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Salem Witch Trials
Taken from 'The Encyclopedia of
Witchcraft and Demonology' by Rossell Hope Robbins
The year 1692 seems to have been a particularly troubled one in New
England. It was a time of political uncertainty, with Increase Mather at
the English Court, seeking clarification of the colony's government. The
French were waging war, and the Indians were on the warpath. Taxes were
intolerable (in 1691 the colonial government had demanded £1,346), the
winter was cruel, pirates were attacking commerce, and smallpox was
raging. in addition, the ingrown irritations of a small village, where
ownership of land and boundaries were in dispute, increased the tensions.
To men and women brought up in a restricting evangelical world, the
troubles of 1692 were caused by the Devil. The Puritan New England mind
was alerted to devils and to their agents on earth, witches. Belief in the
supernatural was unquestioned. The Bible told about witches and demoniacal
possession; the Mosaic codes of Massachusetts turned legend into law.
Witchcraft was part of the Weltanschauung of the colonists,
especially strong since Massachusetts was not a monarchy or a republic,
but a theocracy. The party line of the church ministers became both the
law of God and the law of the land. Any traffic with Satan was treason to
God - and the colony. This religious control of the state accounts in part
for the panic in Massachusetts at a time when elsewhere the witchcraft
delusion was waning (the last witch had been executed in England in 1685).
When one of those accused as witches, William Barker, added political to
religious heresy, the Puritans believed him: "The design was to
destroy Salem village, and to begin at the Minster's house, and to destroy
the Church of God and to set up Satan's kingdom" - Hale, Modest
Inquiry into Witchcraft, Boston, 1702. The same realisation occurred
to an Englishman, John Evelyn, who recorded in his diary (February 4,
1693): "unheard of stories of the universal increase of Witches in
New England; men, women, and children devoting themselves to the Devil, so
as to threaten the subversion of the government."
The immediate cause of this "subversion" was a group of
unmarried young women who visited the house of Rev. Samuel Parris to
listen to his slave Tituba's tales of West Indian lore. His daughter
Elizabeth, aged nine, and her cousin Abigail Williams, aged eleven, the
two youngest girls, were so emotionally excited by these get-togethers,
coming at the onset of puberty, that they went into fits of uncontrollable
sobbing and convulsions. Even after Elizabeth had been sent to live with
Stephen Sewall (brother of Judge Samuel Sewall, who later abjured his part
in the trials), her fits continued. In the first published account of the
Salem troubles, A Brief and True Narrative (Boston, 1692), Deodat
Lawson, Rev Samuel's Predecessor, told how she saw Abigail "run to
the fire, and begin to throw fire brands about the house; and run against
the back as if she would run up the chimney."
Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams were the bellwethers in this
defiance of the whole adult world, showing lawlessness, disobedience,
flouting of authority, delinquency, to an extent no one in the twentieth
century can envision. Little Elizabeth, brought up by the strictest of
fathers, flung the holy Bible across the room - and got away with it.
Abigail, who lived at the Parris home, took the limelight at a solemn day
of fasting on March 11 for relief from the bewitchment - shrieking,
romping, and disrupting the prayers. On Sunday, march 20, at a guest
sermon by Rev. Deodat Lawson, Abigail gave a performance of audacious
impudence - and everybody marveled. Lawson himself described it:
After psalm was sung, Abigail Williams said to me, "Now stand up,
and name your text." And after it was read, she said, "It is a
long text." . . . And in the afternoon, Abigail Williams, upon my
referring to my doctrines, said to me, "I know of no doctrine you
had. If you did name one, I have forgot it."
Later, at the examination of john Procter, Parris (who was then acting
as recording secretary) wrote:
So great were the interruptions of John [Indian] and Abigail by fits,
while we were observing these things to notify [record] them, that we were
fain to send them both away that I might have liberty to write this
This was the start, but out of this hysteria of high-strung
personalities developed the contrived artfulness of the later fits of the
older girls. Robert Calef, a Boston merchant who observed the proceedings,
noted how from the first the girls acted in their homes, using
"sundry odd postures and antic gestures, uttering foolish ridiculous
speeches, which neither they themselves not any others could make sense
Of these older girls, Ann Putnam was the youngest, twelve. Elizabeth
Hubbard, who worked for her aunt and uncle (Dr. William Griggs), was
seventeen; Mary Walcott, sixteen; Mary Warren, who worked for John and
Elizabeth Proctor, twenty; Mercy Lewis, another servant girl (of the
Putnams'), Nineteen; and Susan Sheldon and Elizabeth Booth were both
eighteen. These eight "witch bitches" (as one of the accused,
old George Jacobs, called them) were the ringleaders. in addition, other
young people also acted strangely and joined in accusing their neighbours
- Sarah Churchill, a twenty-year-old servant of George Jacobs'; Sarah
Trask, nineteen; Margaret Reddington, Twenty; Phoebe Chandler, only
twelve; and Martha Sprague, sixteen.
