Salem Witch Trials of 1692
Nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris, daughter of Samuel Parris, minister of the Salem Village parish, grins nervously at her cousin, Abigail Williams. They both knew what they were doing was strictly forbidden by Puritan theology, but their youthful curiosity was too strong to ignore.
In New England, experimenting with the occult was tantamount to tempting Satan. It was commonly believed that such meddling invited the Devil into one’s life. But Elizabeth and Abigail had never seen Satan, and they considered warnings of his presence simply exaggerations adults used to frighten children into obedience. It was not that they didn’t believe in Satan, for they did. They just didn’t think the innocent experiments they conducted could have any influence on whether or not he manifested himself.
While two years younger than Abigail, Elizabeth was far more precocious and possessed a lively imagination that never ceased probing and searching. Elizabeth almost always took the lead when the two girls played together, which was often, as they lived under the same roof.
In 1689 Samuel Parris, a planter and merchant in Barbados, had been invited to Salem Village to become its minister. He brought with him his wife, daughter Elizabeth, niece Abigail Williams, and slave Tituba.
Salem was comprised of two distinct geographical communities under the same civil authority. Salem Town was the prosperous mercantile center built around the busy harbor. Many of its residents were men of wealth and power. Salem Town derived its income from the sea and from potters, shops, innkeepers, shoemakers and the like. Adjoining Salem Village was more inland and was peopled by families that worked the land. Feeling threatened by their wealthy neighbors in Salem Town, they watched with disapproval as Salem Town grew richer each year, gradually abandoning the Puritan ethic of selflessness and the dedication to community over the individual.
The gulf between the two areas had grown so wide that Salem Village was debating whether to become independent from Salem Town. This was the climate into which Samuel Parris came to Salem. He was well liked in Salem Village and not trusted in Salem Town.
Tituba spent much of her time with the two younger girls. She brought with her many superstitions from her South American tribal background and regaled the girls with stories of witchcraft and of the supernatural. Many times the girls became frightened as the slave recounted strange tales of the occult and the nether world. As scary as the stories were, predictably, the girls kept coming back for more.
Elizabeth cracked open an egg and carefully poured the white into the water. The two girls watched expectantly to see what fate awaited them. If they were lucky, the egg white would assume the shape of something good.
Soon after, the two girls began to behave in strange ways. They started speaking gibberish and flailed about with their arms and legs. Their bodies contorted in awful ways. At times the girls went into a trance-like state, becoming mute. At other times they would blurt out blasphemous epithets. The fits became more frequent, and the people of Salem Village began to speak in hushed tones about what might be causing them. More and more they talked of the possibility that the girls had become afflicted by evil phenomena.
It was not long before several other girls began to manifest similar symptoms. Eleven-year-old Ann Putnam, a friend of Elizabeth and Abigail, was the next to exhibit the frightening behavior. Ann’s parents were among the most prominent in Salem Village, which only provoked more hushed talk around the village.
At this an audible gasp from Ann Putnam, the mother of young Ann, seemed to sum up what all present were feeling. Dr. William Griggs, a respected physician, was known to have dealt with a case of Satanic possession in Andover, or Amesbury or some such place.
The normally dour hatchet face of Parris was, if possible, more funereal than usual. “It is something that must be considered, I’m afraid,” he said lugubriously. “He will begin his examinations tomorrow. Hopefully we shall know within a day or two.” Upon hearing this, the parents present became hysterical, some weeping, some moaning. Parris frowned, waiting patiently for them to calm down. Finally he was able to continue.
“While it is not certain that your girls are possessed, I think you must face the possibility that this is so. If this is the case, it does not mean necessarily that they can’t be helped. You can be sure that every member of the clergy in Salem will do what we can to purge their souls of such evil.”
Parris pretended to consider the matter. After a well-calculated pause, he said, “We cannot let the Fiend take control of Salem. Of course I’d prefer to see your exorcism work, but if it fails in some instances ‘tis better to rid this earth of evil than to let it thrive in our very midst. Do you not agree?”
Three days later, Dr. Griggs shares his findings with Parris. They then make the findings public at a gathering in the town center. The doctor found no normal causes for the girls’ afflictions and concluded that their problem must have a supernatural basis—most likely witchcraft. It was known that witches sought out children as targets for demonic possession, so the doctor’s diagnosis seemed plausible. The gathering of town folk erupted into noisy disorder as mothers and fathers franticly sought reassurance that their families would not be touched. Reverend Parris and the other town leaders urged everyone to be calm and cooperate fully. They would get to the root of the problem. Eventually the meeting broke up, but the hunt for witches had just begun.
