Salem Witches : One of the last outbreaks of Witchcraft hysteria, and certainly the largest in the New World, occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1692 to 1693. During the course of the trials, 141 people were arrested as suspects, 19 were hanged and one was pressed to death. Those afflicted by the witches were mostly young girls, yet their “child’s play” led not only to the deaths of innocent people but also to total upheaval in the colonial Puritan Church.
Scores of studies have examined the causes of the Salem witchcraft trials: some dealing with the political and social problems of Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts), others with repressed sexual, generational or racial hostility; revolt by the disenfranchised; repression of women; regional feuds brought over from England; or ergotism, a food poisoning in the bread flour that may have led to hallucinations. Some studies have concentrated solely on the overly zealous nature of the parishioners. Whatever the reasons, there is little doubt that all those who were involved believed totally that witchcraft posed a serious threat to the health and spiritual well-being of the colony.
Divisions in the town.
The Puritans who left England and settled in Salem in 1626, under the leadership of Roger Conant, hoped they would find peace in the new land. The settlement originally was named Naumkeag, the Indian term for “land of three rivers.” Sometime before July 24, 1629, the name was changed to Salem from the Hebrew term shalom, meaning “peace.” By 1692, however, peace was far from the order of the day.
For years, the community of Salem Village had chafed under the administration of neighboring Salem Town, which held legal, church and taxing authority over the more rural village. Villagers were required to attend services in the town, although the distance for some residents was more than 10 miles. As early as 1666, village residents petitioned the town and the colony’s General Court for permission to build a meetinghouse and hire a minister, which they finally accomplished in 1672.
That permission alone did not make them a fullfledged community, however, but more a parish within the juris diction of Salem Town. The 17th-century Puritan “Church” was not the building, minister or attendees but an “elect”—those select few who had been filled with divine grace, given testimony to God’s power and were allowed to receive communion. Church members attending services in Salem Village still had to travel to their real churches for communion. Continued discontent among Salem Villagers about their situation, coupled with disputes over who in the village had the power to select ministers, was described as a “restless frame of spirit” a—moral defect in the villagers’ characters—instead of a legal issue. By the time Samuel Parris arrived to be the fourth minister in Salem Village in 1689, the community was irreparably split between those who wished to maintain ties with Salem Town and those who believed the village was best served by autonomy. Parris vocally supported the separatist interests. Eventually, the village divided between those who stood behind Parris and those who did not.
Beginning of the hysteria.
In some ways, rev. Parris caused the witch hysteria, however unknowingly. Before becoming a minister, Parris had worked as a merchant in Barbados; when he returned to Massachusetts, he brought back a slave couple, John and Tituba Indian (Indian was probably not the couple’s surname but a description of their race). Tituba cared for Parris’ nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, called Betty, and his 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams. Especially in winter, when bad weather kept the girls indoors, Tituba most likely regaled the girls with stories about her native Barbados, including tales of Voodoo.
Fascinated with a subject that the Puritans found shocking, the girls soon became dabblers in the occult. Joined by other girls in the village who ranged from 12 to 20—Susannah Sheldon, Elizabeth Booth Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Warren, Mary Walcott, Sarah Churchill, mercy Lewis and Ann Putnam, Jr. (Ann Putnam Sr. was her mother)—they began telling each other’s fortunes. making a primitive crystal ball by floating an egg white in a glass of water, the girls tried to ascertain the trades of their future husbands. One reportedly saw the likeness of a coffin, representing death; what had begun as a fun game had now turned into dangerous magic.
The girls, beginning with Betty Parris in January 1692, began having fits, crawling into holes, making strange noises and contorting their bodies. It is impossible to know whether the girls feigned witchcraft to hide their involvement in Tituba’s magic or whether they actually believed they were possessed (see Possession). In any case, rev. Parris consulted with the previous Salem Village minister, rev. Deodat Lawson, and with rev. John Hale of nearby Beverly. In February he brought in Dr. William Griggs, the village physician and employer of the now-afflicted Elizabeth Hubbard. Griggs had no medical precedent for the girls’ condition, so he diagnosed bewitchment.
