Salem Witch Trials 1692–1693
An infamous episode in American history, the Salem witch trials of 1692 resulted in the execution by hanging of fourteen women and five men accused of being witches. In addition, one man was pressed to death by heavy weights for refusing to enter a plea; at least eight people died in prison, including one infant and one child; and more than one hundred and fifty individuals were jailed while awaiting trial. Due to the survival of many relevant records, including notes, depositions, and official rulings, the main facts of the accusations, arrests, trials, and executions are known. What has always engaged scholars is the search for the causes of the "witch hysteria." The proffered explanations for the witchcraft occurrence are many and conflicting.
On January 20, 1692, in Salem Village, the Reverend Samuel Parris' nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and his eleven-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, began exhibiting odd behavior, including shouting blasphemies and entering into trances. Parris eventually called in the local physician, William Griggs, who found the girls experiencing convulsions and scurrying around the room and barking like dogs. The doctor was puzzled and unable to offer a medical explanation, but suggested that it might be the work of evil forces. Parris consulted with local ministers, who recommended he wait to see what happened. But word of the unexplained fits had already spread around Salem Village, and soon several other girls, including three from the home of Thomas Putnam, Jr., were exhibiting similar behavior. Pressured to explain what or who had caused their behavior, the girls named three Village women as witches. One named was Tituba, the Rev. Parris' slave, who had enthralled many local girls with fortune-telling in her master's kitchen. Another named as a witch was Sarah Good, an unpopular woman who had reportedly muttered threats against her neighbors; the third was Sarah Osborne, who had allowed a man to live with her for some months before they were married. Warrants for the three were issued on February 29. The next day Salem Town magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin examined the women in the Village meeting house. Good and Osborne declared that they were innocent and knew nothing of witchcraft, but Tituba exuberantly confessed, claiming that witchcraft was practiced by many in the area. Her confession excited the villagers. On March 21 Martha Corey became the fourth woman of Salem Village to be arrested. While she was examined in the meeting house in front of hundreds of people, the afflicted girls cried out in what appeared to be extreme agony. More individuals were accused and jailed as the weeks passed, but no trials could legally take place because, for the first three months of the witchcraft uproar, Massachusetts was without a legally-established government. On May 14, 1692, Governor William Phips arrived with a new charter and soon created a special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to determine). The chief justice for the Court of Oyer and Terminer was William Stoughton, and the others serving included John Hathorne and Samuel Sewall. The court's first session, held on June 2, resulted in a death sentence for the accused witch Bridget Bishop; she was hanged on June 10. (She was not the first accused to die, however; Sarah Osborne died of natural causes in a jail in Boston on May 10.) Cotton Mather of Boston's First Church wrote privately to the court expressing reservations on questions of evidence. On June 15 a group of ministers including Cotton Mather, wrote Governor Phips urging that special caution be taken in the use of evidence in the trials, but the ministers said no more publicly in July, August, or September. The court next met on June 29 and heard the cases of five accused women. When the jury tried to acquit one of them, Rebecca Nurse, Stoughton sent the jury back to deliberate some more. When they returned they had changed their verdict to guilty. The women were hanged on July 19. By this time the witchcraft hysteria had spread not only to Salem Town but to Andover. August and September brought more convictions and hangings. The last eight accused witches were hanged on September 22, in what would turn out to be the final executions. On October 3, Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather, delivered a sermon at a gathering of ministers in Cambridge. The sermon was soon published as Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (1692). The elder Mather insisted that proper evidence should be used in witchcraft cases just as in any other capital cases. He strongly opposed spectral evidence, or evidence based on ghost sightings. As accusations mounted against people of higher and more respectable positions, skepticism grew in the public as to the appropriateness of witchcraft charges. Thomas Brattle wrote an insightful letter to Governor Phips highly criticising the trials. On October 12, Phips, whose own wife had been accused of witchcraft, forbade any further imprisonments for witchcraft, and on the 29th dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. When a new special court convened in early 1693, with several of the same members and William Stoughton once more as chief justice, forty-nine accused persons were acquitted. The difference was in no small part due to the governor not permitting spectral evidence to be heard. When three prisoners were convicted, Phips immediately granted reprieves. Three months later Phips freed all the remaining prisoners and issued a general pardon. Soon many jurors and judges apologized, and Judge Sewall attempted to take full responsibility for the trials and hangings.