The situation calls for desperate measures, as people feared that the evil would spread to other children in the community. Reverend Parris immediately began conducting prayer services with the hope the prayers might rid the girls of the evil that possessed them. A call for fasting went goes. Nothing seems to help. The afflicted girls continue to act in strange ways.
Then one day Mary Sibley, a neighbor of the Parrises, comes to Tituba with an antidote that was supposed to counteract the black magic that afflicted the girls. She called it white magic. Sibley urged the Indian slave to bake a cake using rye flour and urine from one of the victims. Tituba used urine from Elizabeth and fed the cake to a dog. Tituba said that the dog would reveal the identity of the witch that had afflicted the girls.
Suspicion had already centered on Tituba, as it was generally known that she had told the girls about witchcraft, voodoo, and demonic possession. Her participation in the cake-baking incident only solidifies belief in her guilt.
Meanwhile, still more girls begin to exhibit bizarre behavior. Elizabeth Hubbard, Suzannah Sheldon and Mary Warren all begin to have fits and to act out. Some complain of feeling biting and pinching sensations. Some were found in rigid, frozen postures—often twisted and contorted. Others became mute. Still others yelled out terrible, disgusting oaths.
Ann Putnam now reports seeing “witches flying through the mist.” Her family, especially her mother, Ann senior, support her in her accusations. With the Putnam’s high standing in the community, this support add fuel to the already inflamed witch-hunt in Salem. Something has to be done.
Essex County magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne schedule their examinations of the four accused women for March 1 at Ingersoll’s Tavern. Hundreds show up for the proceedings so the judges have to move the examinations to the Salem Meeting House.
“Why do you hurt these children?” Hathorne pointed to Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Warren, and Suzannah Sheldon. The number of girls who claimed to have been afflicted had grown.
Then Hathorne addressed the several young girls who had leveled the accusations in the first place. “I ask you children to look upon this woman, and tell the court if she is the person that has hurt you.” The children, almost in unison, said that she was one of the persons who had tormented them. Sarah Good’s mouth fell open as she heard the words of the girls, but she said nothing. The girls began twisting and writhing, as if tormented by some unseen force. Then they recoiled, as if some invisible force had pinched them. Throughout these grotesque contortions the girls uttered profanities and cried out like beasts of the forest. The supernatural sounds and movements were not lost upon the magistrates sitting at the front of the meetinghouse.
During the next few weeks more townspeople came forward and testified that they had been harmed or had seen apparitions of one or more of the accused women. As the fever grew in intensity, more people were accused of being witches.
On March 19, Rebecca Nurse was accused. On March 23, Dorcas Good, the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good and her husband William, was arrested “upon suspicion of acts of witchcraft by her committed according to complaints made against her by Edward Putnam and Jonathan Putnam of Salem Village.” The next day, Ann Putnam Jr., in a deposition said that she saw an apparition of Dorcas, who “did immediately almost choke me and torture me most grievously. She hath several times since tortured me by biting and pinching and almost choking me tempting me also to write in her book.”
On March 28, Elizabeth Proctor was denounced. April 3, Rebecca Nurse’s sister, Sarah Cloyce, was accused. By now the Salem Jail was filled to overflowing, and prisoners were being kept as far away as Boston.
April 22 Nehemiah Abbott Edward Bishop, Mary Black, Mary Easty, William and Deliverance Hobbs, Sarah Wildes, and Mary English were examined by judges Corwin and Hathorne. Only Nehemiah Abbott was cleared of all charges.
Sir William Phips, the new governor, arrives from England on May 14 accompanied by Increase Mather. On May 27, Phips establishes a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the witchcraft cases. The court was comprised of Chief Judge Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, plus nine Associate Judges: Nathaniel Saltonstall, Thomas Danforth, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne, and Jonathan Corwin.
The new court would base its decisions on numerous kinds of intangible evidence including supernatural attributes, reactions of the afflicted, spectral evidence, and confessions. Spectral evidence was the most controversial of all these forms of evidence, for it assumed that Satan could become an apparition or assume the “spectre” of an innocent person. An account of having seen an apparition or spectre was often accepted by the courts without any proof of its existence.