Seventeenth-century Puritans believed in witchcraft as a cause of illness and death. They further believed the accepted wisdom of the day that witches derived their power from the Devil. So the next step was to find the witch or witches responsible, exterminate them and cure the girls. After much prayer and exhortation, the frightened girls, unable or unwilling to admit their own complicity, began to name names.
Right before this, Mary Walcott’s aunt, Mary Sibley, tried to use magic to find the witches. She requested that Tituba make a witch cake out of rye meal mixed with the urine of the afflicted girls. The cake, taken from a traditional English recipe, was then fed to the dog. If the girls were bewitched, one of two things were supposed to happen: either the dog would suffer torments too, or as her Familiar, he would identify his witch. rev. Parris furiously accused Mary Sibley of “going to the Devil for help against the Devil,” lectured her on her sins and publicly humiliated her in church. But the damage had been done: “the Devil hath been raised among us, and his rage is vehement and terrible,” said Parris, “and when he shall be silenced, the Lord only knows.”
Crying out against the witches.
The first accused, or “cried out against,” were Tituba herself, SarahGood and Sarah Osborne. Goodwife (usually shortened to Goody; mistress or mrs. was reserved for women of higher rank) Good’s husband William did not provide for his family, and she defiantly begged and looked out for them herself. Goody Osborne, old and bedridden, had earlier caused a scandal by allowing her servant to live in her house before she married him. Tituba was a natural suspect. Suspicious neighbors were not surprised that any or all three were witches, and none was a member of the church.
Warrants for their arrest were issued, and all three appeared in the ordinary, or public house, of Nathaniel Ingersoll before Salem Town magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin on march 1. The girls, present at all of the interrogations, fell into fits and convulsions as each woman stood up for questioning, claiming that the woman’s specter was roaming the room, biting them, pinching them and often appearing as a bird or other animal someplace in the room, usually on a particular beam of the ceiling. Hathorne and Corwin angrily demanded why the women were tormenting the girls, but both Sarahs denied any wrongdoing.
Tituba, however, beaten since the witch cake episode by rev. Parris and afraid to reveal the winter story sessions and conjurings, confessed to being a witch. She said that a black dog had threatened her and ordered her to hurt the girls, and that two large Cats, one black and one red, had made her serve them. She claimed that she had
ridden through the air on a pole to “witch meetings” with Goody Good and Goody Osborne, accompanied by the other women’s familiars: a yellow bird for Good, a winged creature with a woman’s head and another hairy one with a long nose for Osborne. Tituba cried that Good and Osborne had forced her to attack Ann Putnam Jr. with a knife just the night before, and Ann corroborated her statement by claiming that the witches had come at her with a knife and tried to cut off her head.
Most damningly for Salem, Tituba revealed that the witchcraft was not limited to herself and the two Sarahs: that there was a Coven of witches in Massachusetts, about six in number, led by a tall, white-haired man dressed all in black, and that she had seen him. During the next day’s questioning, Tituba claimed that the tall man had come to her many times, forcing her to sign his Devil’s book in blood, and that she had seen nine names already there (see Devil's Pact).
Such a story, frighteningly real to the Puritans because of rumors that had circulated a few years earlier that a conspiracy of witches would destroy Salem Village, beginning with the household of the minister. Hathorne, Corwin and rev. Parris were pushed to begin an all-out hunt for the perpetrators of such crimes. All three women were taken to prison in Boston, where Good and Osborne were put in heavy iron chains to keep their specters from traveling about and tormenting the girls. Osborne, already frail, died there.
The politics of witchcraft.
