Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween - A Scholar looks at New England's 1692 Salem Witch Trials

This Halloween seems like an appropriate moment to look at the Salem witch trials of 1692, through the research of Dr. Richard Godbeer of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

"Salem witches & their accusers were swept up in a witch panic that gripped Essex county, Massachusetts, in 1692. The witch hysteria began in Salem village when girls & young women reportedly had begun to suffer strange fits, diagnosed by the local doctor as symptoms of witchcraft. Once they were pressured to name their alleged tormentors other villagers began to come forward with accusations of their own. During that year formal charges of witchcraft were brought against 156 people. Many others were named informally. Over half of those indicted lived in Salem village & Andover, but the accused witches included women & men from 24 New England towns & villages.

"On both sides of the Atlantic, witchcraft was perceived as a primarily female phenomenon & over ¾ of the accused were women. Puritans did not believe that women were by nature more evil than men, but they did see them as weaker & thus more susceptible to sinful impulses. Ministers regularly reminded New England congregations that it was Eve who first gave way to Satan & then seduced Adam, when she should have continued to serve his moral welfare in obedience to God.

"Some women were much more likely than others to be suspected of witchcraft. Throughout the 17th century New England women became especially susceptible to accusation if they were seen as challenging their prescribed place in a gendered hierarchy that puritans held to be ordained by God. Women who fulfilled their allotted social roles as wives, mothers, household mistresses, & church members without threatening assumptions about appropriate female comportment were respected and praised as the handmaidens of the Lord; but those whose circumstances or behavior seemed to disrupt social norms could easily become branded as the servants of Satan.

"Especially vulnerable were women who had passed menopause & thus no longer served the purpose of procreation, women who were widowed & so neither fulfilled the role of wife nor had a husband to protect them from malicious accusations, & women who had inherited or stood to inherit property in violation of expectations that wealth would be transmitted from man to man.

"Women who seemed unduly aggressive & contentious were also likely to be accused; behavior that would not have struck contemporaries as particularly egregious in men seemed utterly inappropriate in women. Bridget Bishop & Susannah Martin, both executed in 1692, exemplify these characteristics: both had been widowed; Bishop had assumed control of her first husband's property before remarrying; Martin had engaged in protracted litigation over her father's estate in an unsuccessful attempt to secure what she considered her rightful inheritance; both women had displayed an assertiveness & fiery temper that some of their neighbours found deeply troubling.

Devil Snatches Woman on Pitchfork

"Many of those accused in 1692, male & female, either had reputations for occult expertise or had at least experimented with magical techniques for divination or healing. Although ministers condemned any form of magic as diabolical, layfolk often appreciated being able to consult ‘cunning folk’ for benign purposes. Yet such individuals were vulnerable to allegations that they had also deployed their abilities to harm enemies. Samuel Wardwell (d. 1692), for example, was known to have told fortunes & had boasted of his abilities. One neighbor was reported as having declared that he must be ‘a witch or else he could never tell what he did.’

Witches at Cauldron from Ulrich Molitor. De Lamiis et Phitonicis Mulieribus, 1493

"Other suspects became vulnerable during the 1692 panic, because they were associated with recent threats to the New England colonies. American Indian attacks, political reforms imposed by the government in England that threatened to undermine the colonists' independence, the increasing visibility of religious dissenters, & the imposition of a new charter in 1691 that gave freedom of worship & the vote to previously disfranchised groups such as Quakers combined to leave the colonists feeling imperiled by alien, invasive, & malevolent forces.

"They described these threats in much the same language used to characterize witchcraft. Puritans believed, furthermore, that there was a close connection between heresy, heathenism, & witchcraft. A significant number of the accused had close Quaker associations & several suspects were linked by their accusers to American Indians. Samuel Wardwell had Quaker relatives; one of John Alden's accusers claimed that he had sold gunpowder to Indians & had been sexually involved with their women. Tituba, an accused American Indian woman who had lived in the Caribbean before coming with her master to Salem village, was marked by her race as well as her reputation for occult skills. Many of the accused were clearly perceived as outsiders, either literally or figuratively. Eight of the Andover suspects were marginalized by ethnic affiliation: Martha Carrier (d. 1692), for example, was Scottish & had married a Welshman.

1598 Trial of a Witch

"During the decades leading up to the witch hunt Salem village itself had become bitterly divided around a series of issues that paralleled crises in the region at large. The village was legally subordinate to Salem town & had no civil government of its own. Some villagers wanted independence from the town, partly because the latter had proven remarkably insensitive to their concerns & partly to separate themselves from the commercial spirit that increasingly characterized the town, which was flourishing as a seaport. Villagers who saw that way of life as spiritually suspect tended to distrust neighbors who lived near to or were associated with the town's interests. Factional division was shaped by disparate economic opportunity as well as by cultural values. Those farmers who lived closest to the town had land of a higher quality, enjoyed easier access to its markets, & tended to see the town's development as an opportunity; those living further west had poorer land, were less able to take advantage of the town's growth, & tended to resent those who could do so.

