Witch Trials, Salem, Massachusetts (1692)
The Salem Witch Trials began in 1692, lasted a year, and represented the most extensive witch-hunting episode in the history of Great Britain’s North American colonies. Although the hysteria began in Salem Village, Massachusetts, it soon engulfed the entirety of Essex County. By the time the trials ended, 20 people had been executed (13 women and 7 men), and the local jails were filled with people awaiting trial after being accused of practicing witchcraft. Several people died before their cases could come to court.
The initial outbreak was centered in the home of Samuel Parris, Salem Village’s minister. A group of girls ranging in age from 9 through 17, including Parris’s daughter and niece, began suffering from fits and claimed to hear voices during early February 1692. A local doctor diagnosed them as being bewitched and launched a search for the witch or witches responsible. The girls initially accused three women, Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Goode and Osborne were not well respected in the community, and Tituba was Parris’s slave. Under intense interrogation, Tituba confessed to “hurting” the girls and implicated Goode and Osborne as her coconspirators. Osborne was sent to jail and died there on May 10, 1692. Goode was sentenced to hang, but her execution was delayed long enough for her to give birth to a child who died in prison. Her 6-year-old daughter Dorcas was also accused and imprisoned but was released when the panic ended.
Despite the identification of the supposed guilty parties, the girls continued to be afflicted with seizure-like fits and other odd behaviors. This prompted Puritan officials to level further accusations and enforce subsequent imprisonments, including prosperous women and Page 191 | Top of Articlemen who were influential within the community but were viewed as unsupportive of Parris’s ministry, including tavern owner Bridget Bishop.
With Salem Village in obvious turmoil, Sir William Phips, governor of Massachusetts, established a special court in June to hear all of the cases. The court proved conflicted, as a judge resigned following the sentencing of Bishop to hang since she had been convicted on “spectral” evidence. This was essentially defined as the Devil working through the image of the accuser. The use of this questionable evidence led to the imprisonment of hundreds and the execution of 19 people between June and September 1692. After his wife Martha Corey was imprisoned on suspicion of witchcraft, elderly Giles Corey defended her. Then he too was imprisoned for five months, after which he was executed by being pressed to death with heavy rocks. Martha Corey was hanged three days later.
Within Massachusetts, many individuals were viewing the events in Salem Village with skepticism. In October 1692, Increase Mather and other prominent Puritan clergymen interceded in the trials. Their presence and actions provided the political support necessary for Phips to put a stop to the executions. This allowed for investigators to examine the motivations of some of the individuals tied to the victimized girls, such as Reverend Parris and Thomas Putnam, who were obviously benefiting from the process by seeing many of their critics imprisoned and thus having their reputations shattered. They were also economically benefiting from the process. Those accused of witchcraft had their property auctioned off, and those making the accusations had first bid on the auctions. The results of the scrutiny led to the release of the falsely imprisoned during the spring of 1693. The Massachusetts General Court essentially admitted in 1697 that the trials were unjust by declaring a day of atonement. This was followed in 1711 by reparations paid to some of the victims.
Although many theories have been posited about the causes of the Salem Witch Trials, there is no doubt that gender played a prominent role. The girls who made the initial accusations suddenly had a great amount of power in what was a patriarchal society. They wielded this power not on men in the main but instead on women vulnerable because of their economic or social status. This may explain why the first people accused were from the bottom rung of society, but as the accusations increased, the targets became people of better repute. When the respected male leaders of the colony interceded, that is when the girls returned to their subservient roles in society. Historian Carol Karlsen found that 9 of 10 executed women stood to inherit money or property because their families had no male heirs. In ridding itself of these women, Puritan authorities not only rid themselves of potentially economically powerful women but often availed themselves of their victims’ inheritance.
The witch trials drew so much notoriety to the Puritans in Massachusetts that nobody else would ever again be tried for witchcraft in New England. Salem Village changed its name to Danvers to try to escape the ignominy of its history. Despite the shame invoked by the incidents, they continue to be brought to the fore through works such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Giles Corey of the Salem Farms. On the 300th anniversary of the trials the city erected a permanent memorial composed of a series of stone benches, one for each of the executed people, circling a cemetery garden. Political activist and former Auschwitz prisoner Elie Wiesel spoke, as did playwright Arthur Miller. In more modern times the city of Salem embraced its connection to the trials and has become a favorite haunt for Halloween, with hotels booked years in advance.
John R. Burch Jr.
Demos, John. 2008. The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World. New York: Viking.
Karlsen, Carol. 1987. Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: Norton.
Norton, Mary Beth. 2002. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Knopf.
Rosenthal, Bernard, ed. 2009. Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt. New York: Cambridge University Press.