These girls were not children, but late teen-agers, and by the time the
trials were ended were almost a year older. They were, as the court called
them, "grown persons." Even Ann Putnam, twelve, was precocious,
designated by the court not as a child, but as a "single woman."
As recently as 1668, public opinion had been concerned with possession,
and had ascribed the affliction of john Goodwin's children in Boston to
the Devil. The Goodwin children stem from the long line of Children
Accusers. Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts observed: "The
behaviour of the [Salem] children is so exact as to leave no room for
doubt [that] the stories [of previous possessed children] had been read by
the New England persons, or had been told to them."
In view of this tradition which considered rebellious adolescents as
bewitched, the opinion in Salem about the girls was not surprising. The
local physician, Dr. Griggs, who himself harboured a possessed girl in his
home, and the local ministers diagnosed witchcraft. The local judges found
suspects responsible for the girls' antics, and thereby proved witchcraft.
If the doctor and ministers could offer no explanation save witchcraft,
at least one citizen had a practical suggestion to stop the manifestations
of witchcraft. "If [the girls] were let alone, we should all be
devils and witches quickly; they should rather be had to the whipping
post." His procedure had proved effective, for John Proctor added
that when his Mary Warren "was first taken with fits, he kept her
close to the [spinning] wheel and threatened to thrash her; and then she
had no more fits - til the next day he had gone forth, and then she must
have her fits again, forsooth."
Proctor's suggestion was disregarded, and folk preferred the explanation
of witchcraft. Mary Sibey, the aunt of Mary Walcott, inadvertently forced
attention on the matter, She had Tituba's husband, John Indian, make a
"witch cake." A contemporary New England almanac gives a recipe:
"To cure ague. Take a cake of barley meal and mix it with children's
water, bake it, and feed it to the dog. If the dog shakes, you will be
cured." Mrs. Sibley may also have hoped that, alternatively, if the
dog got sick, the girls would tell who or what afflicted them. When Rev.
Samuel Parris realised what was going on under his nose, the affair became
What may have begun as a teenage prank had developed into a cause célebre.
It may be - motives are very elusive - they initially hit upon the idea of
specters haunting them in order to escape punishment for their fantastic
behaviour. This device was developed little by little. Tituba was actually
the first to tell in court about specters or shapes of neighbours trying
to win them to the Devil. When the question "Who torments you?"
failed to produce names, suggestive questions followed, and answers had to
be given. So the girls named first the obvious scapegoats of the
community, the vulnerable and weak - Tituba, the Negro slave; Sarah Good,
the pipe-smoking beggar; and Sarah Osbourne, a thrice-wedded cripple.
Martha Cory, the fourth to be accused, had an illegitimate half-caste son.
Having taken the first steps in accusing people and seen their horrifying
effects, the girls still more feared to reveal the truth.
Sarah Good was charged on February 29, 1692, with feloniously using and
practicing "certain detestable arts called witchcraft and sorceries,
"whereby Sarah Bibber, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Ann Putnam were
"tortured, afflicted, pined, consumed, wasted, and tormented."
Her preliminary examination of March 1, 1692, was a trial balloon of
public sentiment and the testing ground for future accusations; the girls'
techniques improved with experience. Judge Hathorne (an ancestor of
Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Judge Corwin, both of Salem firmly believed in
deviltry and sorcery.
Q. Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?
Q. Have you made no contract with the Devil?
Q. Why do you hurt these children?
A. I do not hurt them. I scorn it!
Q. Whom do you employ then to do it?
A. I employ nobody.
Q. What creature do you employ then?
A. No creature - but I am falsely accused.
This formula became the standard gambit for interrogation. When Judge
Hathorne saw that his questions to Sarah Good were not creating evidence
for a conviction, he sought help from the girls. "Judge Hathorne
desired the children, all of them, to look upon her and see if this were
the person that had hurt them. And so they all did look upon her and said
this was one of the persons that did torment them." To demonstrate
the torment, the girls cried out as if in pain, claiming pinchings,
bitings, and paralysis. Apparently at this first trial not all the girls
were sure about their spectral evidence, so the record adds:
"Presently they were all tormented."
