Salem “Old Witch” Jail The jail that housed the accused Salem Witches during the witch hysteria of 1692–93 was a cold, foul, rat-infested dungeon located near the North river. It was used to house Indians, pirates and criminals, most of whom were condemned to die; the conditions in which such persons spent their last days were of little concern. It also housed debtors: people jailed because they could not pay their debts and those who were unable to pay the fees levied for keep in the jail. Construction of the dungeon was approved in 1683 by the town of Salem. It succeeded two earlier prisons, one built in 1663 on the seized lands of Quakers, and another built in 1669. The new jail, built in 1684, was constructed of large, hand-hewn oak timbers and siding, and measured 70 by 280 feet. There were no bars, for Puritan prisoners accepted their punishment. Those who did not and managed to escape were either caught or killed by Indians or wild animals. The prisoners were fed salted foods and drink mixed with herring-pickle, for which they had to pay. This caused a constant, dreadful thirst, which made them more likely to confess in order to get relief. Despite its grim conditions, the jail was a social gathering place. The jailkeeper sold grog to visitors who came in the evenings to play chess and other games. For a bond of one pound, a prisoner was released during the day to visit family and friends, and then returned at night. During the witch hysteria of 1692, the jail housed four lots of accused victims. The jailers routinely stripped the women of their clothing to examine and prick them in search of witch is Witch’s Marks (see Pricking). They— and members of their families—were tortured for confessions (see torture). One of the accused, Elizabeth Cary, was locked in leg irons and placed in a room with no bed. “The weight of the irons was about eight pounds,” wrote her husband, Captain Nathaniel Cary. “These irons and her other afflictions, soon brought her into convulsion fits, so that I thought she would die that night.” Cary bribed the jailer with his life’s savings in order to get his wife freed. Elizabeth Cary was not the only accused witch to suffer convulsions; many of the other victims suffered hysterical fits from the conditions and their treatment at the hands of the jailers. Two victims, Sarah Osborne and Ann Foster, died in jail. Foster’s son was assessed a fee of two pounds, 16 shillings for permission to remove his mother’s body for burial. The salaries and expenses of the sheriff and his staff, the magistrates, the hangman and all persons concerned with the court were paid by the accused, who were each assessed one pound, 10 shillings. In addition, the prisoners were billed seven shillings and sixpence for their fetters,
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chains and cuffs, and an extra fee for being searched for witch’s marks. The hangman’s substantial fee was charged to the victims’ estates or families. Those who had money fared the best. Captain John Alden, jailed on witchcraft charges, escaped by bribing the jailkeeper five pounds; he hid in New York until 1693, when the hysteria ended. After victims were condemned, they were taken from the jail by oxcart out to GAllows HIll. Their corpses, swaying from the limbs of the locust trees, could be seen from the center of town. In 1764 the jail was expanded with the addition of second and third stories. It was discontinued as a jail in 1813 and subsequently passed into private ownership and was used as a residence. In 1863 it was purchased by Abner Cheney Goodell, state historian; it was later acquired by his son, Abner Cheney Goodell, Jr. The jail was given little historical attention until 1934, when mrs. Goodell, Jr., found in an old sealed closet a jailer’s bill for the keep of paupers, some of whom were victims in the Salem trials. In response to public inquiries about the dungeon, the Goodells opened the jail to the public in 1935. The original jail was closed sometime later and re-created in a museum, the Salem Witch Dungeon.
- Goodell, Alfred P. “The Story of the Old Witch Jail.” Undated manuscript, Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.