We often hear terrible stories of the Salem Witch Trials, and certainly, some members of the modern Pagan community toss out the Salem case as a reminder of the religious intolerance that has existed for centuries. But what really happened in Salem, back in 1692? More importantly, why did it happen, and what changes did it bring about?
The witch trials stemmed from accusations made by a group of young girls that various townsfolk, including a black slave, were in cahoots with the Devil.
Although the list of specifics is far too detailed to go into here, it’s important to note that there were many factors that came into play at the time. First and foremost, this was an area that had been devastated by illness for a good part of the seventeenth century. Sanitation was poor, there had been smallpox epidemics, and on top of all of that, people lived in a constant fear of attack from local Native American tribes.
Salem was also a fairly litigious sort of town, and neighbors constantly battled with neighbors over things like where a fence should be put, whose cow ate whose crops, and whether or not debts were paid in a timely fashion. It was, to put it mildly, a breeding ground for fearmongering, accusations, and suspicion.
At the time, Salem was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and fell under British law. Consorting with the Devil was, according to British law, a crime against the Crown itself, and therefore punishable by death. Because of the Puritanical background of the colony, it was generally accepted that Satan himself was lurking in every corner, trying to tempt good people to sin.
Prior to the Salem trials, a dozen or so people had been put to death in New England for the crime of witchcraft.
In January 1692, the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris fell ill, as did her cousin. The doctor’s diagnosis was a simple one – that little Betty Parris and Anne Williams had been “bewitched.” They writhed on the floor, screamed uncontrollably, and had “fits” that could not be explained. Even more horrifying, soon several neighbor girls began demonstrating the same bizarre behaviors. Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard joined in the fray.
Before long, the girls were claiming to experience “afflictions” from several local women. They accused Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and a slave named Tituba of causing their distress. Interestingly, all three of these women were perfect targets for accusations. Tituba was one of Reverend Parris’ slaves, and is believed to be from somewhere in the Caribbean, although her exact origins are undocumented. Sarah Goode was a beggar with no home or husband, and Sarah Osborne was disliked by most of the community for her outrageous behavior.
Fear and Suspicion
In addition to Sarah Goode, Sarah Osbourne, and Tituba, a number of other men and women were accused of consorting with the Devil. At the height of the hysteria – and hysteria it was, with the entire town becoming involved – some hundred and fifty individuals had been accused throughout the community. Throughout the spring, accusations flew that these people had had sexual encounters with the Devil, that they had signed away their souls to him, and that they were deliberately torturing the good, God-fearing citizens of Salem at his behest. No one was immune to charges, and women were imprisoned side by side with their husbands – entire families facing prosecution together. Sarah Goode’s daughter, four-year-old Dorcas, was charged with witchcraft as well, and is commonly known as the youngest of the Salem accused.
By May, trials were underway, and in June, the hangings began.
Indictments and Executions
On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop was convicted and hanged in Salem. Her death is acknowledged as the first of the deaths in the witch trials of that year. Throughout July and August, more examinations and trials went on, and by September, another eighteen people had been convicted.
One man, Giles Corey, who was accused along with his wife Martha, refused to enter a plea in court.
He was pressed beneath a load of heavy stones placed upon a board, in hope of this torture causing him to enter a plea. He didn’t plead guilty or not guilty, but died after two days of this treatment. Giles Corey was eighty years old.
Five of the convicted were executed on August 19, 1692. A month later, on September 22, another eight people were hanged. A few people escaped death – one woman was granted a reprieve because she was pregnant, another escaped from prison. By the middle of 1693, it was all over, and Salem was back to normal.
There are a number of theories about the Salem hysteria, including that it all began with a disagreement between families, or that the girls who were “afflicted” actually suffered from ergot poisoning, or that a group of young women in a very repressive society contrived to act out their frustrations in a manner that got out of hand.
Although the hangings were in 1692, the effects on Salem were long-lasting. As adults, several of the accusers wrote letters of apologies to the families of the convicted.
A number of the executed were excommunicated from the church, and most of those orders have been reversed by Salem church officials. In 1711, the governor of the colony offered monetary compensation to a number of people who were imprisoned and later released.
Dorcas Goode was four years old when she entered prison with her mother, where she remained for nine months. Although she was not hanged, she witnessed her mother’s death and the mass hysteria that had consumed her town. As a young adult, her father expressed concern that his daughter was unable to “govern herself” and was acknowledged to have been driven mad by her experiences as a child.
Today, Salem is well known as the “Witch City,” and residents tend to embrace the town’s history. The original village of Salem is now actually the town of Danvers.
The following individuals were executed during the Salem trials:
- Bridget Bishop
- George Burroughs
- Martha Carrier
- Giles Corey*
- Martha Corey
- Mary Easty
- Sarah Goode
- Elizabeth Howe
- George Jacobs, Sr.
- Susannah Martin
- Rebecca Nurse
- Alice Parker
- Mary Parker
- John Proctor
- Ann Pudeator
- Wilmott Redd
- Margaret Scott
- Samuel Wardwell
- Sarah Wildes
- John Willard
*While the other men and women were hanged, Giles Corey was the only one pressed to death.
Finally, it’s important to note that while many modern-day Pagans cite the Salem trials as an example of religious intolerance, at the time, witchcraft was not seen as a religion at all. It was viewed as a sin against God, the church, and the Crown, and thus was treated as a crime. It’s also important to remember that there is no evidence, other than spectral evidence and coerced confessions, that any of the accused actually did practice witchcraft. There has been some speculation that the only person likely to have practiced any sort of magic at all was Tituba, because of her background in the Caribbean (or possibly the West Indies), but that has never been confirmed. Tituba was released from jail shortly after the hangings began, and was never tried or convicted. There is no documentation of where she may have gone after the trials.
For Further Reading
- A Guide to the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692, by David C. Brown
- In the Devil’s Snare, by Mary Beth Norton
- The Salem Witch Trials – A Day by Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, by Marilynne K. Roach