Having produced visible evidence of Sarah's power to bewitch, Judge
Hathorne then demanded names of her accomplices:
Q. Why, who was it?
A. I do not know, but it was some you brought to the meetinghouse with
Q. We brought you to the meetinghouse.
A. But you brought in two more.
Q. Who was it, then, that tormented the children?
A. It was Osbourne.
In addition to going into fits whenever as accused was presented in
court, the girls corroborated each other by prognosticating each other's
contortions. At the examination of William Hobbs, "Abigail Williams
said he was going to Mercy Lewis, and quickly after the said Lewis was
seized with a fit. Then Abigail cried, 'he is coming to Mary Walcott.' And
said Mary presently fell into a fit also." Without realising the
implications, Judge Hathorne characterised the girls in his interrogation
of Rebecca Nurse: "They accuse you of hurting them, and if you think
it is not unavailingly by design, then you must look upon them as
The sworn despositions of all the young women are much of a piece. Erase
the name of the accused, and the evidence would apply to any other. Thus
Elizabeth Booth accused John Proctor:
The deposition of Elizabeth Booth, aged eighteen years, who testifieth
and saith that since I have been afflicted, I have been grievously
tormented by my neighbour, John Proctor, senior, or his appearance. Also I
have seen John Proctor, senior, or his appearance most grievously torment
and afflict Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis, and Ann Putnam, junior, by
pinching, twisting, and almost choking them. Jurat in curia [She
swears to it in court].
Over three months later, Mary Walcott was repeating this formula against
The deposition of Mary Walcott, who testifieth and saith that about the
9th August, 1692, I was most dreadfully afflicted by a woman that told me
her name was Abigail Faulkner. But on the 11th August, being the day of
the examination of Abigail Faulkner, she did most dreadfully afflict me
during the time of her examination. I saw Abigail Faulkner, or her
appearance, most grievously afflict and torment Sarah Phelps and Ann
Putnam. And I verily believe in my heart that Abigail Faulkner is a witch,
and that she has often afflicted me and that aforesaid persons by acts of
Whenever the young women became uncertain of a course of action, a lead
was given them by another witness, Ann's mother, Mrs. Thomas Putnam. A
close reading of the court records points strongly to her masterminding
A second older witness who frequently testified was 36-year-old Sarah
Bibber, mentioned as a complainant in the first indictment of February 29.
Ten of her despositions against highly respected persons are extant.
Generally she contented herself with backing the girls. At the trial of
Rebecca Nurse, for example, she was the second witness of a specter:
"I saw the apparition of Rebecca Nurse . . . most grievously torture
and afflict the bodies of Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis, and Abigail Williams
by pinching them and almost choking them to death." This she swore on
oath before the court.
But friends and relatives of Mrs. Nurse were scrutinising her. Sarah
Nurse, Rebecca's daughter, detected chicanery and came forward to swear:
"I saw Goody Bibber pull pins out of her clothes and hold them
between her fingers, and clasp her hands round her knees. And then she
cried out and said Goody Nurse pinched her. This I can testify."
Some time later, certain neighbours made statements about this Sarah
Bibber. John and Lydia Porter said she was "a woman of an unruly
turbulent spirit, and she would often fall into strange fits when she was
crossed of her humour." Richard Walker confirmed this. Some people
with whom the Bibbers had lodged made highly damning comments on her
credibility as a witness. For example, she "would be very often
speaking against one and another very obscenely and those things that were
false, and wishing bad wishes and very often." Other neighbours said
she "could fall into fits as often as she pleased."
Those who beat the gun by confessing were the only accused against whom
the girls did not testify at length. The Salem victims were hanged not
because they admitted to being witches, but because they denied it.
No one who confessed to being a witch was ever hanged, yet, if witchcraft
were a punishable offense, a confessed criminal should have been punished.
A confession meant a reprieve, for then the accusers did not make a
scene. At the examination of Mary Warren, "not one of the sufferers
was afflicted during her examination after once she began to confess,
though they were tormented before." After Tituba confessed, Ann
Putnam, as well as Elizabeth Hubbard, said: "She left off hurting me
and has hurt me but little since." And Rev. Francis Dane noted
"the common speech that was frequently spread among us of their
liberty, if they [the accused] would confess." On the other hand,
Samuel Wardwell, who first made a confession but later denied it, was
hanged. In all, 55 of the 150 accused, confessed in order to get reprieves
(Thomas Brattle's Letter).
The course of the trial shocked only two of the "witch
bitches" into confessing their deception; and the public performance
of the other girls, terrified that they would be exposed, was do
outrageously hostile that both penitents recanted, and were taken back
into the ranks of the accusers.
Sarah Churchill, twenty, servant to George Jacobs, was one of the less
vocal accusers. When Jacobs was apprehended and examined, she refused to
continue the imposture. The other girls immediately accused her as a
witch. Frightened by this twist of events, she quickly reversed herself
and rejoined the afflicted.