A central problem in the trials themselves was the use of spectral evidence. Because the actual crime involved an agreement made between the accused witch and the devil, in which the devil was given the right to assume the witch's human form, and because, by its very nature, this compact would not have witnesses, finding acceptable evidence was difficult. Spectral evidence included testimony by the afflicted that they could see the specters of the witches tormenting their victims; the evil deeds were not perpetrated by the accused themselves, but by the evil spirits who assumed their shapes. One problem with spectral evidence was that apparitions of demons were invisible to other people in the same room; only the afflicted girls could see the shapes. Another concern was the possibility that Satan could appear in the shape of an innocent person. To overcome these obstacles, confessions were vigorously sought. The Salem cases are unusual in that the defendants who confessed were generally not executed, while those who were hanged adamantly maintained their innocence. Considered trustworthy was testimony to some supernatural attribute of the accused. George Burroughs was accused by six persons of performing superhuman feats of strength. One witness claimed Burroughs could read his thoughts. Another test made on the accused was for any "supernatural weaknesses" such as the inability to recite prayers correctly. Yet another criterion was the presence of a "witch's tit"—any small, unusual physical appendage, ordinarily quite small, through which the witch would give suck to the devil when he appeared in the form of some small animal or creature. Anger followed by mischief also indicated a person was a witch, especially when a curse uttered against a neighbor or his property came immediately before the misdeed occurred.
Many factors must be considered in examining the causes of the witchcraft hysteria. Fundamental is the recognition that among the settlers of New England, belief in witchcraft was prevalent. Additionally, Salem was beset with political problems and internal strife. Land disputes and personal feuds were common. Some scholars maintain that the Puritan villagers felt they had failed God and deserved to be punished for their sins. The role of the clergy has also been much debated; some historians see them as largely responsible for stirring up the people and making them expect retribution. Others credit the clergy with ending the trials. The afflicted girls have been variously described as outright liars and frauds, children looking for excitement, victims of disease, and sincere believers in the idea that they were victims of witchcraft.
Living as we do in the 20th century, the charges imposed on people throughout New England during the 1680s and 1690s seem preposterous. Any behavior regarded as strange by fellow citizens was sufficient to hold a trial with a sentence of death. Though such scenarios seem unfathomable in our modern culture, it was a reality for hundreds of New England settlers. The causes of the famous outbreak of witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts are rooted in social, economic, and political aspects of the late 17th century Salem community.
Early New Englanders were unable to accept the increase in diversity and the break in tradition that occurred between generations. This, in addition to various unappealing events which occurred throughout the late 1600s, created tensions within the New England community. Such tensions were the cause of the prevalent hysteria concerning witchcraft in the 1680s and 1690s. The disastrous consequences of these tensions included the execution of hundreds of innocent civilians during the Salem witch trials. Accusations of witchcraft often targeted widowed, middle-aged women with few children, and of low social standing. Sometimes, the accused women were those who had acquired possession of property and respectively contested the gender norms of Puritan society.
In addition, separation of Church and State was nonexistence, and often religion was intertwined with political law. As a result, anyone who opposed the Puritan Church in even the slightest of instances was susceptible to chastisement by law. “Witchcraft” was viewed as a rebellion against the Church, heresy, and association with the devil, and was punishable accordingly. Finally, people living in Salem, Massachusetts were motivated to accuse others of witchcraft because, if convicted, the property that they had owned would be sold. These factors contributed to the major social, political, and economic reasons why the Salem witch trials began.
The Salem witch trials began as a result of a variety of causes. These causes were derived from the social, political, and economic aspects of society. Though all of these societal aspects contributed to the witch trials throughout New England, it is apparent through careful examination of the provided documents that the economic causes could not possibly outweigh the significance of the social and political causes to the events of the 1680s and 1690s.
Throughout the late 17th century, numerous events occurred which eventually contributed to the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. The timeline of “Yearly Events” begins with the revoking of the charter of Massachusetts by England followed by the creation of the Dominion of New England (Document F). Soon after, Massachusetts endured a flood of extremely cold winters and an outbreak of smallpox. Such undesirable events greatly aggravated the social constancy of the New England colonies. Having nobody else to blame, the people of Salem came to the conclusion that heretic individuals practicing witchcraft were accomplices of Satan, and therefore were the source of the pandemonium infesting New England. What was then believed to be a simple solution to reinstate social stability in Massachusetts ultimately resulted in the execution of hundreds of innocent individuals.