Complicating the legal process of arrest and trial was the loss of Massachusetts Bay’s colonial charter. Massachusetts Bay was established as a Puritan colony in 1629 and was enjoying self rule when the English courts revoked its charter in 1684–85, restricting the colony’s independence. The high-handed Sir Edmund Andros, the first royal governor, was overthrown in 1688 when William and Mary of Orange took away the English throne from James II in the Glorious revolution. Since that time, Massachusetts Bay had had no authority to try capital cases, and for the first six months of the witch hunt, suspects merely languished in prison, usually in irons (see Salem “Old Witch” Jail).
But more than the legal ramifications, the loss of Massachusetts’ charter represented to the Puritans a punishment from God: the colony had been established in covenant with God, and prayer and fasting and good lives would keep up Massachusetts’ end of the covenant and protect the colony from harm. Increasingly, the petty transgressions and factionalism of the colonists were viewed as sins against the covenant, and an outbreak of witchcraft seemed the ultimate retribution for the colony’s evil ways. Published sermons by Cotton Mather and his father, Increase Mather, and the long-winded railings against witchcraft from rev. Parris’ pulpit every Sunday, convinced the villagers that evil walked among them and must be rooted out at all cost.
More witches are named.
Relying on the spectral visions of the afflicted girls, the magistrates and ministers pressed them to name more witches if they could, and Ann Putnam Jr., with the help of her vengeful mother, cried out against MarthaCorey, a member of the Salem Village congregation and wife of local landowner Giles Corey. Before arresting her, Ann’s uncle Edward Putnam and Ezekiel Cheever rode to the Corey home to speak with Martha. The men pressed Ann to reveal what clothes Martha was wearing, hoping to prove that such a godly churchwoman was innocent. Ann claimed she could not, as Martha had temporarily removed her spectral sight.
When the men arrived, Martha calmly said she knew why they had come and even taunted them by asking, “Does shee tell you what clothes I have on?” They were shocked to think Martha had preternatural knowledge of the earlier conversation. And when Martha visited the Thomas Putnam home to see young Ann, the girl fell into terrible fits, claiming she saw Martha’s specter roasting a man over a fire. mercy Lewis said other witches joined Martha’s specter, urging her to sign the Devil’s book. Martha steadfastly maintained her innocence later before the magistrates, but the girls’ torments and anguish in court convinced the judges she was a witch. Every time she said something or made a gesture, the girls mimicked her. If she bit her lip, the girls shrieked in pain, showing teeth marks on their arms and hands. Even her husband, Giles, testified against her and asked her to confess to witchcraft.
The next woman named as a witch was Rebecca Nurse, one of the most outstanding people of her community and a church member. If the girls had named Rebecca Nurse or Martha Corey as witches first, instead of Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, their accusations probably would have been dismissed as folly. But by now, the magistrates were willing to believe anything the girls claimed. Even close family members of the accused believed in the women’s guilt, refusing to believe that the magistrates or girls would accuse anyone who was not a witch.
Rebecca’s accuser was Ann Putnam, Sr., who had joined the ranks of “the afflicted,” as the accusing girls were known, by claiming that the specters of Corey and Nurse had come to her and tortured her hellishly, urging her to sign the Devil’s book. Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott and Elizabeth Hubbard agreed that Nurse had come to them, too, wanting them to sign. Rebecca was old and ill, but she was forced to stand before the magistrates and the girls. Ann Putnam, Jr. claimed Nurse’s specter had beaten her, and Ann Sr. cried out that Nurse had brought the “black man” with her. Rebecca defended herself as best she could, but she too was sent to prison.
Joining Rebecca in prison was four-year-old Dorcas Good, whom the afflicted girls had claimed was a witch, learning her evil trade from her mother Sarah. Dorcas was chained like all the others.
The next victims of witch hysteria were John And Elizabeth Procter, tavern-keepers and vocal opponents of the proceedings. Mary Warren, one of the original afflicted girls and Procter’s maid, earlier had been “cured” of her fits when Procter threatened to beat her if she persisted. knowing of the Procters’ opposition, the girls were eager to eliminate any who would dispute them.