Her conscience bothered her, however, and she poured out her doubts to
Sarah Ingersoll, the spinster daughter of Deacon Ingersoll, a pillar of
the church and proprietor of the Salem Village "ordinary" or
inn. Sarah filed a desposition, but the court ignored it, just as it had
ignored the exposure of Sarah Bibber:
The deposition of Sarah Ingersoll, aged about thirty years, saith that
seeing Sarah Churchill, after her examination, she came to me crying and
wringing her hands, seeming to be much troubled in spirit. I asked her
what she ailed. She answered she had undone herself. I asked her in what.
She said in belying herself and others in saying she had set her hand to
the devil's book; whereas, she said, she never did. I told her I believed
she had set her hand to the book. She answered, crying, and said,
"No, no, no. I never, I never did!" I asked her then what made
her say she did. She answered because they threatened her, and told her
they would put her into the dungeon, and put her along with Mr. Burroughs.
And thus several times she followed [me] up and down, telling me that she
had undone herself in belying herself and others . . . She said also that
if she told Mr. Noyes but once she had set her hand to the book, he would
believe her. But if she had told the truth and said she had not set her
hand to the book, a hundred times, he would not believe her.
The other defector - temporarily - was Mary Warren, the maid at the
Proctors'. The fate of the Proctor family was enough to bring sanity to a
half-wit. John and his wife Elizabeth were in jail. Mary Warren was left
with their five children (the youngest aged three). An overzealous
sheriff, taking the law into his own hands, had appropriated the family
property. Long before the trial, he came to
the house and seized all the goods and, provisions and cattle that he
could come at, and sold some of the cattle at half price and killed others
and put them for the West Indies; threw out the beer out of the barrel and
carried away the barrel, emptied a pot of broth and took away the pot, and
left nothing for the support of the children.
Like Sarah. she could not bring herself to testify against her employer.
Instead of supporting the fifty-two neighbours who boldly upheld his
innocence in a public petition, however, she uttered her thoughts to her
girl friends. Detecting a dangerous weak reed, Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis,
Mary Walcott, and Abigail Williams accused Mary Warren as witch.
From April 21 to May 12, Mary Warren was hounded by the magistrates and
"witch bitches" until she confessed that John Proctor's
apparition had afflicted her. Most of the questioning turned round her
signing the devil's book, which she eventually admitted, her finger making
a black mark. But whether her finger was wet with spittle, with sweat, or
"with cider that she had been drinking of," she could not say.
While in jail, and momentarily free from the judges' pressures, she
When I was afflicted I thought I saw the apparitions of a hundred
persons; for she said her head was distempered that she could not tell
what she said. And the said Mary told us that when she was well again, she
could not say that she saw any of the apparitions at the time aforesaid.
Mitigation for their sins could be found for other young witch finders
who actually suffered epileptic fits or spastic fits, or who were mentally
deranged. But there can be no mitigation of the crimes of the Salem girls.
Never at any time, even during the hangings, was the slightest compunction
or contrition shown (with the possible exception of Sarah Churchill and
Mary Warren). They knew exactly what they were doing. Their acts during
1692 imply a state of utter delinquency, causing death without rhyme or
reason, for sport. On March 28, at Ingersoll's inn, one girl said she saw
Mrs. Proctor afflicting her. Mrs. Ingersoll "told the girl she told a
lie, for there was nothing. Then the girl said she did it for sport -
'they must have some sport.'"
Some of these young accusers continued their evil-doing after the
trials, so that, as the Reversal of Attainer in 1711 stated, "some of
the principle accusers and witnesses . . .have since discovered [shown]
themselves to be persons of profligate and vicious conversation." The
only document which proves the irrational viciousness is Ann Putnam's
confession made fourteen years later, when she was twenty-six.
In addition to the accusations of injuring the young women by appearing
as evil spectres, most "witches" were accused also by adults
with acts of maleficia. Such alleged misdeeds were never directly
included in the indictment, and seem to have been allowed as evidence on
the theory that any stick was good enough to beat the dog. The desposition
of Sarah Holton against Rebecca Nurse is typical of the rest, and no whit
more stupid. In all the accusations of harming persons or cattle, the
plaintiff was completely unable to link cause and effect, and united two
incidents related only in time to try to prove a causal relationship.
The desposition of Sarah Holton, relict [widow] of Benjamin Holton,
deceased, who testifieth and saith that about this time three years, my
dear and loving husband, Benjamin Holton, deceased, was as well as ever I
knew him in my life, till on Saturday morning that Rebecca Nurse, who now
stands charged for witchcraft, came to our house and fell a-railing at
him, because our pigs got into her field (though our pigs were
sufficiently yoked, and their fence was down in several places). Yet all
we could say to her could in no ways pacify her, but she continued railing
and scolding a great while together, calling her son, Benjamin Nurse, to
go and get a gun and kill our pigs, and let none of them go out of the
field, though my poor husband gave her never a mis-beholding word. And
within a short time after this, my poor husband going out very early in
the morning, as he was a-coming in again, he was taken with a strange fit
in the entry, being struck blind and stricken down two or three times. So
that when he came to himself, he told me he thought he should never come
into the house any more. And all summer after, he continued in a
languishing condition, being much pained at his stomach and often struck
blind. But about a fortnight before he died, he was taken with strange and
violent fits, acting much like to our poor bewitched persons, when we
thought they would have died. And the doctor that was with him could not
find what his distemper was. And the day before he died, he was very
cheerly, but about the midnight he was again most violently seized upon
with violent fits, till the next night about midnight he departed this
life by a cruel death.
