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What Were the Salem Witch Trials of 1692?

salem witch trials 1692
Lithograph representing a witch on trial in Salem by Joseph E. Baker, c. 1892, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

Beginning in early 1692, women and men were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem Village and Salem Town, Massachusetts and surrounding communities. The initial allegations turned into mass hysteria that consumed the people of Salem and led to at least 150 individuals being accused of practicing witchcraft. Massachusetts was struggling with social unrest and political turmoil, which fueled the mass hysteria event. The Salem Witch Trials resulted in the wrongful conviction and deaths of 25 individuals deemed as outcasts.

 

Before the Salem Witch Trials: Puritans & the Massachusetts Bay Colony

massachusetts bay colony general court laws
The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony based on the Body of Liberties, 1672, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

The origin of the mass hysteria that encompassed the Salem Witch Trials began with the colonization of the New England region. Most colonists who moved to New England were Puritans who broke off from the Roman Catholic Church along with King Henry VIII of England and became a part of the Anglican Church. King Charles of England granted a charter in 1629, which established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The stockholders of the charter were granted permission to establish a government for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which turned into a self-government system.

 

In 1630, Puritans arrived in the colony and began setting up the government system, which included the election of a governor and company officers to create the General Court. There is some dispute as to whether the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy or a democracy. While the Puritan colonists believed in the separation of Church and state, Puritans still expected the government to protect the Church and its beliefs. This meant that people could be incriminated for committing sins. Most Puritans also opposed religious toleration.

 

In 1641, the General Court drafted a series of laws to create the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which became the code of laws by which citizens of the colony were to abide. There were 12 laws that, if broken, could result in the death penalty. One of these laws included being a witch or practicing witchcraft.

 

The Roots of Witchcraft Hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts

map salem village witch trials
Map of Salem Village during the witchcraft trials by W.P. Upham, 1866, via University of Virginia Library

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The Massachusetts Bay Colony began operating as a self-government system under the General Court and acted independently from the King of England and Parliament. After King Charles II took the throne in 1661, he canceled the royal charter King Charles I had granted and attempted to establish a more formal royal rule over the colony. The political change uprooted the self-government system that the colony had been operating under since its founding. Along with political turmoil, the colony found itself in the midst of a religious conflict between Puritans and other Protestants, such as Quakers and Baptists.

 

A smallpox epidemic, conflict with French colonists and Native Americans, and harsh summers and winters in preceding years also contributed to the colony’s restlessness. By the 1660s, the colonists in Massachusetts were on edge, and panic turned into mass hysteria. Colonists took their worries out on the social outcasts of the colony who didn’t attend church regularly or exhibited strange behaviors.

 

The Accused in the Salem Witch Trials

salem witch trials courtroom scene
Illustration of a courtroom scene in the Salem Witch Trials with an afflicted girl on the floor and the accused pointing upwards by O. C. Darley, William Shepard, and Granville Perkins, 1876, via University of Virginia Library

 

The first accusations of witchcraft were brought against Tituba, an enslaved woman brought to Salem Village by Reverend Samuel Parris. The appointment of Reverend Samuel Parris as minister was controversial. However, his appointment was supported by the Putnams, one of the most prominent families in Salem Village. The Putnam family played a significant role in the Salem witch hunts.

 

Tituba had shared stories with Reverend Parris’ nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams. Tituba believed in the occult and spoke of supernatural and mystical happenings to the children.

 

Fascinated by Tituba’s magical stories, Elizabeth and Abigail shared these stories with 12-year-old Ann Putnam, the daughter of Thomas Putnam, one of the leading members of the parish in Salem. The children began exhibiting odd behavior, such as hiding under chairs and making strange gestures. While these behaviors could’ve been taken lightly and written off as childish acts, paranoia caused them to be taken very seriously. Reverend Parris invited physician Dr. William Griggs to evaluate the children’s strange behaviors. Dr. Griggs determined that the children were afflicted by witchcraft. The children were questioned about who could have bewitched them, and Tituba was the first to be named.

 

salem witch trials examination
“Examination of a Witch” depicting a young Salem woman being examined to determine if she’s a witch by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, 1853, via University of Virginia Library

 

Tituba was brought in for questioning on March 1, 1692, and likely coerced into confessing that she practiced witchcraft. During her examination, Tituba also named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne as co-conspirators. Sarah Good was likely targeted as a witch because she was a known beggar in Salem and was often observed wandering the streets, muttering under her breath.

 

Within the next few weeks, Ann Putnam and several other young girls stepped forward, claiming they had been afflicted by witchcraft. The girls accused Rebecca Nurse and Martha Cory of practicing witchcraft. Rebecca Nurse was an elderly woman who lived in Salem Village. She was known to have an ongoing feud with the Putnam family and didn’t support the appointment of Reverend Parris. Martha’s husband, Giles Corey, also fell victim to witchcraft accusations. The diagnosis of affliction by witchcraft made by Dr. Griggs encouraged the people of Salem to go on a witch hunt.

