The Salem Witch Trials

Parris Home
The Salem parsonage, where the outbreak started. Photo Credit: Henrietta D. Kimball

The spark for the Salem trials began like some in Europe, with the testimony of children. Mather would specifically connect Salem’s trial to a contemporary outbreak in Sweden that killed 70 supposed witches, primarily on the basis of children’s accusations.[1] The Salem trials began in Reverend Samuel Parris’ own home. In February 1692 nine year old Betty Parris and her cousin eleven year old Abigail Parris began to experience fits, alternately spasming and going limp. They complained of pinches from invisible assailants, or would spend hours conversing with invisible figures, or falling into trances. When all that failed Betty and Abigail filled their time with a great deal of screaming. Reverend Parris tried to address the issue himself, and to carry on with his sermons and routines as much as he could. But a house filled at all hours with the howls of children is not conducive to quiet study under the best of circumstances, much less in the more unsettling case unfolding under Parris’ roof. After a month he swallowed the social embarrassment and sent for a doctor. Unable to find a medical cause, the doctor suggested the girls were bewitched. Clearly bewitchment was contagious, as 11 girls and young women in and around Salem began to quickly exhibit the same symptoms.

As author Stacy Schiff notes, “It would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins”.[2] For a culture and a time where women and children were given even less of a voice than normal, Salem stands out as the exception where the disempowered exerted control over the entire region through accusation and the public stage.

I_am_Tituba_the_Witch_John W Ehninger
A fanciful version of Tituba. Photo Credit: John W Ehringer

The girls accused an older widow with a notoriously bitter disposition named Sarah Good, then someone who expressed scepticism of witchcraft named Sarah Osborn, and a (possibly native American or) West Indian slave named Tituba, of witchcraft. The charges reflected both family and racial dynamics of Salem Village. The Sarahs -along with Sarah Good’s infant daughter who would later be accused-[3] were social outcasts, and Tituba and her subsequently accused husband John Indian were both slaves. While this might have stayed contained, Tituba confessed to her charges, switching immediately from curser to accursed. She claimed a tall “black man” had appeared to her and asked her to sign his book and after doing so she had attended regular gatherings with other witches, a recurring theme in various confessions and accusations. For the prosecution, Tituba offered a corroborating line of “evidence” for the various spooky goings-on in Salem alongside the girls.

From Tituba’s perspective, the rational was fairly straightforward. Arguing with the court seemed pointless, no one was interested in listening to what the accused had to say. Collaborating with the court was a way of postponing their own case indefinitely, linking others in a great witchy chain forged of conspiracy. There was even a measure of local celebrity to be had. John Indian would swap his story and display marks from spectral attacks in exchange for a bowl of cider at the tavern across from the improvised courthouse. An element of revenge and social animosity also seemed present in some of the confessions. For instance, 71 year old Giles Corey was both violent and crotchety, and on the stand he acknowledged to have beaten several of his accusers with his canes at various points. That he now found himself in a reversed power dynamic was something he would fail to cope with.

Matteson-witch
The Examination of a Witch
captures both the courtroom drama of Salem and the horrifying and humiliating nature of some of the charges and evidence. Photo Credit T.H Matheson

By May the situation was a full blown Craze. Close to sixty people had been arrested on the testimony of eight of the bewitched, swelling jails from Salem to Boston with the damned. None of these cells were exactly suited for long term use. Crime and punishment in New England had an eminently physical quality to it, given both the low population density in the difficulty in maintaining a standing prison. Most prisoners were expected to stay for a few days, before a speedy walloping or stint in the stocks was handed out as the sentence. Consequently most prisons were simply a retrofitted cellar without windows or toilets, and the stench and conditions were grotesque. Adding insult to injury, suspects were expected to pay for their own room and board. One jailer’s wife sold “refreshments” to her inmates. Cold, half-starved, and sleep deprived, the witches would occasionally be examined by inquisitive Puritans searching their entire bodies for witch marks or pricking them to see if they bled from their wounds. After the humiliations and deprivations finished, the accused would be dragged in for day long trial sessions, another ordeal entirely.

Regular trial sessions placed accuser and accused mere feet away from one another. Each time Sarah Good, or Giles Corey, or any of the others began to defend themselves or attempt to quote scripture, the ‘bewitched’ girls on the stand would interrupt them. Sometimes they cried out, at other points they showed bite marks, claiming the spectral witches had lashed out at them. Occasionally they would produce nails pierced through their skin. When the Reverend George Burroughs was arrested, the bewitched girls claimed to see Burroughs’ first two wives flitting about the rafters as pale shades, blood leaking from their eyes and mouths as they cried out for justice. At times they would shriek names in unison, or collapse when the accused witches looked on them. Regardless of their reason, the theatrics created a truly unsettling atmosphere in the court for all present.