But crimes were petty compared to sin; the pact with the Devil,
rather than the evil accruing from the pact, was what mattered. Cotton
Mather defined witchcraft as "a renouncing of God and advancing of a
filthy Devil into the throne of the Most high; 'tis the most nefandous
high treason against the majesty on high."
A large part of the hysteria which blanketed Salem and its environs was
due to the indiscriminate accusations of the girls, whereby anyone might
find himself labeled a witch. Some who possibly approved the arrest of
such "inferiors" as Tituba or Sarah Good were only weeks later
themselves accused, like Martha Cory, who had said: "I could not
blame the Devil for making witches of them; for they are idle,
slothful persons and minded nothing that was good."
The accused were, in fact, a cross-section of society in the Salem area,
from farm labourers to landowners.
John Willard, farmer and deputy constable of Salem Village, had arrested
the first suspects, but he came to see that the real culprits were the
girls in the informers' box. "Hang them," he had cried.
This was talk unendurable in a police officer, and Willard realised it. He
fled from Salem, but was picked up ten days later, accused by six girls
and Mrs. Putnam on seven indictments (the third against any defendant),
tried at the third session of the court on August 2, and hanged on August
John Proctor had a house and cattle and a hired girl (Mary Warren) to
help with his five children. He had no patience with believers in
witchcraft, and this was his undoing. Sam Sibley, the uncle of Mary
Walcott, informed how Proctor had dealt with Mary Warren. It was dangerous
to speak one's mind, even to friends. "If he [proctor] had John
Indian in his custody, he would soon beat the devil out of him." This
comment too was offered (by Deacon Nathaniel Ingersoll) as evidence in
court. A man's scepticism and dissent from a majority prejudice made him a
The most distinguished victim was the former minister of Salem Village,
Rev. George Burroughs, who had left the village about 1682.
Rebecca Nurse was another classic figure. Her husband, Francis, had been
a plain yeoman who did not mind hard work, and with his four sons and four
sons-in-law had almost paid off a 300-acre estate. Rebecca was the eldest
of three sisters; the other two, again both substantial citizens, Sarah
Cloyce and Mary Ersty, were also accused and convicted. Sarah made a
confession and was reprieved. When charged (by the Putnam clan) with
bewitching the girls, Rebecca Nurse was seventy-one years old and
bedridden. Through the verbatim reports of her trial a picture emerges of
this old matriarch - maintaining her integrity to the last, puzzled over
the search for "preternatural marks":
Q. How came you sick? For there is an odd discourse of that in the
mouths of many.
A. I am sick at my stomach.
Q. Have you no wounds?
A. I have not but old age.
At the first, many of those accused were residents of Salem Village or
Salem Farms - the equivalent of a township of about thirty square miles,
with a population of less than a hundred households. Many others came from
neighboring Topsfield, significant because there was considerable bitter
talk between the men of the two districts. As the girls' notoriety in
spotting witches grew, witches were later discovered in more distant
Andover became the chief scene of these extended exploits. One John
Ballard, whose wife's sickness defied diagnosis or cure, suggested the
Salem girls investigate this and other mysterious maladies. Ann Putnam and
Mary Walcott were handicapped by not knowing the names of the local
residents, but they found an even more effective substitute in the
"touch" test. Ann and Mary went into fits, and the suspects
lined up to touch the girls. If the girls became quiet, the toucher was a
witch. "Ann Putnam said she had never seen her, but since she [the
accused] came to Salem town last, said Putnam fell into a fit and said
[Ann] Pudeator was commanded to take her by the wrist, and did. And said
Putnam was well presently." Ann Pudeator was hanged on September 22.
When Mary Parker of Andover "came before the justices, she recovered
all of the afflicted out of their fits by the touch of her hand." She
was hanged on September 22.
The cause of Mrs. Ballard's sickness, said Ann and Mary, was clearly
bewitching by Ann Foster, her daughter Mary Lacy, and her granddaughter
Mary. Mrs. Foster died in jail from ill treatment and exposure, but Mary
Lacy saved her life by confessing. The examinations of these three women
are valuable evidence to show how the mind and will can be broken by the
pressures of imprisonment and tricky questioning.
