A Seventeenth-Century Crime Wave: The Salem Witch Trials
The year is 1692; the place is a small farming village in Massachusetts. Inside the household of the Rever- end Samuel Parris, a small group of young girls—nine- year-old Betty, her twelve-year-old cousin Abigail, and a pair of friends—has spent hours indoors amusing themselves with secretive games of “fortune-telling” and “little sorceries,” predicting futures and perform- ing magic on household objects. These obsessions with the occult were inspired by tales told by a West Indian slave named Tituba who worked as a cook in the Parris household. Before long, more girls from the Village had joined in the mysterious club that met in the kitchen of the parsonage during the long dull afternoons.
The master of the household, Reverend Parris was having troubles of his own during this difficult win- ter. For a new church in the village of Salem he had recently been appointed minister, a position of great importance and power in the colonial community. But this position was very shaky: only a handful of people within the community had elected to join the new church. Many more refused both to worship at the Village meetinghouse and to pay the taxes to support his salary, and in a recent annual election in October, a majority in the village had voted out of office those who had been responsible for his appointment. The future of Reverend Parris seemed very precarious in the winter of 1692 as the new Vil- lage Committee challenged his right to the position of minister and refused to even pay for firewood to warm his hearth.
As winter wore on, the black magic games of the young girls came to the attention of the adults within the Parris household and wider village community. Rumors spread that the girls were meeting in the woods to perform the black magic Tituba had brought with her from her native Barbados. The youngest of the girls was the first to exhibit strange and worrisome behaviors: sudden fits of screaming, convulsions, bark- ing, and scampering about on all fours like a dog. The adult women in the household fretted in muted tones that the afflictions of the child were a malady brought on by the dark forces of witchcraft.
Witchcraft was believed to be a particularly terrify- ing and horrible crime, not only because it was respon- sible for evil consequences such as murder, physical torture, or destruction of property, but also because it challenged the supremacy of God in the affairs of human beings. The crime of witchcraft was written into English statutes of law as early as the sixteenth century. The Massachusetts Law of Statutes, likewise, included the crime of witchcraft as a capital offense.
The belief in Satan and his role in the affairs of humans and their evil doings was not confined to hys- terical young girls or religious fanatics. On the con- trary, the idea that the Devil was real and operated to do malicious things in the affairs of human beings was a widely accepted belief common to most individuals of all social backgrounds and educational levels. It was believed that a person who entered into a covenant with the Devil by signing his book had the power to call Satan to enter his or her body to perform evil doings and deeds to others. By deploying the power of the Devil, the witch was able to act out his or her own petty hates toward other human beings.
At the suggestion of Aunt Mary Silbey who lived in the house, Tituba was asked to prepare the tra- ditional “witches cake,” a recipe guaranteed to iden- tify the source of the affliction. By baking a “witches cake”—a recipe which combined rye meal with the child’s urine—and feeding the cake to a dog, it was thought that the dog would immediately identify its master, the witch. Before this method of investiga- tion could be completed, however, Reverend Parris called in the town physician, a William Griggs, who examined the girls and proclaimed the chilling news. Malevolent witchcraft was the source of their malady, not any sickness responsive to the cures of medicine: the Devil had come to Salem Village.
The strange behaviors first seen in the Parris house- hold now began to spread like wildfire among the group of girls who attended the secret meetings in Parris’s kitchen. Parris and another minister, Thomas Putnam (one of Parris’s key supporters and father to Ann Putnam, aged twelve), urged the girls to reveal the names of the individuals responsible for their suffering. “Who are your tormentors?” they asked repeatedly. “Name who is doing this to you!” The girls hesitated, at first, but then named three women: Sarah Good, a local beggar known throughout the village for her nasty temper and bitter tongue; Sarah Osborne, an elderly woman with a dubious reputation; and Tituba, the slave woman herself. On February 29, several men including Putnam traveled to Salem Town to swear out formal complaints charging witchcraft against the three women before the local magistrates. Warrants were issued for the arrest of the three women and an interrogation or preliminary hearing was hurriedly scheduled for the following morning.
All three accused were typical of those found guilty of witchcraft throughout Europe and colonial Amer- ica. They were marginal, unrespectable, powerless, and deviant in their conduct and lifestyle. Although they lived within the community, they were, in a sense, outsiders viewed with suspicion and disliked by the majority of the community. Sarah Good, at the time of accusation, was both homeless and destitute: she and her husband William had been reduced to begging for shelter and food from neighbors. In her requests for assistance, she had the effrontery to be aggressive and angry, cursing and muttering reprisals to those who refused to offer her charity. Few in the community stood to support her once she was accused; indeed, her husband was one of the first to proclaim that she was, in fact, “either a witch or would be one very quickly.”