Until now the examinations of the accused by Judges Hathorne and Corwin had been just that—examinations. That is, they were inquiries by which the two magistrates gathered “evidence,” but these examinations did not have the power to hand down decisions. The Court of Oyer and Terminer, however, did have that power.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer tries its first case on June 2. It is the case of Bridget Bishop, a woman long known for her unconventional behavior. It is not difficult for the court to convict Bishop, for most people in Salem considered her lifestyle flamboyant and highly questionable. She was an easy target for the magistrates, as she dressed more colorfully than most, possessing far too showy a wardrobe for a proper and honest woman. It was common knowledge that Bishop fought publicly with her various husbands and entertained guests in her home until the wee hours, drinking and playing the forbidden game of shovel board. Some townspeople said she was mistress to two local tavern owners. Thus, her shameful conduct made her a perfect mark for Salem’s accusers. Bishop was the first to be pronounced guilty.
The authorities waste no time in meting out Bridget Bishop’s punishment. On June 10 she is hanged on Gallows Hill in Salem, protesting to the end, “I am no witch. I am innocent. I know nothing of it.”
There were some who opposed the trials. A number of people in Salem signed petitions in defense of the accused. Despite this opposition, though, the trials continued, for most people believed in witches and the evil they were capable of. The belief that witches were surrogates of the Devil ran deep. Everyone knew that the best way to purge this evil was by killing the surrogates, since there was no known way to destroy the Devil himself. At first a few were willing to try exorcism, but not now. Not when so many were afflicted. The numbers seemed to be growing every day. There was no time for such an uncertain cure as exorcism.
Many believed that Salem had, for some reason, been selected by Satan as a place to spread his wickedness. The growing wealth in Salem Town went against the grain of the more ascetic Puritans in Salem Village, and guilt hovered over the haves as well as the have-nots about how this material excess was evidence of the Devil’s handiwork. While execution was strong medicine, most leaders believed they had no choice but to search out and destroy the Devil’s surrogates before Salem fell completely under his control.
Rebecca Nurse was one of the least likely persons to be accused of witchcraft. A pious, sickly woman of 71, she was so well regarded in the community that she was considered by many to be nearly saint-like in character. A frail and delicate woman, her general demeanor and the respect most felt for her as the mother of a large family made it all the more shocking when people heard she’d been accused of witchcraft. Thirty-nine of Salem’s most upstanding citizens signed a petition in support of her good character stating, “we never had any cause or grounds to suspect her of any such thing as she is nowe acused of.”
Upon hearing the announcement the tense silence of the courtroom was shattered by a terrifying outcry from the “afflicted” girls and from some of the others in the courtroom. The courtroom was in such turmoil that Chief Judge Stoughton asked the jury if it had given adequate consideration to something Nurse had replied when Abigail Hobbs had accused her of witchcraft. Nurse had said, “Why do you bring her? She is one of us.” By this Nurse meant that Hobbs was a fellow prisoner, but the court took it to mean that she, too, was a witch. Nurse was hard of hearing, and when asked to explain her words, she remained silent. She had not heard the question. The jury interpreted this silence as indicative of her guilt. They deliberated a second time. This time the verdict was “Guilty.”
Nurse’s family protested to the court, and Governor Phips granted a reprieve. Upon hearing this, the accusers once again broke into fits. The court viewed these fits as irrefutable proof of Nurse’s guilt. On June 30 she was condemned to death.
By mid July the hysteria had spread to a number of nearby communities. In Andover, eighteen-year-old Mary Lacey was arrested. A search of her possessions claimed to reveal quilts and rags allegedly used for casting spells. They also found puppets representing targets for these spells. Neither Lacey nor anyone else in her family said they’d ever seen these items before. Lacey denied that she was a witch. As with many before her and many more to come, she was tortured with the intent of “persuading” her to confess her guilt. In Lacey’s case the authorities tied her neck and heels together until blood gushed from her nose. When the blood came, she confessed, accusing her mother, Mary Lacey, senior; her grandmother; and eight others in the community of consorting with the Devil.
On July 19, Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Wildes, Elizabeth Howe, and Suzannah Martin were hanged by the neck on Gallows Hill. "Well I may (laugh) at such folly," Martin had told her inquisitors ten days earlier. "I have no hand in witchcraft."
Four-year-old Dorcas Good watched from her cell as her mother and the others were led off to their public hanging. Sarah Good maintained her innocence to the moment of her execution. “Oh Lord, help me. It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in your hands.” As Elizabeth Howe was about to feel the hangman’s noose, she said, “If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent.”