Mrs. Foster confessed the "devil appeared to her in the shape
of a bird at several times, such a bird as she never saw the like
before." She had "tied a knot in a rag and threw it into the
fire to hurt Timothy Swan, and that she did hurt the rest that complained
of her by squeezing poppets like them, and so almost choked them."
She confirmed the broomstick legend:
She and Martha Carrier did both ride on a stick or pole when they went
to the witch meeting at Salem Village, and that the stick broke as they
were carried in the air above the tops of the trees, and they fell. But
she did hang fast about the neck of Goody Carrier and were presently at
the village, that she was then much hurt of her leg.
A few days later, unaware that her daughter, Mrs. Lacy, had made just as
lurid a confession, Mrs. Foster refused to implicate her. Then Goodwife
Lacy was called in and began thus: "Oh, mother, how do you do? We
have left Christ, and the Devil hath got hold of us. How shall I get rid
of this evil one? I desire God to break my rocky heart that I may get the
victory this time. "
After Mrs. Foster and Mrs. Lacy had been questioned and removed, young
Mary Lacy was brought in, and immediately Mary Warren had a violent fit
which lasted until Mary lacy touched her. Then she berated her parent:
"Where is my mother that made me a witch, and I knew it not?" To
accuse another was the best way of showing cooperation with the court and
Judge Hathorne still hankered after names:
Q. Your mother and your grandmother say there was a minister there. How
many men did you see there?
A. I saw no one but Richard Carrier.
Q. Did you see no one else?
A. There was a minister there, and I think he is now in prison.
Q. Were there not two ministers there?
A. Cannot tell.
Q. Was there one Mr. Borroughs there?
In Andover, after Justice Dudley Bradstreet had issued forty warrants,
he refused to sign any more. Because of lack of cooperation in hunting
down enemies of chapel and state, which suggested sympathy for the witches
and therefore made him a witch, he was indicted for committing nine
murders. He fled with his wife. His brother John, though likewise the son
of a former governor, was also indicted; his offense - inciting a dog to
afflict. "The said dog was tried and hung for a witch."
After Andover, the girls moved into the Boston area.
Mrs. Nathaniel Carey of Charlestown visited Salem Village to clear
herself of incriminating rumours. Mr. Carey reported:
Being brought before the justices, her chief accusers were two girls. My
wife declared to the justices that she had never had any knowledge of them
before that day. She was forced to stand with her arms stretched out. I
requested that I might hold one of her hands, but it was denied me. Then
she desired me wipe the tears from her eyes and the sweat from her face,
which I did. Then she desired she might lean herself on me, saying she
should faint. Justice Hathorne replied she had strength enough to torment
these persons, and she should have strength enough to stand. I speaking
something against their cruel proceedings, they commanded me to be silent
or else I should be turned out of the room. (Calef, More Wonders of the
Captain John Alden of Boston was named. Then, of course, he did not have
the romantic glamour which Longfellow's poem gave him. But he was known
and respected as a sea captain and a fighter in the Indian wars, so much
in esteem that Lieutenant Governor Stoughton himself signed the warrant.
The girls went though their routines, and one of them pointed out a
Captain Hill, but she was prompted by a bystander and then correctly
identified Alden. "There stands Alden! A bold fellow with his hat on
before the judges. He sells powder and shot to the Indians and French, and
lies with Indian squaws and has Indian papooses."
Brought back into the courtroom, he was ordered to stand on a chair and
face the girls: they all fell flat on their faces. Alden's hand was placed
on them: at once they recovered. At this juncture, he asked the judges a
question which, if answered, would have ended all the trials: "What's
the reason you don't fall when I look at you? Can you give me
one?" Alden's sword was taken away, and he was imprisoned in Boston
jail. After fifteen weeks he escaped.
In spite of growing distrust of the girls everywhere else, in October
Gloucester sent for them; but there they discovered only four witches. The
panic caused by the French and Indian attacks in July was subsiding.
Summoned again in November, the girls met a rather chilly reception, and
no one was arrested. En route, at Ipswich, they went into their usual fits
at an old woman, but the people of Ipswich ignored them.
During the hysteria, almost 150 people were arrested; a search of all
the court records would no doubt add to this number. Because of the time
taken to convict ach prisoner, only thirty-one were tried in 1692 (not
including Sarah Churchill and Mary Warren, two accusers who briefly
recanted). The court of Oyer and Terminer [hear and determine] sentenced
to death all thirty-one (of whom six were men). Nineteen were hanged. Of
the remaining twelve, two (Sarah Osbourne and Ann Foster) died in jail;
one (Giles Cory) was pressed to death; one (Tituba) was held indefinitely
in jail without trial; two (Abigail Faulkner and Elizabeth Proctor)
postponed execution by pleading pregnancy and lived long enough to be
reprieved; one (Mary Bradbury) escaped from jail after sentencing; and
five made confessions which secured reprieves for them.