But before the Procters were arrested, Sarah Cloyce, the sister of Rebecca Nurse, stormed out of church in disgust when rev. Parris’ sermon implied the guilt of her sister and all the other accused witches. Such a display of anger made her a convenient target, and the girls cried out against Cloyce and Elizabeth Procter together. John Procter accompanied his wife to support her before the magistrates, who had moved the proceedings to the Salem Town meetinghouse and were joined by Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and Captain Samuel Sewell. Tituba’s husband John had joined the afflicted, and he, along with Mary Walcott, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Jr. and mercy Lewis all claimed that the witches’ specters tortured them, urging them to sign the Devil’s book and drink victims’ blood. During the interrogation, Abigail and Ann Jr. saw John Procter’s specter sitting on a ceiling beam and tormenting the girls.
Abigail accused Elizabeth Procter of forcing her maid, Mary Warren, to sign the Devil’s book, a shrewd defense against Mary’s reluctance to testify against her employer. By doing so, the girls named Mary a witch and gave notice to the other afflicted that hesitation or denial would result in their being named witches. During her own interrogation, Mary had no choice but to confirm the girls’ accusations and rejoin their ranks.
Arrested along with Mary Warren were Giles Corey, BridgetBishop and Abigail Hobbs. Bishop entertained people in her home with liquor and games to all hours, dressed in flashy red outfits and had scandalized Salem for years. Accusations of witchcraft were not far behind. Abigail Hobbs, mentally unbalanced, readily confessed to witchcraft and told Hathorne of her bargain with “the old boy” that allowed him to appear to the afflicted girls in her shape. Instead of dismissing her story as that of an insane person, the magistrates believed every word and found vindication in it for the girls’ spectral attacks.
Eighty-year-old Giles Corey, Martha’s husband, described as powerful and brutal, resolutely denied any involvement with witchcraft. But the girls’ usual performance, claiming spectral pinching and other torments, sealed his fate as a wizard.
On April 21 Abigail Hobbs’ wild tales led to the arrests of nine more people: a very old man named Nehemiah Abbot; Abigail’s parents, William and Deliverance Hobbs; Bridget Bishop’s stepson Edward and his wife Sarah; Mary Esty, sister of Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Cloyce; a Negro slave named Mary Black; Sarah Wilds; and Mary English, wife of the wealthy Salem merchant Philip English. Up to now, all the accused had lived in the Salem vicinity, but five of these suspects were from Topsfield. Eventually, witches were sought in 22 other communities.
The interrogations before Hathorne and Corwin followed the usual pattern, with the magistrates badgering the accused and the girls throwing fits and claiming spectral violence. But for the first time, they recanted their accusations against a victim, and Nehemiah Abbot was acquitted. If their change of heart was intentional, it was judged a shrewd move: the girls would not charge an innocent person and could tell witches from godly people.
The others were not so lucky. Edward and Sarah Bishop were guilty by association with his mother. Deliverance Hobbs first denied involvement but then succumbed to the magistrates’ bullying and confessed signing the Devil’s book, brought to her by Sarah Wilds. Such confessions brought the girls temporary relief. Her husband obdurately held onto his innocence but was carried off to prison just the same. Mary Black, the slave, denied prick
ing dolls and said she just pinned her collar. But when the magistrates asked her to pin her collar, the girls screamed in pain, and Mary Walcott appeared so badly pricked that she bled. Sarah Wilds’s meek denials did not save her, either.
Villagers considered Mary Esty a likely witch since her sisters were already accused. But her adamant protestations of innocence impressed even Hathorne, leading him to demand of the girls that they be sure. Naturally, spectral evidence found Goody Esty guilty. When Hathorne, angry at what he thought was Esty’s lying, asked her if she believed the girls bewitched, she is reported to have replied, “It is an evil spirit, but wither it be witchcraft I do not know.” Over the next few weeks, the girls—all but mercy Lewis—began to doubt they had seen Esty’s specter, and she was freed. But then mercy fell into terrible convulsions and claimed that Esty’s specter was choking her because she alone maintained the woman was a witch. Esty was returned to prison.