On September 17, Rebecca Eames, Margaret Scott, Wilmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Abigail Faulkner, Mary Lacy, Ann Foster and Abigail Hobbs were tried and convicted of witchcraft. Of the nine people condemned this day, only four—Mary Parker, Willmott Redd, Margaret Scott and Samuel Wardwell would be put to death.
On September 19, eighty-year-old Giles Corey was executed. He was the only accused “witch” who was not hanged. He had refused a trial, and for that breach of judicial etiquette his punishment was to be executed by being pressed to death.
Corey was not a likeable man, so it was somewhat easier for the court to deal harshly with him. He had a reputation for being quarrelsome. One such quarrel with John Proctor had ended up in court. Corey was also known as a violent man. Rumor had it that he’d beaten to death a former hired hand. Loyalty to those closest to him was not his strong point, either. He believed that Martha, his wife, was a witch and said so in court.
But Corey was no coward. When accused of witchcraft himself, he chose not to respond to his indictment. Under English law he had the right to remain mute, which meant that he could not be tried. But he could be subjected to peine forte et dure (torture hard and long) until he responded to the charge or expired. For some inexplicable reason he chose peine forte et dure.
Corey was led naked onto the field outside the Salem jail and was forced to lie on his back on a large rock slab. The two burly executioners grunted as they strained to place two heavy stones on his chest and stomach. The executioners were surprised to find that the prisoner barely flinched.
It was the sheriff’s job to extract a confession from Corey. The sheriff didn’t expect it would take long, as Corey was an old man who wouldn’t be able to endure much torture. But the defendant remained silent as more and more stones were laid upon him. The other Salem authorities began to show signs of their own discomfort, for they had expected that Corey would not be able to take much more and would cry out his confession. This is what usually happened when people were subjected to peine forte et dure. But Corey was an unusual man in more ways than one. He didn’t oblige his tormentors even though the torture went on for two days.
On the second day, the sheriff climbed atop the pile and stood looking down at the uncooperative prisoner. By now the weight was such that Corey’s tongue protruded from his mouth. “Do you confess?” demanded the sheriff. Corey was gagging and could not respond. The sheriff, using his cane, forced the old man’s tongue back into his mouth. More boulders were added to the pile. “Do you confess?” roared the sheriff again. In a final gasp, Corey uttered something that was barely audible. The sheriff leaned closer, and Corey hissed, “Damn you. I curse you and Salem.” A few seconds later he died.
On September 21, Dorcas Hoar, who had originally pleaded innocent, changed her plea to guilty—very likely on advice that the outcome was likely to be more favorable. The court subsequently delayed her execution. Only Tituba and Abigail Hobbs before her had confessed. Because the Puritan court was more inclined to grant clemency to those who confessed than it was to those who proclaimed their innocence, none of these three women was ever executed. Some said that the women who confessed had done so because they had been advised that the court would be more inclined to grant mercy to them if they confessed and said they were repentant. It is hard to overestimate what this says about the courage and integrity of the accused who did not confess.
On September 22, Martha Corey, wife of Giles Corey was hanged on Gallows Hill. The same day Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Pudeator, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Wilmott Redd, and Samuel Wardwell were hanged.
On October 8, a man named Thomas Brattle wrote a letter to a clergyman expressing his concern about the witch trials. He was a man of some influence and most certainly a man of great courage. Brattle, himself, was highly respected in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for he was a graduate of Harvard College, who enjoyed great prominence as both a mathematician and an astronomer. A well-to-do Boston merchant, he was also treasurer of Harvard and a Boston magistrate himself. His accomplishments in mathematics and astronomy won him such distinction that he was accepted into London’s prestigious Royal Society.
Brattle challenged the very procedures of the court, explaining step-by-step how they violated legal precedent and accepted mere accusations as proof of guilt. “I think it very hard and unreasonable,” said Brattle, “that a town should lie under the blemish and scandal of sorceries and conjuration, merely for the inconsiderate practices of two or three girls in the said town.” Battle went on to say that he understood that it would not be easy for the court to admit it had been wrong. “I am very sensible, that it is irksome and disagreeable to go back, when a man’s doing so is an implication that he has been walking in a wrong path. However, nothing is more honourable than, upon due conviction, to retract and undo (so far as it may be) what has been amiss and irregular.”
On October 29, Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. A month later the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony created the Superior Court, which tried the remaining cases the following spring. No one else was convicted. Many still awaiting trial are finally released from jail. Mary Lacey was released in December of 1692. Her mother and grandmother were released at the same time.