An especially shocking detail about these trials is that the accused had
to pay for their maintenance in jail, even when acquitted! A reprieve cost
a fee; a discharge another. The relatives paid the hangman's fee for the
execution. Many remained in prison after the general jail delivery because
their possessions had been sold to maintain their families in the
meantime. Sarah Dustin was acquitted in January, 1693, but, having no one
to come to her aid, died in prison. Margaret Jacobs was acquitted, but the
property of her parents had been seized, and she was kept in jail until at
length a generous stranger (a Mr. Gammon) heard of her plight and bought
her freedom. William Buckley spent his last shilling paying £10 to
release his wife and daughter. He survived another ten years. his pastor,
Rev. Joseph Green made the following entry in his diary: "January 2,
1702. Old William Buckley died this evening. He was at meeting the last
Sabbath, and died with the cold, I fear for want of comforts and good
tending. Lord forgive! He was about eighty years old. He was very
poor." Tituba remained in jail until May, 1693, when an ignoramus
technically freed her; after thirteen months imprisonment, she was finally
sold for prison expenses as a slave. Ann Foster died in jail; her son had
to pay £2 26s. 0d. costs before he could get back the body
for burial. For Sarah Osbourne's body, costs of £1 3s. 5d.
were demanded. When finally Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Faulkner,
reprieved for pregnancy, were released, they found themselves legally dead
and unable to claim their own property and inheritance.
The sins of the court of Oyer and Terminer are legion: confessions
forced by binding neck and heels until blood oozed from the nose;
admittance of testimony of a seven-year-old daughter by which her mother
(Martha Carrier) was hanged, and evidence of another seven-year-old, Lydia
Nichols, which confirmed the conviction of Abigail Hobbs; denial of advice
and lawyers to the accused; loaded questioning and browbeating - in short,
a determination to stretch every device to find the accused guilty. Yet
Cotton Mather believed the Salem trials were conducted more impartially
than the famous Lancashire trials.
The fundamental evil of the trials, however, was not so much the
miscarriage of justice in particular instances, shocking as these were,
but the underlying philosophy on which the trials were based and against
which Mary Esty and Sarah Cloyce had vainly protested: the theory that the
Devil used the shapes or bodies of the wicked (those who had made a pact
with him) as spectres to torment and even kill the innocent. Tied in with
spectral evidence were two other anti-legal premises: guilt by
association, and guilt by accusation.
The first major published discussion of spectral evidence was by Rev.
Samuel Willard, minister of the Old South Church in Boston, who late in
1692 published Some Miscellany Observations. Willard had three of
the judges in his congregation, and his tolerance and perpicacity may have
helped them free themselves of bigotry.
The immediate problem was how to detect witches and avoid false
accusation of the innocent. On the one hand were those diehards and
officials who held that the Devil worked only through those who had made a
pact with him; therefore spectral evidence was proof of witchcraft. The
clergy generally maintained that the Devil would confuse people by
appearing in the shape or spectre of a good person. Spectral evidence was
therefore unreliable. Witches, Willard said, must be expressly charged for
specific acts, and there must be a full and legal discovery that the party
accused hath done the fact by which the crime is evidenced . . . The thing
testified [must] be that which [the witness] came to the knowledge of,
after the manner of men" - not by God's revelation or the Devil's
Increase Mather was another to oppose the sort of evidence on which the
court of Oyer and Terminer had convicted. On October 3, 1692, he addressed
a group of Boston ministers (who supported his position) and strongly
opposed evidence based on spectres, "touching" to sure fits, or
confessions of possessed persons. He admitted only two classes of proof:
voluntary confession, and two witnesses to the accused's saying or doing
something that only "such as have familiarity with the devil ever did
or can do." Perhaps aware he was holding open the door for dubious
testimony by this second proof, he added a highly important caveat:
It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one
honest person should be condemned. . . . It is better a guilty person
should be absolved than that he should without ground of conviction be
condemned. I had rather judge a witch to be an honest woman, than judge an
honest woman as a witch.