On April 30 six more people were arrested: Sarah Morey, Lydia Dustin, Susannah martin, Dorcas Hoar, merchant Philip English and rev. GeorgeBurroughs. Morey was eventually acquitted, and Dustin died in prison. Dorcas Hoar and Susannah Martin, independently minded, had long been accused of witchcraft; martin even had the temerity to laugh at the antics of the girls. Philip English escaped to Boston with his wife Mary, also accused, until the affair died down. He saved their lives but lost most of his property.
Rev. Burroughs, however, had been brought to Salem from his home in Wells, Maine. A minister at Salem Village before Parris, he had alienated many of the parishioners, especially Ann Putnam Sr., and witchcraft was a convenient vehicle for her vengeance. Ann Jr. actually first accused Burroughs, screaming that a minister was offering her the Devil’s book. The specter told young Ann that his name was Burroughs, that he had murdered several people while in Salem and that “he was above witch for he was a conjurer.” All agreed that Burroughs was the coven leader that Tituba had described.
Given Burroughs’ station and occupation, the magistrates decided a more discreet examination would be in order. He was interrogated at Ingersoll’s ordinary by Hathorne, Corwin, Captain Sewall and William Stoughton, a man vigorously in favor of rooting out witchcraft. After the private questioning, various citizens stepped forth and accused Burroughs, a small man, of feats of superhuman strength and cruelty, and the girls writhed as always. The magistrates sighed collectively at the capture of the witches’ ringleader.
Unfortunately, Burroughs still had followers unapprehended. John Willard, who had earlier helped in the arrests, was himself accused and caught after he refused to issue any more warrants. His damning evidence was his inability to recite the Lord’s Prayer, viewed as certain proof of the Devil’s handiwork; only the godly can recite the Lord’s word. George Jacobs, an early opponent of the proceedings, was arrested with Willard and Jacobs’ granddaughter Margaret. Jacobs could not recite the Lord’s Prayer either, and his maidservant, Sarah Churchill, said she had seen his name in the Devil’s book.
Like Mary Warren, Churchill had second thoughts about the girls’ games when Jacobs, her employer, stood accused. But the girls turned on her as well, saying she had signed. She confessed, but later recanted. Haunted by her false confession, Churchill complained that everyone believed her accusations, but no one believed her when she said someone was innocent. None of this impaired her qualifications as an accuser of others, and Churchill remained in company with the other afflicted girls.
Prosecution, condemnation and execution.
As noted earlier, no trials could be held until Massachusetts obtained a new charter, and so all the accused remained in prison without a formal trial. Finally, in may of 1692, the new royal governor, Sir William Phips, arrived with a charter. Unwilling to concern himself with the witchcraft mess, Phips established a Court of Oyer and Terminer (“to hear and determine”) to try the witches. Sitting on the court were now Lt. Governor William Stoughton as chief justice, Bartholomew Gedney, Jonathan Corwin, John Hathorne, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Peter Sergeant, Wait Still Winthrop, Samuel Sewall and John Richards. All were among the most respected men in the colony, but many were the same men already sending accused witches to prison.
By may’s end, approximately 100 people sat in prison based on the girls’ accusations. Three of the more memorable were Elizabeth Cary, Martha Carrier and John Alden, the son of John and Priscilla Alden of Plymouth. Judge Gedney was shocked to find Alden, a respected sea captain, accused of witchcraft, but when the girls shrieked and cried out in pain, Gedney pressed Alden to confess. He refused and was led away; he later escaped to New York. Elizabeth Cary came of her own free will to the court when she heard she had been accused, and she learned that her specter did no harm to the girls until they were sure it was she.
Martha Carrier was the first accused from Andover, Massachusetts, which eventually named 43 witches in its citizenry. Defiantly, Carrier denied tormenting the girls or seeing any black man, but the more she stood firm, the more the girls writhed. Finally, Carrier’s hands and feet were bound to keep her specter from torturing the girls further, for the wisdom of the day said a witch in bondage could harm no one.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer first sat on June 2 and lost no time in trying and sentencing the accused witches. Bridget Bishop was first on the docket and was found guilty. Chief Justice Stoughton signed her death warrant on June 8, and she was hanged two days later. The body was casually placed in a shallow grave on Salem’s Gallows Hill, for witches did not deserve Christian burial.