On these claims and whatever logical traps he could trip the accused into, the magistrate John Hathorne continued to build what case he could against the accused. Hathorne was not particularly concerned with the basic logical confessions of witchcraft, for instance if the supposed bite marks on Abigail Parris actually matched up with the jawline of the accused. In general voicing anything like scepticism about details like that was a one way ticket to the defendant’s chair. This was something John Procter and his wife Elizabeth found out, having been indicted on the accusation of their 20 year old servant Mary Warren and their own vocal opposition to the trials as rooted in nothing more than the imaginations and performances of the bewitched. Equally guilty of the charge of unhealthy scepticism was Sarah Good. She died alone and unremarked in prison after months of incarceration.

Phips_portrait thomas child
Governor Phips, looking much less like the pirate and treasure salvager he had been in his younger days. Photo Credit: Thomas Child

By June Governor William Phips finally arrived, six months overdue and in the midst of what must have been a truly bewildering scene. He quickly convened a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer[4] to oversee the proceedings with nine judges. If there was any hope that the larger panel stocked with mostly Harvard educated judges would could bring some rationality to the process, the accused witches were fresh out of luck. Hathorne was one of the nine, and together with the far too enthusiastic Chief Justice William Stoughton, quickly ensured a consistent tone with the Salem trials.

For some like Cotton Mather, the trials provoked both excitement and a certain mix of unease. He shot off a seven page memo that captured his agonized dual state. Due caution was required, lest “lest by too much credulity for things received only upon the Devil’s authority, there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequence”, and yet, “we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government, the speedy and vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious”.[5] Spiritual evidence, such as claims of spectral dead wives flitting about the rafters, should be excluded, but physical marks like bites, pins, or otherwise should be given full weight. In any event the judges would make no effort to exclude the more ghostly happenings as proof positive of witchcraft, and Mather would say nothing further that might have saved the accused.

On June 10th the first witch, a middle aged woman named Bridget Bishop, was hanged. Bishop had made for an easy first target. She had been accused of witchcraft back in 1688, and while she had been acquitted the judges were not about to let a thing like double jeopardy get in the way of a good witchy hanging. Bishop was also socially isolated, had been repeatedly accused of petty theft, and worst of all for the Puritans had been occasionally forward or even flirtatious with men. Denied legal counsel, Bishop defended herself as best she could but to no avail.

As the trials went on rank and status ceased to be a defence. The number of suspected witches began to include even the financially successful and socially well connected as new waves of indictments went out, now potentially targeted for their success rather than inoculated by it. The prosperous crank Giles Corey was systematically pressed to death over a two day period when he refused to enter a plea.[6] By the end of the summer the colony was convinced as many as seven hundred people were a part of the coven. The fallow land where the witches were supposed to secretly congregate for feasts of blood red wine and bread was turning into a Satanic Woodstock in the minds of the Puritans.

Execution_of_Reverend_George_Burroughs Henry Davenport Northrop
The execution of George Burroughs. Photo Credit: Henry Davenport Northrop

At the climax of the trials the girls accused George Burroughs, twice widowed preacher and military veteran, of being the sorcerous ringleader of the coven. Burroughs was both well connected, and he thought, well liked so with little fear he journeyed down from Maine to defend himself in court. But the very independent streak and religious unorthodoxy that had led him to working in Maine in the first place had caused his good name to fester. Now all the good deeds he had done were suddenly recast in a villainous light. His heroism in battle was now a sign of demonic strength, like the time he fired a nine foot long shotgun with one hand. His reputation for charity became a sign of infernal and nigh infinite resources. Burroughs fought the charge every way he knew, even quoting a lengthy refutation that witchcraft existed at all at his trial. Hathorne responded by noting that since Burroughs claimed to have no idea what witchcraft looked like, he could hardly disprove the negative. Cold and sleep deprived, Burroughs had little response to that. On August 19th, he was led to a tree to hang. In a final frantic play,

“Mr. Burroughs was carried in a Cart with others, through the streets of Salem, to Execution. When he was upon the Ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer) [something witches could not recite according to Puritan thinking] was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness as such fervency of spirit, as was very Affecting, and drew Tears from many, so that if seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution. The accusers said the black Man [Devil] stood and dictated to him. As soon as he was turned off [hanged], Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a Horse, addressed himself to the People, partly to declare that he [Mr. Burroughs] was no ordained Minister, partly to possess the People of his guilt, saying that the devil often had been transformed into the Angel of Light. And this did somewhat appease the People, and the Executions went on;”[7]

By September 22nd, 1692 twenty witches, fourteen women and six men, had been executed; five more of the accused had died in jail, and another hundred remained incarcerated.

