

They were all Puritans, but Salem Village wanted their own congregation, separate from Salem Town. The residents voted to hire their own minister, but the first two they hired each left after only a few years each on account of not being paid their full salary. The third minister they hired left after a few years as well when the church of Salem Town refused to ordain him.

When it was time for the village to have their first ordained minister, the parishioners were split on the decision. They finally voted for Samuel Parris, but it was hardly a landslide win. If that wasn’t enough to build tension among the parishioners, Parris did not immediately accept the position. Once he finally did, Parris would only throw more fuel on the fire.

As we mentioned, the Puritans were extremely strict, so rather than try to help resolve disputes between neighbors, Parris would instead search for the smallest moral failings and inflict severe and public punishments in front of the congregation. Though he had an opportunity to be a force for good and unite the people of Salem Village, he served only to drive them further apart.

As if this powder keg could possibly need any more fuel, the winter of 1691-1692 was one of the harshest any of the residents had ever faced.


The First Accusations

              It began in February of 1692. Nine year old Betty Parris and 11 year old Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece of Reverend Parris, began experiencing hysterical fits. The girls would run around, scream, throw things, make strange sounds, contort their bodies, and crawl under furniture. They also complained of feeling like they were being pinched or pricked with pins. A physician was called, but nothing physically wrong could be found with the girls. His diagnosis was that they had been bewitched.

              Soon, other young girls began exhibiting the same symptoms. It wasn’t long before 12 year old Ann Putnam Jr. and 17 year old Elizabeth Hubbard joined Betty and Abigail in pointing the finger at three alleged witches. Despite the animosity between residents and the fear of witchcraft, this was a crucial point, and the girls had a crucial decision to make. They had the attention of the village, and they had free reign to name anyone they so desired; the girls picked the three easiest targets they could find.

              The first accused was Tituba, followed by Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. The later allegations, particularly because of Ann Putnam’s involvement, are strongly believed to be the result of a family feud.  

              Tituba was a slave woman of unknown origin, but most likely of Caribbean descent. By virtue of being a slave and having dark skin, it was easy for her to be the first named. It was also theorized that she may have told the girls about witchcraft and voodoo, but with no direct evidence and so many false accusations, it is hard to say how likely this theory could be.

Sarah Good was the daughter of a wealthy tavern owner, but her father committed suicide when she was 16. Because he did not leave a will, Sarah wound up with nothing. Due to a lack of prospects she ended up marrying an indentured servant, but he died shortly after leaving her to saddle the burden of his debt. She was left homeless, pregnant, and forced to beg to feed herself and her four year old child. Despite having been robbed of her inheritance and left homeless, she saw little compassion and was seen as mean and spiteful.

Sarah Osborne had been married to the wealthy brother-in-law of the Putnam family. When he died, she hired and subsequently married an indentured servant. Not only was this seen as selfish and sinful, but she took control of her late husband’s estate that he had willed to their sons. It resulted in a legal battle in which Putnam was involved.

The interrogation of the women began on March 1, and lasted for a week after which they were all jailed. The women were adamant about their innocence, but that was irrelevant. More women were accused of witchcraft in March. This time, the accusations seemed more targeted.

Among the accused was four year old Dorothy Good, Sarah Good’s daughter. It is likely that she was accused so that there would be grounds to interrogate her and use anything the child said as evidence of her mother’s guilt.

Next was Martha Corey. Martha was skeptical of the girls’ claims, not feeling that they were credible. She immediately found herself their next target. But her accusation and the accusation of Rebecca Nurse were extremely troubling to the citizens. These two women were full covenanted members of the Church and Salem Village and the Church of Salem Town respectively. If these two, deeply pious and upstanding women could be witches, then it seemed nobody was safe.


The First Trial

            Though Tituba and the Sarahs initially maintained their innocence, Tituba finally confessed. It is believed that she realized by making a false confession, she could save her own life. Tituba claimed that the Devil had come to them and had them sign their names in a book. She said that she refused, and only did so after the Sarahs forced her to do so. She said that she also saw six other names in the book, but that she could not make them out. This would not only make her useful as a witness against the other two, but it would give them reason to keep her around even after the court was done with the three of them.

              Sarah Good went to trial on March 25, and was left to defend herself in a hostile courtroom with a jury made up mostly of relatives of the accusing children. The children were in attendance, and when Sarah entered the room they began moaning and rocking back and forth, as if under her spell. During the trial one of the children threw a fit, similar to the ones first observed in the Parris household. When it was over, she claimed that Good had attacked here with a knife, and then produced half of a broken knife.

              A young man in attendance stood up to refute her claim, saying that his knife had broken in town the day before and the girl had seen it happen. He even produced the other half of the knife as proof. The judge scolded her for exaggeration what had happened, despite somehow still believing that Sarah had somehow attacked the girl.

              This so called “spectral evidence” was a mainstay of these trials. Girls would claim to be attacked by the witches in some projected astral form, and these claims were taken at face value. Cotton Mather, who had been instrumental in helping bring about the circumstances that would lead to these trials, was cautious of these.

              Cotton was generally pleased with the trials in general, but he warned against convictions on the basis of spectral evidence alone. Not because he didn’t believe the girls saw what they claimed, but because he felt the Devil could take the shape of an innocent and virtuous woman as easily as he could a witch.

Sarah continued to insist on her innocence in the face of all of this, claiming that Tituba and Sarah Osborne were the real witches, but it was to no avail. She was convicted and sentenced to death. Her execution would not come until July, and she gave birth in her prison cell while awaiting death. The child did not survive.