Justice Saltonstall resigned from the court not too long thereafter, disgusted at the entire affair and uncomfortable at the total reliance on the girls’ spectral evidence. His opposition later earned him an accusation of witchcraft.
The question of spectral evidence had dominated the proceedings from the beginning. The problem was not whether the girls saw the spectral shenanigans but whether a righteous God could allow the Devil to afflict the girls in the shape of an innocent person. If the Devil could not assume an innocent’s shape, the spectral evidence was invaluable against the accused. If he could, how else were the magistrates to tell who was guilty? Turning to the colony’s clergy, the court asked for an opinion, and on June 15 the ministers, led by Increase and Cotton Mather, cautioned the judges against placing too much emphasis on spectral evidence alone. Other tests, such as “falling at the sight,” in which victims collapsed at a look from a witch, or the touch test, in which victims were relieved of their torments by touching the witch, were considered more reliable. Nevertheless, the ministers thanked the court for its diligence and pushed for “the vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious.”
Chief Justice Stoughton firmly believed until his death that God would not allow the Devil to assume an innocent’s shape, and so the court pressed on. The next to appear were Susannah Martin, Sarah Good and Rebecca Nurse. Martin and Good were condemned, but Nurse was originally acquitted. The girls, present as always, went into terrible fits at the news, and Stoughton calmly asked the jury if it was certain of her innocence. The jury reconsidered and found her guilty. Again, Nurse’s friends tried to save her, petitioning Governor Phips to reprieve her. He did but later rescinded his order.
On June 30 the court tried and condemned Sarah Wilds and Elizabeth How. How, of Topsfield, had cured John Indian’s fits by touching him, and others accused her of bewitching their children and animals. Interestingly, during the trials one of the afflicted accused rev. Samuel Willard, pastor of the Old South meeting House in Boston. Because he was minister for three of the justices, the court protected Willard, reprimanded the accuser and explained to the public that she had meant John Willard, already imprisoned.
The executions of Nurse, How, Martin, Sarah Good and Sarah Wilds took place July 19. rev. Noyes, present as a witch-hunter from the beginning, urged Sarah Good to confess, but she defiantly cursed him, saying, “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” Noyes died in 1717, supposedly of an internal hemorrhage, choking on his own blood. All but Nurse remained in the shallow grave on the hill; her family secretly removed the body that night to give it a decent burial.
Witchcraft in other communities.
By now the girls’ power was so great that they were celebrities in the colony and were believed to be invincible. Consequently, citizens of neighboring towns requested that the girls look at their communities with their spectral vision and find the witches responsible for whatever problems existed: illness, poor crops, dead livestock. most affected was the town of Andover, which the girls found to be crawling with witches. The problem with these later hotbeds of witchcraft was that the girls knew no one by name and had to identify the criminals by fits in front of individuals or the touch test. Many confessed to witchcraft in Andover, because all had realized that those who confessed were spared execution. Lying was preferable to hanging.
The girls began naming very prominent people as witches, including Andover’s justice of the peace, Dudley Bradstreet, the son of the colony’s former governor. His brother John was also accused. The brothers and their wives fled the colony before they could be arrested. Two dogs were executed as witches in Andover as well. One man accused by the girls, described as a “worthy Gentleman from Boston,” turned the tables on them and issued a warrant for their arrest for slander, demanding £1000 in damages. The afflicted balked and quickly went on to scrutinize other towns.
The executions continue.
The next group condemned by the Court of Oyer and Terminer consisted of Elizabeth and John Procter, John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs and Martha Carrier. The court granted Elizabeth Procter a stay of execution because she was pregnant, a delay that saved her life. Carrier’s own sons confessed to witchcraft, but their confessions were obtained after torture. Jacobs’ granddaughter Margaret also testified he was a wizard but later retracted her testimony. No one believed her, but she was later acquitted.