Increase_Mather joan van der spriet
Increase Mather, seen here pointing out the exact moment where his idiot son went wrong. Photo Credit: Joan van der Spriet

The trials burned themselves out as rapidly as they began. Cotton Mather’s own father, the oddly named Increase Mather, wrote a book denouncing the trials and spiritual evidence. For the first time someone actually made an eloquent point on the lives spent in this conspiracy, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”[8] Increase himself had spent plenty of time arguing that New England was a place of miraculous happenings. He happened to be the author not one, but two separate books under his belt on the various sightings and wonders that made the colony Divine Providence. But Increase had never meant for these spiritual signs to be taken as physical evidence in a court of law.

Beyond the weight of the elder Mather, what finally brought an end to the trials was the return of Governor Phips. Having popped off for the summer to arrest the disastrous military situation in Maine, Phips returned for a second time to learn that his own wife was now being summoned to the court for suspicion of witchcraft. Fairly certain he had married his wife, not a witch, Phips decided enough was enough and dissolved the Oyer and Terminer. In its place he enacted a new court which prohibited spectral evidence. Well aware that men like the younger Mather were already furiously writing back to London, Phips sent his own letter home explaining his actions,

“…I hereby declare that as soon as I came from fighting against their Majesties Enemyes and understood what danger some of their innocent subjects might be exposed to, if the evidence of the afflicted persons only did prevaile either to the committing or trying any of them, I did before any application was made unto me about it put a stop to the proceedings of the Court and they are now stopt till their Majesties pleasure be known. Sir I beg pardon for giving you all this trouble, the reason is because I know my enemies are seeking to turn it all upon me and I take this liberty because I depend upon your friendship, and desire you will please to give a true understanding of the matter if any thing of this kind be urged or made use of against mee. Because the justnesse of my proceeding herein will bee a sufficient defence.”[9]

That he had not done so until his own loved ones were threatened does little to exonerate Phips’ role in the proceedings. But to his credit, now that Phips was opposed to the trials he was not keen on letting anyone else die on his watch. When Chief Justice Stoughton gleefully ordered another eight graves dug before the next round of hearings even began, Phips used a royal pardon to clear all of the intended victims of their charges. When Stoughton stomped off in a huff Phips brought in someone a little more level headed. No further executions were handed down, and by May 1693 Phips waved his royal proclamation wand once again and cleared the remaining accused of all charges. Even as the rest of New England cottoned on to the terrible crimes they had committed, the actual Cotton Mather remained defiant. His speedily written 1693 Wonders of the Invisible World was a narrative of the trials crafted as a full throated defence of their necessity. But if Mather had crested the witch craze he badly misread the shifting social appetite for witch hangings.

The hangover from the Salem Trials set in almost immediately. By 1694 Samuel Parris formally wrote an apology for his own zealous role in the persecutions dubbed Meditions for Peace. In 1697 a day of fasting and soul-searching for the victims was held. By 1702 the trials were retroactively declared illegal, and in 1711 the good names of the accused were restored and £600 paid out in restitution. But only in 1957, 250 years too late and just four years after Arthur Miller’s play the Crucible turned the trials into a commentary on raging McCarthyism did the state of Massachusetts issue a formal apology.

While little is known about many of the bewitched like Abigail Williams[10] or even Tituba, Betty Parris calmed down considerably after her father sent her to live well away from Salem Village with some distant cousins. In 1710 she married and lived a cobbler in Sudbury. In 1760 she died after a long and now comparatively mundane life.

In a final cruel irony, in the early 18th Century Cotton Mather was a vocal proponent of inoculations against smallpox. Unlike witchcraft, Mather had an inkling of what he was talking about, but it was too late. His role as chief firebrand in the trials discredited him, something that may have gotten even more people killed than his previous role as theological judge, jury, and executioner.

[1] Less noted by Mather at the time: In the aftermath of the Swedish trial, most of the children subsequently admitted to fabricating their stories and the crimes of their victims.

[2] The Economist. 2015. Madness in Massachusetts.

[3] Just four or five years old, the Salem blacksmith had to craft the littlest set of shackles for Dorcas Good. The girl would die in jail awaiting trial.

[4] To “hear” and “decide”. Not so much “oy” and “vey”.

[5] Boyer, P. Nissenbaum, (2016). Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. Northeastern University Press.

[6] Pressing is a form of torture where the victim is placed under a board and stones are placed atop it. Rather than yield, Corey’s proved his own stones were heavier than the ones on the board above him. His final words: “More weight”

[7] Calef, R. (1702). More Wonders of the Invisible World. Available at: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/speccol/calef/calef.html

[8] Blumberg, J. (2007). A brief history of the Salem Witch Trials. Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/

[9] Phips, W. (1692). First letter of Governor William Phips to clerk William Blathwayt of the Privy Council. University of Virginia. Available at: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/swp?div_id=n163&print=yes

[10] Arthur Miller would state in the epilogue of the Crucible that she ran off to Boston and worked as a prostitute, but this is at best an old rumor and at worst a newer attempt at slander.

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