The Court of Oyer and Terminer

            The cycle played out repeatedly. Young girls would make accusations of bewitching, pointing the finger at anyone they chose, often with seemingly clear reasons of family vendetta or self preservation. Once accused, the alleged witches could confess their sings, beg for repentance, and corroborate the accusations of the girls, or they could maintain their innocence and be condemned to death.

              To deal with the claims of witchcraft, the colony established The Court of Oyer and Terminer, literally “to hear and to determine”, in Salem Town. The first case heard by the court was that of Bridget Bishop. Bridget was deemed as not living by the Puritan code, because she often wore black and what were considered strange outfits.

              Bridget was tried and convicted on June 2nd, and she was executed by public hanging in the Salem Gallows on June 10th. The court immediately took a 20 day recess to confer with the most well respected ministers of the area “upon the state of things as they then stood.”

              The response was written by Cotton Mather, and it was a ringing endorsement of the court and their execution of witches. This endorsement from the most well respected ministers in Massachusetts emboldened the prosecutors, and they acted with as much speed as possible to continue the prosecutions and executions.

              The second wave of hangings occurred on July 19th where five women, including Sarah Good, were executed. On August 19, the third round of hangings was to take place. Cotton Mather was in attendance for this round of executions which was said to have the largest crowd. This was also one of the major turning points for the witch trials.

              Five more people were hanged on August 19, including Reverend George Burroughs. George was one of the two reverends that had left his job as Salem Village’s minister due to lack of payment, so this could be seen as retribution for him abandoning the congregation. However, the massive crowd looked on in shock as George recited The Lord’s Prayer before being hung. It was believed that a witch would not be able to recite the prayer, and this act began turning public opinion away from the trials.

              The next major turning point came three days before what would be the final round of executions. Martha Corey, accused back in March for calling the girls’ credibility into question, was now slated to be executed on September 22 along with eight others. Leading up to her execution, her husband, Giles Corey, was also accused of witchcraft. However, he refused to enter a plea.

              A person who did not enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty was not able to be tried. Because this was an obvious legal loophole, for the only time in American history the state subjected him to “peine forte et dure”, literally “hard and forceful punishment”. Giles was to be tortured by pressing until he entered a plea. With his wife already sentenced to death, if he could die before making a plea he would still be in control of his estate, and thus his sons would be able to inherit it. This, combined with being decidedly not guilty, allowed Giles to endure the absolutely unthinkable.

              At the age of 81 Giles began the state sanctioned torture known as pressing. He was stripped naked and laid down with heavy boards on top of him. Large rocks would then be placed on top of him, the weight constantly increasing. Giles endured the punishment without saying a word. He never made a plea, he never begged for it to stop, and he never screamed in pain.

              After two full days of the torture, the sheriff asked Giles for his plea. His response was, “more weight”. The sheriff complied with the request, then repeated the question two more times. Each time, Giles only response was “more weight”, and each time, the sheriff met his request. At times, the sheriff would even sit on top of the pile of rocks that was crushing Giles. The elderly man endured three days of torture before dying under the weight of the rocks, his innocence and his estate still intact.

              It was a truly horrible sight to behold, and one that only pushed public opinion even further away from the once ringing endorsement of the trials. However, this was not enough to stop the trials from taking place.

              The following month, on October 29, the Court of Oyer and Terminer was finally dismissed. Had public support of the trials not waned, perhaps this move would have been an impossibility. Sir William Phips had been named Governor of Massachusetts only five months earlier, after the witch hunt had already begun. With his wife included in the latest batch of accused witches, he called for an end to the executions.

Wrap Up

            The Salem Witch Trials are regarded as one of the largest cases of mass hysteria ever. In total, there were 19 people executed, with at least five more dying in prison. That is a lot of executions, but even more astonishing is that there were over 200 people accused of practicing witchcraft. That is approximately 10% of the entire population for the area where these trials were taking place.

              We will never know what exactly possessed the young girls to start the witch hunt. There are a lot of theories, some more credible than others. It’s possible that the original girls, Betty and Abigail, were just being children and playing rather exuberantly, then made up a lie to try to avoid getting in trouble for their rowdy behaviour.

Given how prone Reverend Parris was to enforcing public penance for minor infractions, the girls may even have been fed the entire story and told how to act as a way to take vengeance on Sarah Good and other undesirable members of the community.

For centuries, the prevailing and perhaps singular theory was that, regardless of the motivation, the girls made everything up. Then, once events starting taking motion, it got completely out of their control and they had to keep playing again lest they face retribution for their own sins. However, more recently there has been an alternative theory proposed.

Researchers have explored various theories, but a common and potentially scientific explanation is ergot poisoning, or convulsive ergotism. This could have resulted from eating rye bread infected with the fungus Claviceps purpurea, of which LSD is a derivative. Though this could potentially explain both the physical and psychological symptoms, it would still only be part of the story.

Though it is possible for the symptoms to persist for several months, this would only be expected with prolonged exposure. Otherwise, the symptoms can clear up in as little as 10 days. Prolonged exposure seems extremely unlikely, as such a large supply of contaminated food would likely have affected more than a small handful of girls. Whether the original outbursts experienced by Betty and Abigail were the result of ergot poisoning or not, everything that happened in the months following was almost certainly the result of family grudges, jealousy, and children’s need for attention.

We’d love to say that Salem Witch Trials remain a cautionary tale and that we hope such hysteria could never happen again, but it’s too late for that. With McCarthyism of the 1950s being strikingly similar to what happened in Salem in 1692, we can just hope that it doesn’t happen again anytime soon.

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