Willard, Jacobs, Carrier, Burroughs and John Procter went to Gallows Hill on August 19. Before Burroughs died, he shocked the crowd by reciting the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, creating an uproar. Demands for Burroughs’ freedom were countered by the afflicted girls, who cried out that “the Black man” had prompted Burroughs through his recital of the prayer. It was generally believed that even the Devil could not recite the Lord’s Prayer, and the crowd’s mood grew darker. A riot was thwarted by rev. Cotton Mather, who told the crowd that Burroughs was not an ordained minister and that the Devil was known to change himself often into an angel of light if there was profit in doing so. When the crowd was calmed, Mather urged that the executions proceed, and they did. As before, the bodies were dumped into a shallow grave, leaving Burroughs’ hand and chin exposed.
Fifteen more witches were tried and convicted in September. Of those, four confessed and escaped execution to save their souls. Three more avoided death either by pregnancy, confession or outright escape from prison. The remaining eight—Martha Corey, Mary Esty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeater, Margaret Scot, WilmottRedd, Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker—were hanged on September 22.
Alice Parker, Ann Pudeater and Wilmott redd were all hanged based on the spectral evidence of the girls. Mary Parker of Andover had passed the touch test in court and had caused a pin to run through Mary Warren’s hand and blood to run out of her mouth. Samuel Wardwell, completely intimidated, confessed to signing the Devil’s book for a black man who promised him riches. He later retracted his confession, but the court believed his earlier testimony. Wardwell choked on smoke from the hangman’s pipe during his execution, and the girls, ever-present, claimed it was the Devil preventing him from finally confessing.
Giles Corey was pressed to death on September 19 for refusing to acknowledge the court’s right to try him. A landowner, Corey knew that as a convicted witch his property would be confiscated by the Crown. He reasoned that if he did not acknowledge the right of trial, he could not be tried and convicted, and without conviction his property remained his. In frustration, the court sentenced Corey to a “punishment hard and severe.” He was taken to a Salem field, staked to the ground and covered with a large wooden plank. Stones were piled on the plank one at a time, until the weight was so great his tongue was forced out of his mouth. Sheriff George Corwin used his cane to poke it back into Corey’s mouth. Corey’s only response to the questions put to him was to ask for more weight. more stones were piled atop him, until finally he was crushed lifeless. Ann Putnam Jr. saw his execution as divine justice, for she claimed that when Corey had signed on with the Devil, he had been promised never to die by hanging.
The hysteria subsides.
The crowd didn’t know it in late September, but these were the last executions. The colony’s ministers, long skeptical of the spectral evidence, finally took a stand against such proof, casting doubt on the decisions of the court. The number of accusers had grown to more than 50 people, leading even dedicated witch-hunters like rev. John Hale to question such large numbers of witches and bewitched in so small a colony. And the afflicted girls, giddy with power, had gone so far as to accuse Lady Phips, wife of the royal governor. That was the last straw; on October 29 Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer.
But the prisons were still overflowing with accused witches, so Governor Phips asked the General Court to establish a Superior Court to finish the business. Sitting on the Superior Court in January 1693 were William Stoughton, again as chief justice, John Richards, Wait Still Winthrop, Samuel Sewall and Thomas Danforth. All but Danforth had been on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, but except for Stoughton, they had confided to the governor their uneasiness over the convictions and their desire to try again. He agreed. The trials were no longer held exclusively in Salem but traveled to the seat of each witch’s county. most importantly, spectral evidence was no longer admissible.
Without spectral evidence, juries acquitted most of the accused. Only three were convicted, and Stoughton quickly signed their death warrants and those for five more convicted in September. But Governor Phips, tired of Stoughton’s intransigence, reprieved all eight. The Superior Court again sat on April 25 and for the last time on may 9; all those tried were acquitted, and Massachusetts’ witchcraft nightmare was over. Tituba was released from jail in may and was sold as a slave to cover her prison expenses.