As the Salem witch trials continued throughout the late 1600s, more than 100 people in Massachusetts were accused of committing crimes related to witchcraft. When studying the “Age and sex of Accused witches,” one is able to identify certain patterns concerning witchcraft accusations (Document B). More often it was women as opposed to men who were indicted on the basis of witchcraft. In addition, the majority of accusations included those under the age of twenty and between the ages of forty and sixty. Similar trends can be studied in “Table 1: Victims of Witchcraft by age and sex” (Document C). Through assessment of this chart, it is clear that the number of “victims” of witches skyrocketed in the population of men between the ages of twenty and forty. Women from ages twenty to sixty also composed a significant fraction of the supposed “victims.” In conclusion the charts concerning the “Age and sex of Accused witches” and the “Victims of witchcraft by age and sex,” allow one to realize that during the extent of the Salem witch trials, many young and middle aged women were targeted in witchcraft accusations by a large number of middle aged men as well as other middle aged women.
The culture of Salem, Massachusetts as well as other New England colonies greatly influenced accusations of witchcraft. As previously mentioned, the most common accusations were made by middle aged men and against young or middle aged women. This idea is fortified through a “Description of Bridget Bishop Accused Witch” (Document G). The indicted “witch,” Bridget Bishop, is looked down upon. She is described to be keeping refreshments for travelers and entertaining guests. In addition she wears bright and colorful clothing, which is seen as scandalous to the Puritan community of New England. Bridget’s liveliness and happiness are foreign to the Puritan ideals of menial, hard work.
Mrs. Bishop is noted by Reverend Hale, the local minister, as being a dangerous and corrupt influence to youths (Document H). Bridget Bishop is a middle-aged woman, and through the “Testimony by Richard Coman at the witchcraft trial of Bridget Bishop,” it is understood that the believed victim of her witchcraft was a middle-aged man (Document I). Coman’s wife discovered that her husband had been in an affair with Mrs. Bishop. To prevent disorder within his own family, Coman responded by accusing Bridget Bishop of bewitching him. A similar charge would be discarded as preposterous today’s society, however was viewed as completely plausible at the time of the witchcraft trials in New England throughout the 1680s and 1690s.
The social reasons for the Salem witch trials are somewhat intertwined with the political causes. This is a result of the lack of separation between Church and State in Massachusetts colonial society. Religion was an important element of Puritan society, and played a major role in all aspects of colonial life. Witchcraft was viewed by Puritans as heresy, disrespect of the Church, and an individual’s association with the devil. Failure to comply with religious expectations was punishable by colonial law, and therefore, witchcraft was punishable by law. The lack of separation between Church and State is visible in the “Capital Laws of New England,” where capital laws are accompanied by Biblical references (Document A). The social importance of the Church and its entanglement with local law allows for political causes to be significant throughout the witch trials of New England.
Though the importance of the social and political factors in the initiation of witchcraft trials is unambiguous, some scholars believe that economic causes were more influential. For instance, settlers soon found that charging others with satanic beliefs was an infallible way to increase their own social standing. Puritans of economic inferiority used witchcraft accusations to disgrace affluent members of the community. When someone was convicted of being a witch, his or her land is subsequently available for sale at a low price. The “Average Size of Salem Village Landholdings 1640-1700” illustrates how as the number of witchcraft accusations increase, the average property size steadily decreases (Document D). This is a consequence of large amounts of land, which had previously been the property of a single wealthy individual, being divided between numerous poorer individuals. The possibility of gaining more property motivated many people in New England to accuse neighbors of being witches. Though economic causes did contribute to the witch trials of New England, the social and political causes of these witch trials were much more significant.
The inability of New England Puritans to recognize the increase in diversity occurring throughout the late 17th century had profound impact on the community. Discouraging events which took place in New England increased apprehension within the society. These tensions in addition to other social, economic, and political factors resulted in the catastrophic consequence of the Salem witch trials. However, by studying the provided documents, one can recognize the significance of the social and political causes as being profound in relationship to the economic reasons for the witch trials of New England throughout the 1680s and 1690s.