The Salem Witch Trials were a difficult and dark chapter in the history of the United States of America. These historical trials began in May 1692 and spanned around 15 months, taking place in villages in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people wrongly accused of practicing witchcraft – these resulted in the execution of nineteen men and women, one man being crushed (by stones) to death and seven others dying in a prison. Dark times indeed.
Since then, the trials have set the perfect example of the dangers of mass hysteria and scapegoating. However, in order to understand the underlying causes of this hysteria, it is important to examine the conditions and surrounding environment which triggered these events to take place. The community in and around the Salem area was a devout Christian community and were quite isolated from the new world developing around them. With their strong Christian beliefs came a worsened fear of the devil, whom they believed was using witches to do his bidding. Combine this with a recent smallpox epidemic, as well as political pressures and unrest, and you will find that 17th century Massachusetts was a potent ground for suspicion, tension and fear.
The Affliction of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams
The initial trigger for the infamous Salem Witch Hunt was when Betty Parris and her cousin, Abigail Williams, daughter and niece of the revered Reverend Samuel Parris, fell ill. And by ill, I don’t mean lying in bed with a slight fever and a runny nose. No. These poor girls were having fits described as ‘beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural diseases’ by Minister John Hale. The girls were screaming and yelling, throwing things around the room and contorted violently into unnatural positions. A few other girls began experiencing very similar symptoms, sending the people of Salem village and its neighbouring villages into a frenzy. The doctors called in could not find any evidence of any physical afflictions. It wasn’t long before there were rumours floating around of witches, working for Satan, enchanting these young girls.
The first three names to be charged with witchcraft were those of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba. Good was a beggar in the Salem area, with a horrible reputation. Osborne rarely went to church – making her a social outlier in the eyes of the devout Christian people of Salem. Tituba was the easiest target of all. An Indian slave to Samuel Parris, she was already a social outcast from the off. Stories of impure, sexual encounters with demons, fortune-telling and mind control made it easy for the people of Salem, who were quite isolated from the realities of the new world, to believe that Tituba was in fact a witch, doing Satan’s bidding.
Each of these women were brought in for questioning and thrown in jail afterwards. Some say that Tituba, the Indian slave, shockingly confessed to practicing witchcraft, and having been approached by Satan himself in order to do his evil bidding. If true, it is not difficult to imagine why the people of Salem village and those in neighboring towns went into a completely hysterical frenzy and began the infamous witch hunt. It was also a devastating blow to anyone who scoffed at the idea that the Devil had infiltrated Massachusetts.
Men, Women and Children Accused and Tried
Throughout the same month, four more women were arrested on suspicion that they may be practicing witchcraft. Women might not be the most apt word to use, considering that one of the ‘witches’ they arrested was four-year-old Dorothy Good, daughter of beggar Sarah Good. Apparently, not being able to form complete thoughts or sentences did not exempt little Dorothy from questioning and being thrown in jail. Moreover, one of the other women wasn’t from Salem, but from a neighboring town called Ipswich. The witch hunt frenzy was spreading.
As time went by, more and more people were being accused and more and more people were being apprehended. Despite the strong, prevalent belief that the victims of the Salem Witch Hunt were women, the accusers pointed fingers towards men and women alike, all of whom were accused of practicing evil magic and witchcraft. Although the main accusers during the witch trials were the afflicted girls, many people believe that their parents were encouraging their girls to accuse people their parents did not like, as a form of revenge. The number of cases grew, with some of the accused managing to escape, while others weren’t so lucky.
With the growing number of accusations and arrests, a special court was set up, by Governor William Phips in June 1692, in order to lawfully determine which of the accused was actually a wizard or witch. The Court of Oyer and Terminer (hear and determine in Latin) consisted of eight prominent individuals. Those who were captured in the towns surrounding Salem were brought on over to be tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. All in all, there were more than 200 unfortunate individuals locked up and awaiting trial because they were believed to be practicing evil magic and witchcraft.
Bridget Bishop and Rebecca Nurse
Bridget Bishop was the first person to be tried in front of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the same month it was established. She had been accused of practicing witchcraft before but was cleared of all charges. This time round, she was accused by five of the afflicted girls, who claimed that Bishop had physically hurt them and attempted to have them make a pact with Satan. Unsurprisingly, the court found her guilty and sentenced her to death by hanging. Another myth which was debunked was that the ‘witches’ of Salem who were found guilty were sentenced to death by burning. This was not true – they were hanged.
The following month, five more people were hanged. Most people were not bothered by losing the people executed, as they were mostly social outcasts. However, one of the five people who were hanged was Rebecca Nurse, a pious, well-liked and generally well-respected woman. When she was accused and apprehended, many of the town people signed petitions to release her but to no avail. During her trial, she was initially found not guilty. However, as soon as she was cleared of her charges, the girls afflicted began to have fits once more. The Court was forced to reconsider and subsequently pronounced her guilty, and she was executed. That was one of the main events that led the people in and around Salem to question the validity and fairness of these trials.
The Execution of Giles Corey
Another important and likely pivotal moment of the Salem Witch Trials was the trial and execution of Giles Corey. Giles Corey was accused of practicing dark magic during his wife’s examination. During his own trial, he completely and utterly refused to plead guilty, knowing that his estate would be confiscated if he had plead guilty, leaving his children with nothing. Laws at the time permitted that the court could torture a person in an attempt to get a plea out of them. The method of torture used by the court consisted of a person lying naked on the ground, with a board sat atop him. Gradually, heavy stones were loaded onto the board, crushing the unfortunate victim beneath the weight. Giles Corey passed away in September, 1692 and remains the only person in recorded American history to be pressed to death.
As the trials went on, the villagers began to doubt that so many people could, in fact, be guilty of the same crime. Fearing that innocent people may be being wrongfully executed, clergymen and other prominent people began to speak out against the crime trials.
Validity of Spectral Evidence
Their prayers were answered when in September 1692, after Giles Corey’s murder, spectral evidence was deemed inadmissible to the court. Spectral evidence is evidence based on dreams or vision. Many of the cases relied heavily on spectral evidence, meaning many of the people accused were found not guilty or were released on account of lack of proper evidence.
Those who were found guilty were pardoned by the Governor.
A total of 19 victims were hanged, in addition to Giles Corey. The rest either died in prison, were found not guilty, pardoned, evaded escape or were never even indicted.
The events known as the Salem Witch Trials left the entire place in disarray for years after, which took years and years to fix. Over the next hundreds of years, the people of Massachusetts created memorials in honor for the unfortunate victims who had their lives tragically cut short by the witch hunt. It remains a dark, unsightly splotch in the pages of American history.