Sarah Osborne too was an “outsider.” Although she possessed an estate from her first husband, she was old, had no children, and had suffered the gossip and disapproval of the community when several years ear- lier she had cohabited with her second husband for several months before becoming officially wed. The slave women, Tituba, was, of course, a natural target of suspicion and her involvement in the baking of the cake only hardened assumptions that it was she who was acting as an agent of the Devil.
The date for the first hearing to determine if there was sufficient evidence to hand down an indictment for the crime of witchcraft was scheduled to take place the next day at the inn in Salem Village but on the morn- ing of the hearing so many townspeople turned out to witness the proceedings that the venue was changed to the larger meetinghouse to accommodate the agi- tated and curious crowd. The accusers—the afflicted girls—were seated in the front row as one by one each of the women was brought before the magistrates for questioning. As each of the women came into view, the girls began to exhibit the tortured and tormented behavior in a dramatic enactment of the charge itself. The behavior had frightened their parents, astonished observers, and convinced many skeptical witnesses that they were indeed suffering from an affliction of supernatural causes.
These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any epileptic fits, or natural disease to effect.
Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move a heart of stone, to sympathize with them.
During the proceedings, as the girls were contorting in dramatic displays of torture and physical agony, the magistrates pressed the women with questions: “Have you made no contract with the devil?” “Why do you hurt these children?” The girls themselves continued to moan and plead for the women, especially Sarah Good, to put an end to their torments. Before long, Tituba had confessed, named the other two as her accomplices, and announced that there were many others in the colony engaged in the conspiracy against the community of God. While Osborne continued to maintain her inno- cence, Good eventually accused Osborne and by so doing implicated herself in the eyes of the magistrate. At the end of the interrogation and before a crowded and tightly packed audience composed of the entire village and many from neighboring communities as well, the magistrates ordered all three sent to jail on suspicion of witchcraft to be held there until trial.
At the religious services the very next day, the fits and afflictions of the young girls continued along with more accusations of witchcraft directed against other women in the community. During the service, twelve- year-old Abigail Williams suddenly began to shout out that she saw an apparition of one of the townspeople in the rafters, a Martha Corey who had publically expressed her own doubts over the whole affair. The next day, Goodwife Corey was arrested to be examined in the presence of their accusers before the magistrate. Within a month, two more “witches” had been identi- fied by the girls and were arrested: Rebecca Nurse and the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good.
As the snows melted, the intensity of the girls’ afflic- tion seemed to increase rather than wane. By the end of April, a total of twenty-eight more people had been accused and charged with the crime of witchcraft. The month of May saw an additional thirty-nine people accused. The town of Andover requested the afflicted girls to come to their village and identify suspected witches among the townspeople. Although the girls did not personally know any of the people accused, they managed to name more than forty persons as witches. By the time of the first trial on June 2, 1692, a total of 160 persons had been publically and legally accused and many of them were languishing in the local jail awaiting trial. These included not only those men and women who were marginal or poor but a large number of men and women of considerable wealth and power, including the former minister of the parish, George Burroughs, who was arrested in his new parish in Maine and transported back to Salem charged with being the master-wizard during the years he had served in Salem Village.
The royal governor of Massachusetts had just arrived from England, when he was confronted with the
epidemic of witchcraft accusations which had swept through the villages of New England in the preced- ing four months. Governor Phipps responded to the crisis with swift action appointing a special judicial body known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer which means literally to “hear and determine”; the Massachu- setts attorney general was ordered to begin prosecu- tions; a jury was selected; and on Friday, June 2, 1692, the infamous Salem witchcraft trials began.
The first to appear for a formal trial was Bridget Bishop, an unpopular and widely despised woman who had been held in prison since her indictment on April 18. The evidence against Goodwife Bishop was considerable and many people came forward to provide testimony to support the charge against her. She was accused of causing the death of a child by visiting as an apparition and causing the child to cry out and decline in health from that moment onward. Several men and women testified that she had visited them and afterward they had suffered from strange misfortune or peculiar experiences. The jury returned a verdict of guilty against Goodwife Bishop and she was sentenced to death by hanging. On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop was the first to be executed during a public hanging on a rocky hillside forever after known as Witches Hill.
At the second sitting of the court of Oyer and Ter- miner, the court tried and sentenced to death five more accused witches. A session on August 5 produced six more convictions and five executions, including that of the former parish minister George Burroughs. In Sep- tember, the court sat two more times, passing a death sentence on six more persons in one sitting and nine more in the final session of the court on September 17. The last executions were held on September 22, when eight persons, six women and two men, were hung at the gallows. A total of twenty-three persons accused of witchcraft died: most by hanging, a few while in jail awaiting trial, and one by being crushed to death from heavy rocks piled upon his prostrate body, an ancient form of execution reserved for those who refuse to testify at all.