Throwing out spectral evidence placed the colony in a grave dilemma: either the state admitted it was wrong and had committed murder, threatening the political system, or the men involved confessed their sins before God and protected their Puritan covenant. If spectral evidence was inadmissible, could witchcraft ever be proven?
Eventually, the prosecutions were seen as one more trial placed on God’s covenant with New England—not so much a judicial miscarriage as a terrible sin to be expiated. Those who had participated in the proceedings— Cotton and Increase Mather, the other clergy, the magistrates, even the accusers—suffered illness and personal setbacks in the years following the hysteria. Samuel Parris was forced to leave his ministry in Salem, while Ann Putnam Jr. publicly begged forgiveness before the village in 1706. Long before that, the Puritan clergy had called for an Official Day of Humiliation on January 14, 1697, for fasting and public apology. Samuel Sewall heard his confession of guilt read that morning from the pulpit of his church.
By 1703 the Massachusetts colonial legislature began granting retroactive amnesties to the convicted and executed. Even more amazing, they authorized financial restitution to the victims and their families. In 1711 Massachusetts Bay became one of the first governments ever to compensate voluntarily persons victimized by its own mistakes.
As early as 1693 Increase Mather wrote in Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men that finding a witch was probably impossible, because the determination rested on the assumption that God had set humanly recognizable limits on Satan, but Satan and God are beyond human comprehension. Summing up, rev. John Hale, an early supporter of the witch hunt, wrote in his Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft (1697) that “I have had a deep sence of the sad consequences of mistakes in matters Capital; and their impossibility of recovering when compleated.” He went on to say that the people involved meant well, but “such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former presidents [precedents], that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way.”
Giles Corey, who died the most unusual death of the Salem victims, was memorialized in a ballad:
Giles Corey was a Wizzard strong,
And a stubborn Wretch was he,
And fitt was he to hang on high
Upon the Locust Tree.
So when before the magistrates
For Triall did he come,
He would no true Confession make
But was compleatlie dumbe.
“Giles Corey,” said the magistrate,
“What hast thou heare to pleade
To these that now accuse thy
Soule Of Crimes and horrid Deed?”
Giles Corey—he said not a Worde,
No single Worde spake he;
“Giles Corey,” sayeth the magistrate,
“We’ll press it out of thee.”
They got them then a heavy Beam,
They laid it on his Breast;
They loaded it with heavie Stones,
And hard upon him prest.
“More weight,” now said this wretched man,
“More weight,” again he cryed,
And he did no Confession make,
But wickedly he died.
One interesting footnote to the Salem witch hysteria is that the American author NathanielHawthorne, a descendent of magistrate John Hathorne, added the w to his name to expunge some of the Puritan guilt by association. The trials also served as an allegory for the communist purges in America during the 1950s; the most notable example of this is Arthur miller’s play The Crucible.
Modern Salem’s legacy.
The witchcraft hysteria of 1692 still attracts many tourists to Salem and the neighboring town of Danvers each year. Gallows Hill, the once remote site where the victims were executed and buried in shallow graves, has long been built over with residential dwellings. Legend has it that the ghosts of the victims haunt the area. The Witch House, the restored Salem home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, is open for tours; visitors see the small upper chamber where the magistrates subjected nervous townsfolk to the questioning that determined whether or not they would be charged and tried. The original jail no longer exists, but the dungeon has been re-created in the Witch Dungeon museum. The entire witch episode is recreated in a narrated, multisensory presentation in the Witch museum, located in a former church, which draws more than 140,000 visitors a year.
- Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
- Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: New American Library, 1969.
- karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1987.
- Mather, Cotton. On Witchcraft: Being the Wonders of the Invisible World. 1692. reprint. mt. Vernon, N.Y.: The Peter Pauper Press, 1950.
- Mather, Increase. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men; Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accused with that Crime. Boston: 1693.
- Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts. New York: Alfred knopf, 1950.