 

The Accusers

salem witch trials george jacobs
Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692 by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, 1855, via Peabody Essex Museum, Salem

 

The first accusers in the Salem Witch Trials were young girls. There are several theories as to why the girls began to exhibit strange behavior, such as ergot poisoning from rotten bread and encephalitis lethargica. However, these theories do not fully explain the girls’ strange behavior and their willingness to accuse innocent people of witchcraft. History professor Emerson Baker at Salem State University suggests that the girls may have been suffering from psychological ailments.

 

Ann Putnam was one of the main accusers and attestants in the Salem Witch Trials. By the end of the witch hunt, Ann had accused at least 62 people of witchcraft. Thomas Putnam was responsible for seeking warrants against Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. Others who the Putnams later accused throughout the spring and summer of 1692 were known to have property disputes with the family.

 

Relatives of the Putnam family also came forward to make accusations. Mercy Lewis was a distant relative of Thomas Putnam and friends with Ann Putnam. Lewis was responsible for accusing several people of witchcraft, including Reverend George Burroughs. Seventeen-year-old Mary Wolcott was among the first afflicted girls and accused 16 people of witchcraft throughout the trials. Relative and servant to Dr. Griggs, 18-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard was another main accuser responsible for testifying against 29 people during the Salem Witch Trials. By the fall of 1692, more than 150 people in Salem Town, Salem Village, and surrounding areas had been accused of witchcraft.

 

Sentences of the Salem Witch Trial Victims

salem witch trials bridget bishop hanging
Execution of Bridget Bishop at Salem, 1692 by Joseph Boggs Beale, c. 1885, via History of Massachusetts Blog

 

Bridget Bishop, a widow who lived in Salem Town, was the first person to be tried based on witchcraft accusations in the Salem Witch Trials. She had previously been accused of witchcraft years prior but was acquitted. Governor William Phips established the Court of Oyer and Terminer, or Special Court, on May 27, 1692 to handle the witchcraft cases. Since the colony’s laws were no longer in place due to the removal of the royal charter, the judges of the Special Court accepted spectral evidence. All of the testimonies against the accused were based on spectral evidence, in which the accusers claimed to be tormented by witches in dreams and visions.

 

Bridget Bishop was found guilty based on spectral evidence and hanged on June 10, 1692. Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, and Rebecca Nurse were also brought to trial in June. Rebecca Nurse was initially found not guilty by the jury, but the afflicted girls had an outburst as the verdict was read aloud. The jury reconvened and returned with a guilty verdict. Good, Howe, Martin, and Nurse were sentenced to death and hanged on July 19.

 

Many people came forward and accused others of practicing witchcraft in fear of being accused themselves. Some of those accused were known to have property disputes with their accusers, including Reverend George Burroughs and Martha Carrier. By the end of the trials, 20 people were sentenced to death, and most were hanged. The court attempted to force a plea out of Giles Corey by pressing him under stones. Giles refused to speak and was crushed to death. Five of the accused died in jail while awaiting trial.

 

Removal of Spectral Evidence in the Court

province massachusetts act salem witchcraft
Massachusetts Bay Colony Act recognizing the wrongful convictions and executions of Salem Witch Trial victims, 1713, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

In June 1692, Reverend Cotton Mather of the Congregationalist Old North Meeting House of Boston stepped forward and requested the Special Court not to admit spectral evidence. Reverend Mather also encouraged the Special Court to conduct speedy trials. His request for speedy trials was granted, but the Special Court ignored his request relating to spectral evidence. Cotton’s father, Reverend Increase Mather, denounced the use of spectral evidence in the court on October 2.

 

Reverend Increase Mather’s denunciation encouraged Governor Phips to order the court to no longer accept spectral evidence in the Salem Witch Trials. Governor Phips dissolved the Special Court by the end of the month. This prevented any further arrests from being made in relation to witchcraft. In November, the Superior Court of Judicature was established to replace the Special Court and tried the rest of the accused. Since there was no solid evidence to pin against the accused, most of those brought to trial under the Superior Court were released. Tituba never went to trial and remained in jail for about a year until her charges were dismissed. She was released from jail in May 1693 into the hands of a new enslaver.

 

End of the Salem Witch Trials & Mass Hysteria

salem witch trials memorial site
Salem Witch Trials granite memorial site by Richard B. Trask, via Danvers Archival Center, Peabody Institute Library

 

The mass hysteria over witchcraft began to fizzle out after the remaining accused were released. Since spectral evidence was no longer admissible in court, it deterred colonists from accusing others of witchcraft as there was no admissible evidence to support their claims. Samuel Sewall, one of the nine judges on the Special Court, delivered a public confession of guilt and apology in 1697 for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials.

 

The government ordered a day of fasting and prayers to seek forgiveness for their sins of wrongfully convicting innocent people during the trials. The Salem Witch Trials were officially declared unlawful by the General Court in 1702. Ann Putnam released a public apology for her involvement in the trials in 1706, claiming that what she had done was “ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.” The government of Massachusetts began exonerating victims of the trials in 1703, but the last of the victims weren’t pardoned until 2001.

 

Salem Village was renamed the town of Danvers in 1757. A memorial site consisting of granite walls and benches with the names of the Salem Witch Trials victims and the dates of their executions was built in the city of Salem. The area is now a hotspot for tourists in October, especially nearing Halloween, for those captivated by the tragic history of the so-called “witches” of Massachusetts.

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