"Proponents of separation from the town secured the establishment of an independent church in 1689 & the ordination of Samuel Parris (1653–1720), a failed merchant, as their pastor. Parris, whose position as pastor was under threat by 1692, fueled hostilities by translating factional division into a cosmic struggle between the forces of good & evil. His daughter & niece, Elizabeth Parris [married name Barron] (1682/3–1760) & Abigail Williams (b. 1680/81), were among the initial accusers. Ann Putnam (1679–1715), daughter of the minister's close ally Thomas Putnam (1653–1699), was another member of that core group; Mercy Lewis [married name Allen] (b. 1672/3), a servant in the Putnam household, & Mary Walcott [married name Farrar] (b. 1674/5), a niece who lived with the Putnams, were also prominent accusers. The elder Ann Putnam [née Carr] (1662–1699), wife of Thomas, claimed that she too was afflicted.

"Divisions within the village were reproduced in the pattern of accusations in 1692: most accused witches & their defenders lived on the side of the village nearest to Salem town, whereas most of the accusers lived on the western side. Many of the accused had personal histories or interests that either associated them with Salem town or otherwise marked them as threatening outsiders. In Salem village & in the county as a whole those individuals & families who had become identified with forces that seemed disorderly & immoral fell victim to accusations of witchcraft as the initial afflictions in the village ignited witch panic.

From the book The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Fowler... 1618  The Examinations of Anne Baker, Joanne Willimot, and Ellen Greene

"By early October, when the court proceedings were halted amid acrimonious controversy, 19 people had been hanged: Bridget Bishop on 10 June; Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, & Sarah Wilds on 19 July; George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, John Proctor, & John Willard on 19 August; & Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Purdeator, Wilmot Reed, Margaret Scott, & Samuel Wardwell on 22 September. Giles Corey was pressed to death under interrogation on 19 September. Over one hundred individuals were in prison awaiting trial, four of whom died during their confinement (Lydia Dustin, died on 3 March 1693; Ann Foster (d. 1692/3); Sarah Osborne, died on 10 May 1692; & Roger Toothaker, died on 16 June 1692).

Chronica Mundi 1493 Demon et Stryge

"Three-quarters of those tried before 1692 were acquitted because the evidence against them, though compelling in the eyes of their accusers, proved unconvincing from a legal perspective. The Salem trials were halted primarily because of controversy over the court's reliance upon problematic testimony, which reaffirmed & intensified judicial concerns regarding evidentiary issues. Such concerns combined with embarrassment & distress over the deaths that resulted from the trials that year to discourage future prosecutions, though an end to witch trials in New England by the century's close did not signify an end to the belief in & fear of witches."

Reverse Baptism 1257

Events in Salem Village in 1692

January 20

Nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams began to exhibit strange behavior, such as blasphemous screaming, convulsive seizures, trance-like states and mysterious spells. Within a short time, several other Salem girls began to demonstrate similar behavior.


Unable to determine any physical cause for the symptoms and dreadful behavior, physicians concluded that the girls were under the influence of Satan.

Late February

Prayer services and community fasting were conducted by Reverend Samuel Parris in hopes of relieving the evil forces that plagued them. In an effort to expose the "witches," John Indian baked a witch cake made with rye meal and the afflicted girls' urine. This counter-magic was meant to reveal the identities of the "witches" to the afflicted girls.

Pressured to identify the source of their affliction, the girls named three women, including Tituba, Parris' Carib Indian slave, as witches. On February 29, warrants were issued for the arrests of Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

Although Osborne and Good maintained innocence, Tituba confessed to seeing the devil who appeared to her "sometimes like a hog and sometimes like a great dog." What's more, Tituba testified that there was a conspiracy of witches at work in Salem.

Feeding Demonic Creatures

March 1

Magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin examined Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne in the meeting house in Salem Village. Tituba confessed to practicing witchcraft.

Over the next weeks, other townspeople came forward and testified that they, too, had been harmed by or had seen strange apparitions of some of the community members. As the witch hunt continued, accusations were made against many different people.

Frequently denounced were women whose behavior or economic circumstances were somehow disturbing to the social order and conventions of the time. Some of the accused had previous records of criminal activity, including witchcraft, but others were faithful churchgoers and people of high standing in the community.

March 12

Martha Corey is accused of witchcraft.

March 19

Rebecca Nurse was denounced as a witch.

March 21

Martha Corey was examined before Magistrates Hathorne and Corwin.

March 24

Rebecca Nurse was examined before Magistrates Hathorne and Corwin.

March 28

Elizabeth Proctor was denounced as a witch.

April 3

Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca Nurse's sister, was accused of witchcraft.

April 11

Elizabeth Proctor and Sarah Cloyce were examined before Hathorne, Corwin, Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, and Captain Samuel Sewall. During this examination, John Proctor was also accused and imprisoned.

April 19

Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Giles Corey, and Mary Warren were examined. Only Abigail Hobbs confessed. William Hobbs "I can deny it to my dying day."