The evidence used in the trials was typical of that used to prove the crime of witchcraft but quite differ- ent from that used to provide evidence for ordinary murders, assaults, and thefts. The ordinary rules for trial procedures called for two eyewitnesses in a cap- ital offense but in the case of witchcraft the rule was altered because witchcraft was deemed a “habitual” offense. It was sufficient, therefore, that there be two
or more witnesses coming forth with testimony about different images or incidents to support the charge of witchcraft.
The most abundant form of evidence came in the form of spectral evidence. These were eyewitness accounts of seeing the image or apparition of the accused. This might be in a dream or in their bedroom at night, or even in a crowded meetinghouse or court- room. The unique difficulty with spectral evidence was that it was believed that the image might be visible only to those being tormented while completely invis- ible to others present in the very same room. As long as more than one person came forth with spectral evi- dence, it was not necessary for them to be “seeing” the same image. The behavior of the girls at the trial pro- vided the most convincing evidence to the jurors since the accusers often described the image of the accused flying on the rafters, or exhibited signs of distress and torment as the accused witch moved her head or arms.
In addition to testimony by witnesses of spectral evidence, there were several other important forms of evidence. Because it was believed that the Devil would not permit a witch to proclaim the name of God or recite the Lord’s Prayer without error, there was often a trial by test in which the accused was asked to perform these tasks. Errors, stumbles, or failures of memory were seen as proof they were agents of the Devil. Evi- dence of “anger followed by misfortune” was another form of evidence. Since the crime of witchcraft was believed to be an instrumental one in which the witch takes out her personal anger against others using the power of Satan, the testimony of those who gave exam- ples of conflict, disputes, or angry outbursts followed by bad fortune was also seen as compelling evidence of the crime of malevolent witchcraft. In the case of Brid- get Bishop, five townspeople came forth to accuse her of being responsible for “murdering” a family member. In each instance, evidence was presented of a display of anger on the part of the accused followed some- time afterward by an illness or accident befalling those who had displeased her. A fourth form of evidence came in the search for physical marks on the body of the accused such as moles, warts, or scars which were believed to be “witches teats” or places where the Devil and other evil creatures gained sustenance from the witch herself.
A final form of evidence, and ultimately one of the most compelling, was the freely given confession on the part of the accused. Beginning with Tituba herself, as many as fifty of the accused eventually confessed to their status as witches, and to their involvement in witchcraft in some cases providing elaborate detail and accusing others in the process. During the hear- ings, as soon as an accused confessed to the crime, the agonized writhing of the girls suddenly and instantly ceased and the girls fell upon the confessed witches with kisses and tearful pledges of forgiveness. None who confessed was brought to trial or hung: the inten- tion of the court was to spare them in order to make use of them in testifying against others in future trials. Only those who continued to proclaim their inno- cence were made to suffer the spectacle of the trial and the horror of the public execution.
Between June 10 and September 22, 1692, twenty- four people were executed for the crimes of witch- craft. As the New England fall began to cool the air, an additional 150 people remained awaiting trial in local jails and 200 more formal accusations had been made against others as well. On the part of the judicial authorities, there was a sudden sense of unease about the quality of the evidence used to convict and hang the accused. Anyone might indeed fail to recite the Lord’s Prayer with a slip of the tongue, particularly if they are standing before a packed courtroom charged with being a representative of Satan. And legal opinion was plagued by the question that it might be possible for the Devil to present himself in the image of inno- cent folk as well as those who had struck a covenant with the Devil.
On October 3, Reverend Increase Mather, president of Harvard College delivered an address that claimed that evil spirits might be impersonating innocent men and implied that it was possible the girls themselves were fabricating their afflictions. Mather went on to declare that “it was better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned.”ii Many more joined the chorus to object to the fallibility of the court to prove the crime, and the injustice of the proceedings in potentially con- demning the innocent based on the unsubstantiated accusations of the inflamed. Within days, the governor had disbanded the court of Oyer and Terminer and replaced it with a court that forbade the use of spectral evidence. The jury acquitted forty-nine of the fifty-two cases it heard; the remaining three had entered confes- sions but these were given immediate reprieves by the governor. The remaining prisoners were all discharged and a general pardon was issued against all who had been accused in the terrible and most infamous series of trials within our nation’s history. Two years after the trials, witchcraft was no longer a legal offense in the colony of Massachusetts Bay.