An even stronger attack on spectral evidence and the conduct of the
court came from a wealthy and educated Bostonian, Thomas Brattle, who also
in October, 1692, circulated a very lengthy letter among his friends. He
applied common sense rules to the court procedure, and asked some
embarrassing questions. Since the judges have made touching the test of
witchcraft, why do they bother with so much other evidence? Why do the
witches afflict only some girls and not others? Why are confessions full
of lies and flat contradictions accepted by the court? Why is the evidence
of confessed witches, admitted agents of the Devil, accepted against
Christian persons? "That such as confess themselves to be witches, to
have renounced God and Christ and all that is sacred, should yet be
allowed and ordered to swear by the name of the great God! This indeed
seemeth to me to be a gross taking of God's name in vain." Why is the
distinction between a spectre and a real person ignored? Why are all sorts
of extraneous evidence allowed at trials for witchcraft? Why are highly
placed persons who are accused of witchcraft not prosecuted? Why are
fugitives not extradited from New York? Why are children so encouraged by
zealous adults? "Now no man will be so much out of his wits as to
make this a legal evidence; and yet this seems to be our case." The
whole thing was nonsense: "The witches meetings, the devil's baptisms
and mock sacraments, which the accusing and confessing witches oft speak
of, are nothing else but the effect of their fancy, depraved and deluded
by the devil, and not a reality to be regarded or minded by any wise
The influence of Brattle's letter was so extensive that those upholding
the court, William Stoughton, John Hathorne, Stephen Sewall, Cotton Mather,
and Captain John Higginson, decided to publish an apologia. Mather,
indeed, stated that Governor Phips had asked him for such a volume. Thus
the Wonders of the Invisible World came to be written as a
semiofficial history of the Salem trials. Its publication date was held up
by the Governor (because "people were dissatisfied . . .some [hanged]
were thought by many persons to be innocent") until the new
"reformed" court had softened the memory of the old. Yet early
in January, 1693, over a hundred were still in jail. Mather's work is
invaluable for its almost stenographic reports of five typical trials -
George Burroughs, Bridget Bishop, Susanna Martin; Elizabeth how, and
The only trouble with the book was that it was completely tendentious
and seemed to whitewash the court. Furthermore, Mather still wrote with
complete credulity in witches. Indeed, in his accounts of Mercy Short and
Margaret Rule, written after the exposure of the Salem girls, Mather never
once questioned the demonaic origin of their fits. On the other hand,
Robert Calef, a Boston business man, saw in them only exhibitionism.
Later, he expanded his views with suppressed information about the Salem
trials as More Wonders of the Invisible World (London, 1700), a
clear attack on Mather. in turn, Calef was excoriated by a group of pro-Mather
clergymen in Obadih Gill's Some Few Remarks upon a Scandalous Book
(Boston, 1701), and was forced to move from Boston to Roxbury.
When spectral evidence had been discredited, conviction for witchcraft was impossible. by January, 1693, the judges who had accepted spectral evidence in the summer and fall of 1692 now rejected it. When a juror asked how much weight should be given it, he was told "as much as chips in wort [beer]." Out of fifty-two accused, the judges condemned only three persons, of feeble mind, who had confessed to being witches. Chief Justice Stoughton ordered these three to be hanged, along with five others held over from 1692 (including Elizabeth Proctor, now no longer pregnant), but Governor Phips overrode him and reprieved all eight. Later in April, 1693, Mary Watkins, a servant girl, confessed at Boston to Witchcraft, but the jury returned an ignoramus. Sent out to reconsider their verdict, since the accused had voluntarily confessed, the jurymen again returned the same dismissal. On January 15, 1697, the jurors who had brought in the verdicts of guilty made their amends. That day was a day of fasting in the colony to show repentance for all the wrongdoings of the trials. Ten years after the executions, Judge Samuel Sewall confessed the guilt of the court, desiring "to take the blame and shame of it, asking the pardon of men." In July, 1702, twelve ministers from Essex county supported the petition of the surviving witches in Andover and Topsfield for vindication, since "their names were exposed to infamy and reproach while their trial and condemnation stand on the public record." The General Court at last declared that the use of spectral evidence was unlawful, and on October 17, 1711, reversed the attainders of twenty-two of the thirty-one convicted in 1692, whose relatives (or themselves, if surviving) so petitioned. The act was not perfect, for it was never signed by the Governor; there is some suspicion, too, that the act was intended to protect the Salem lobby against civil suits. The reinstatement of those without survivors or without friends (such as Bridget Bishop and Sarah Osbourne) to plead their memories had to wait 150 years; in 1957 the commonwealth of Massachusetts finally reversed the attainders of all those not covered by the earlier act. In 1709, nearly two dozen accused or their descendants, joined later by others, sought financial compensation for their losses sustained during the trials. These claims were admitted in 1711, although the infinitesimal sum of less than £600 was all that was allocated to reimburse the survivors and their families.
Charles W. Upham, who in 1867 wrote his two-volume Salem Witchcraft,
still the definitive work on this subject, summed up the historic
importance of Salem:
Error is seldom overthrown by mere reasoning. It yields only to the logic of events. No power of learning or wit could have rooted the witchcraft superstition out of the minds of men. Nothing short of a demonstration of their deformities, follies, and horrors, such as here was held up to the view of the world, could have given their death blow. This was the final cause of Salem witchcraft, and makes it one of the great landmarks in the world's history.