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Persecution at Home: The Salem Witch Trials


The Salem witch trials occurred in Salem Village, now the town of Danvers, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. The trials lasted from June through September and over 150 men and women were accused of witchcraft. In total, 24 people died: nineteen men and women convicted of witchcraft were hanged on Gallows Hill, several died in prison, and one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death by heavy stones because he refused to submit to a witchcraft trial. Fifty more people confessed to making a pact with the Devil for special powers.

The causes of the Salem witch trials continue to be debated among scholars. Scholars point to the desire for more power on the part of the clergy, local town politics, mass hysteria, economic tensions among townspeople, the suppression of women, the ingestion of ergot, and adolescent pranks. Some of all these elements combined at a certain time—spring to fall of 1692—and in a certain place—Salem Village and its surrounding area—and resulted in the Salem witch trials.

Town politics played a role in forming the atmosphere of division and fear that fed the trials. Salem Village was part of the larger Salem Town, although most of the homesteads that formed the village were 5 to ten miles from the town. The 600 villagers were divided over whether to remain part of Salem Town or to form their own town. The residents of the eastern part of the Village, nearer to Salem Town, were merchants economically tied to the prosperous harbor trade of Salem Town. The residents of the western side of the village were farmers, many of whom resented the requirements that they financially support Salem Town. A group of villagers began petitioning Salem Town for exemption from certain responsibilities and taxes, such as being part of the Salem military watch, in 1667.

The villagers were granted permission to form their own parish and build their own meeting house in 1672. The parish would not be a fully independent church run by an ordained pastor, but rather by a non-ordained minister who could not administer the Lord’s Supper. The villagers who wanted to receive the Lord’s Supper and have full church membership continued to pay fees to worship at the Salem Town church. The villagers who desired to worship at the local parish were exempt from church taxes. The first three ministers invited to preach at the local parish encountered a heated and divisive atmosphere and did not gain enough support for an endorsement and did not stay long in the village.

In 1689, Salem Town church finally granted Salem Village’s desire for a fully independent covenant church and the villagers hired Samuel Parris as minister. Parris negotiated a generous contract, including the usual salary and free firewood and the title and deed to the parsonage and its two acre parcel of land. Parris moved to Salem in 1689 with his wife, Elizabeth, his daughter, Betty, his niece, Abigail Williams, and their slave, Tituba, whom they purchased in Barbados. Many villagers opposed giving Parris the deed and title to the parsonage. In October of 1691, the newly-elected Salem Village Committee decided not to assess the local taxes to pay Parris’s salary, forcing the pastor to rely on voluntary contributions to live. The church sued the committee in court, which forced the villagers to choose sides.

In the winter of 1692, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams became ill with a mysterious malady. Ann Putnam, Jr., daughter of one of Rev. Parris’s biggest supporters, Thomas Putnam, and Putnam’s niece, Mary Walcott, and Mercy Lewis were also afflicted. The girls became subject to fits in which they writhed in torment and appeared to be bitten or pinched by unseen forces and choked. Parris and other local ministered prayed over the girls and called prayer meetings, to no avail. A local physician could not identify a physical cause for the fits and suggested witchcraft. Others confirmed that Betty’s symptoms seemed to match those of a woman afflicted by witchcraft in Boston, described by Cotton Mather in his book “Memorable Providences”. More girls began exhibiting similar symptoms: Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, and Mary Warren joined the afflicted. The villagers began to pressure the girls to name their tormentors. The girls eventually named three women as witches: Tituba, the minister’s slave, Sarah Good, a beggar, and Sarah Osburn, an ill, elderly woman who had not attended church in over a year. Arrest warrants were issued for them on February 29.

The examination of the three women by the three local magistrates took place in the meeting house because of the large crowds of villagers in attendance. The villagers brought their own evidence of witchcraft: butter and cheese going sour and animals born with deformities after the suspects had visited their homes. The women maintained their innocent until at last Tituba confessed to making a pack with the devil. She confessed to being a witch and flying through the air with other witches to do the Devil’s bidding.

The hunt for witches began in earnest with Tituba’s confession that there were other witches in the village. Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Cloyce, Martha Corey, and Mary Easty were accused of witchcraft, as was Sarah Good’s four-year-old daughter, Dorcas. The bewitched girls writhed in torment, fingering their accusers in front of others. The accused witches were jailed, awaiting trial. Some, such as Deliverance Hobbs, chose to confess and beg for mercy rather than wait in jail for a trial that could end in death.

A new court was formed to hear the witch trials and five judges were appointed by Governor Phips. Accused witches were asked to touch the afflicted girls: if the contortions stopped, the accused was considered a witch. The suspected witches were examined for “witches’ marks”. The afflicted could also give testimony that they were visited or cursed by the defendant’s specter and hearsay and gossip were admitted as evidence. The defendants could speak on their own behalf, give evidence, and cross-examine their accusers, but could not call their own witnesses to testify on their behalf and could not appeal their verdict.

Villagers who disagreed with the witch trials did not vocally oppose them, for fear of being accused themselves. After denouncing the witch hunt, John Proctor, a tavern owner, was accused of being a witch. He was hanged, though his wife, Elizabeth, was spared execution for witchcraft because of her pregnancy. Other upstanding citizens were also accused of witchcraft, including a former minister, George Burroughs, who was executed while protesting his innocence. As more well-connected citizens were accused, the hysteria began to die down. People began to doubt that such a small village could harbor so many witches. Increase Mather’s argued in his work “Cases of Conscience” to exclude spectral evidence and to give more weight to evidence for innocence. Another influential minister, Samuel Willard, suggested that the specters of innocent people might be created by the Devil to sow dissention. Governor Phips eventually rules that the courts could not accept spectral evidence or touching tests and that a verdict of guilty could only be returned in cases of “clear and convincing” evidence. With these new rules of evidence, 28 of the final 33 accused witches were acquitted at trial. Governor Phips released the accused witches and convicted witches from prison in May of 1693.

Samuel Sewall, a judge, issued a public apology for his role in the trials, as did some of the jurors. Rev. Parris publicly acknowledged some errors in judgment and apologized for giving too much weight to spectral evidence. He was replaced as pastor by Thomas Green after agreeing to relinquish the deed to the parsonage in exchange for back salary. Rev. Green attempted to heal the divisions in the parish and the village by inviting accused witches to rejoin the congregation, although some of the accused moved away from the village or joined another parish. The chief justice, William Stoughton, did not apologize or explain his actions and eventually became governor of Massachusetts. The Salem witch trials marked the last time that anyone was executed as a witch in the United States.

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