Proctor, John and Elizabeth (17th century) Victims of the Salem Witches trials in 1692–93.
John and Elizabeth Proctor (also spelled Procter) were well-to-do farmers in Salem Farms (now Peabody) when the witch hysteria erupted in Salem Village, Massachusetts. John Proctor was openly critical of the trials and of the fits of the girls who cried out against their neighbors as witches. His criticism backfired tragically on him and his wife.
After Rebecca Nurse was examined by the magistrates on charges of witchcraft, Proctor went home in anger, declaring that the girls should all be put to the whipping post before everyone was accused of witchcraft. One of the girls who had fits allegedly caused by the witches was Mary Warren, one of Proctor’s servants. On the morning of Nurse’s examination by the magistrates, Proctor went home in a rage over the injustice of it. He told Warren that if she were indeed afflicted, then he wished her to be more afflicted, because she and the other girls were accusing innocent people. When Warren went into fits, he threatened to thrash her to beat the fits out of her—a common treatment for hysterical and mad behavior at the time.
On April 11, 1692, Elizabeth Proctor was cried out against as a witch and arrested. John went to her public examination to defend her. reverend Samuel Parris’ manservant, John Indian, testified that Elizabeth had appeared to him in spirit, attempted to choke him and had tried to get him to sign her devil’s book.
Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam testified that Elizabeth had appeared to them many times and had caused them great afflictions. She had asked them to sign her book too. Mary Warren said that Elizabeth forced her to sign the book.
When Elizabeth denied the accusations, the girls fell into fits and screamed that they saw Elizabeth’s apparition sitting on a beam above them. The girls then cried out against John Proctor as a Wizard, making him the first man to be accused of witchcraft in the Salem hysteria. The girls said they saw his apparition approach other women who were present at the hearing. Those women, Goodwife Pope and Goodwife Bibber, responded by immediately falling into fits. The next day, both John and Elizabeth were sent to prison along with several other victims.
As soon as they were sent to jail, deputies of the court went to the Proctor farm and seized all of the valuable assets. The cattle were sold or slaughtered for shipment to the West Indies. Beer and soup were emptied from their containers so that the deputies could take the containers. They left nothing for the Proctors’ two children, William and Sarah.
The Proctors were tried together on August 5 in the Court of Oyer & Terminer and condemned to death. Elizabeth “pleaded her belly,” meaning that she was pregnant. According to law, a pregnant woman could not be executed, because her unborn child was considered to be innocent. Execution would still take place, but after the child was born. John Proctor was sentenced to be hanged.
Their children, William and Sarah, also were accused of witchcraft. William protested his innocence and was tortured by having his neck tied to his heels until his blood gushed forth from his nose.
In desperation, John wrote a petition to the court protesting the innocence of himself and Elizabeth and likening the trials to the Spanish Inquisition. Thirty-one of their former neighbors in Ipswich and 20 of their friends in Salem signed a petition attesting to their virtuous characters and lives. The petition had no influence.
John soon realized that they could not get fair trials with the girls’ hysterical fits being allowed as testimony. A few days before the Proctors’ own trials—and four days after the execution of Nurse—John wrote to Increase Mather and four other leading Boston ministers, asking them for a change of venue to Boston, or, if that were not possible, then to proceed in Salem with new magistrates who were less likely to be swayed by the hysterical girls.
He complained that the accused were already being condemned before they were put on trial. He also protested the torture of his children.
Mather was not swayed, answering on August 1 that “the Devil may sometimes represent an innocent person.”
John was sent to the gallows with the others on August 19. reverend Nicholas Noyes refused his request for prAyer, on the grounds that he did not confess that he was a witch. John went to his death with dignity.
Elizabeth gave birth in January 1693. By then, the witch hunts were over, and she was spared her death sentence. However, she had no legal rights and could not reclaim any of the property owned by her husband. In 1696 she petitioned the court for a reversal of her verdict in order to restore her civil rights, but without success. In 1711, the judgments were reversed for 22 survivors and their families, and small amounts of restitution were paid.
- Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: New American Library, 1969.
- Upham, Charles. History of Witchcraft and Salem Village. Boston: Wiggin and Lunt, 1867.