April 22

Nehemiah Abbott, William and Deliverance Hobbs, Edward and Sarah Bishop, Mary Easty, Mary Black, Sarah Wildes, and Mary English were examined before Hathorne and Corwin. Only Nehemiah Abbott was cleared of charges.

May 2

Sarah Morey, Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, and Dorcas Hoar were examined by Hathorne and Corwin. Dorcas Hoar "I will speak the truth as long as I live."

May 4

George Burroughs was arrested in Wells, Maine.

May 9

Burroughs was examined by Hathorne, Corwin, Sewall, and William Stoughton. One of the afflicted girls, Sarah Churchill, was also examined.

May 10

George Jacobs, Sr. and his granddaughter Margaret were examined before Hathorne and Corwin. Margaret confessed and testified that her grandfather and George Burroughs were both witches. Sarah Osborne died in prison in Boston.

Margaret Jacobs "... They told me if I would not confess I should be put down into the dungeon and would be hanged, but if I would confess I should save my life."

May 14

Increase Mather returned from England, bringing with him a new charter and the new governor, Sir William Phips.

May 18

Mary Easty was released from prison. Yet, due to the outcries and protests of her accusers, she was arrested a second time.

May 27

Governor Phips set up a special Court of Oyer and Terminer comprised of seven judges to try the witchcraft cases. Appointed were Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne, and Jonathan Corwin.

These magistrates based their judgments and evaluations on various kinds of intangible evidence, including direct confessions, supernatural attributes (such as "witchmarks"), and reactions of the afflicted girls. Spectral evidence, based on the assumption that the Devil could assume the "specter" of an innocent person, was relied upon despite its controversial nature.

May 31

Martha Carrier, John Alden, Wilmott Redd, Elizabeth Howe, and Phillip English were examined before Hathorne, Corwin, and Gedney.

June 2

Initial session of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Bridget Bishop was the first to be pronounced guilty of witchcraft and condemned to death.

Early June

Soon after Bridget Bishop's trial, Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned from the court, dissatisfied with its proceedings.

June 10

Bridget Bishop was hanged in Salem, the first official execution of the Salem witch trials.  Bridget Bishop "I am no witch. I am innocent. I know nothing of it." Following her death, accusations of witchcraft escalated, but the trials were not unopposed. Several townspeople signed petitions on behalf of accused people they believed to be innocent.

June 29-30

Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes, Sarah Good and Elizabeth Howe were tried for witchcraft and condemned. Rebecca Nurse "Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in your hands...."


In an effort to expose the witches afflicting his life, Joseph Ballard of nearby Andover enlisted the aid of the accusing girls of Salem. This action marked the beginning of the Andover witch hunt.

July 19

Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good, and Sarah Wildes were executed. Elizabeth Howe "If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent..."Susannah Martin "I have no hand in witchcraft."

August 2-6

George Jacobs, Sr., Martha Carrier, George Burroughs, John and Elizabeth Proctor, and John Willard were tried for witchcraft and condemned. Martha Carrier "...I am wronged. It is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits."

August 19

George Jacobs, Sr., Martha Carrier, George Burroughs, John Proctor, and John Willard were hanged on Gallows Hill. George Jacobs "Because I am falsely accused. I never did it."

September 9

Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Dorcas Hoar, and Mary Bradbury were tried and condemned. Mary Bradbury "I do plead not guilty. I am wholly innocent of such wickedness."

September 17

Margaret Scott, Wilmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Abigail Faulkner, Rebecca Eames, Mary Lacy, Ann Foster, and Abigail Hobbs were tried and condemned.

September 19

Giles Corey was pressed to death for refusing a trial.

September 21

Dorcas Hoar was the first of those pleading innocent to confess. Her execution was delayed.

September 22

Martha Corey, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker were hanged.

October 8

After 20 people had been executed in the Salem witch hunt, Thomas Brattle wrote a letter criticizing the witchcraft trials. This letter had great impact on Governor Phips, who ordered that reliance on spectral and intangible evidence no longer be allowed in trials.

October 29

Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

November 25

The General Court of the colony created the Superior Court to try the remaining witchcraft cases which took place in May, 1693. This time no one was convicted.

Mary Easty "...if it be possible no more innocent blood be shed...I am clear of this sin."

Swapping Book of Salvation for the Devil's Black Book of the Damned

See:  Salem witches & their accusers. Richard Godbeer Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004  Richard Godbeer received his B.A. from Oxford University in 1984 & his Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 1989. In addition to witchcraft, he specializes in colonial & revolutionary America, with an emphasis on religious culture, gender studies, & the history of sexuality. He has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Godbeer is author of The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England (published in 1992 by Cambridge University Press), Sexual Revolution in Early America (published in 2002 by Johns Hopkins University Press), Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 (published in 2004 by Oxford University Press), The Overflowing of Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (published in 2009 by Johns Hopkins University Press) & The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (published in 2011 as a volume in the Bedford Series in History & Culture).