History of the Salem Witch Trials

Introduction

The Salem Witch Trials were a group of US trials and prosecutions that resulted from the paranoia of townspeople in which two hundred people were accused of witchcraft and nineteen were hanged. The trials took place in colonial Massachusetts over a nearly 7-month period in the years of 1692 and 1693. The colony would eventually admit that the trials were a mistake and went on to compensate the families that were involved. (Blumberg, J. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials”)

Background and History

During the 14th century in Europe, the belief in supernatural powers, and the belief in the practice of the devil giving witches the power to harm others in exchange for their loyalty and devotion, was common. A witchcraft hysteria had hit Europe starting in the 1300s. It had finally started to fade in the 1600s. The majority of European witch hunts took place in Western Germany, France, and northern Italy. The last known execution for witchcraft in Europe took place in Switzerland in 1782. Thousands of people, mostly women, were executed. Likewise, this belief became widespread in colonial New England, even though the belief had began to diminish in Europe.

New England was settled by religious refugees. They wanted to build a Bible-based society. As such, Salem Village was inhabited by deeply religious, and superstitious, Puritans. In the mid-1600s Salem had divided into two communities, Salem Town and Salem Village. Salem Town was far more prosperous than Salem Village. During the time of the Salem Witch Trials, Salem Village was in the aftermath of a British War with France in the colonies. King William’s War in 1689 had devastated parts in the north and resulted in refugees fleeing into the counties of Essex and into Salem Village. The refugees placed more of a strain on the less affluent Salem Village. It also played a role in already existing rivalries. These rivalries were tied to the wealth of the port of Salem and those areas that depended on agriculture. Salem Village and Salem town often had arguments over things such as property lines, grazing rights, and church privileges. Furthermore, there were frequent Native American attacks. (Brooks. “History of the Salem Witch Trials”)

Salem Village had decided to get their own minister rather than share one with Salem Town. The first two ministers didn’t stay. A third stayed a short time, but he left after the church in Salem refused to ordain him. The parish disagreed on Salem Village’s choice, Samuel Parris, but he became the minister of Salem Village after conflicts over pay and land were resolved. However, the agreement reached conflicted with a village resolution which stated it was unlawful for inhabitants of the village to convey land or houses of the Ministry to any person. Minister Parris not only didn’t solve disputes, he would seek out certain behavior and then make church members in good standing suffer public penance – even for small infractions. He played a major role to the tension and bickering of Salem Village.

This mix of tensions, fighting, and religion created a climate of paranoia in Salem Village. The residents quite possibly lived in a state of constant fear. The Salem Witch Trials began when a 9-year-old girl, named Elizabeth Parris and a 11-year-old girl, named Abigail Williams, began to have fits that the townspeople found strange. These fits included screaming and violent contortions. An eyewitness account was given by Rev. Deodat Lawson, a former minister. The girls complained that they were being pinched and poked with pins. William Griggs, a local doctor, was unable to find a medical reason for the fits, so he diagnosed the girls with bewitchment. Afterwards, other young girls began to have similar symptoms. (Blumberg. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials”)

The Trials

The father of Elizabeth Parris, one of the first girls to have symptoms, was Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. There were numerous feuds in Salem at the time. The ministers were frequently caught in the middle of these feuds. Rev. George Burroughs, one of the three former ministers, would go on to be accused of witchcraft.

In February of 1692, arrest warrants were issued for Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave, as well as two other women. The two other women were Sarah Good, who was a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborn, a poor and elderly woman. All three of the women were outcasts and easy targets. The women had been accused of bewitching Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr, and Elizabeth Hubbard. The three women were brought before magistrates and questioned over the course of several days. They were then sent to jail. (Editors, H. “Salem Witch Trials”)

The girls that accused them appeared in the courtroom. They were screaming and contorting. Good and Osborn said they were innocent, but Tituba confessed. However, this confession came after having denied the claims at first. As a slave, it would have been more difficult to deny allegations. In fact, outcasts and those of little status and power were very easy targets for accusations. The fact that it was easy to accuse them may have made them scapegoats for those that feared being accused themselves. We can see an example of this in the confession of Tituba. During her confession, Tituba went on to say there were other witches acting with her. She likely did this to try to save herself, but her confession created a panic. (Schiff, S. “Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the star of the Salem Witch Trials.”) Several others were to end up accused. This included two women which were regarded as upstanding members of the community and church, Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Martha Corey had expressed doubts about the credibility of the girls’ accusations. This made her a target for being accused herself. Because these two women were considered upstanding people in the community, it seemed as though anyone could be a witch. The magistrates went so far as to question Sarah Good’s 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy. Her answers were timid and they were used as a confession which implicated her mother in crimes involving witchcraft. (Bartholomew, Robert E. “Mass Hysteria at Old Salem Village.”)

Like the beginning of the trials, several women confessed and named others. The court system became overwhelmed. A special court was established to hear and decide on witchcraft cases in Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties. When the court convened during the end of May there were a total of sisxty-two people in custody. The presiding judges were Samuel Sewall and William Stoughton. The first conviction came on June 2. Bridget Bishop was found guilty and hanged. The spot on which she was hanged would become known as Gallows Hill. Five more were hanged in July, five in August, and eight in September. Also, seven of the accused died in jail. Giles Corey, the husband of Martha, was pressed to death by stones when he refused to enter a plea at his arraignment. (Blumberg. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.”) The fact that he was pressed to death is not surprising. The accused that entered a plea of “not guilty” were tried quickly and convicted. Many went on to be executed. (Gill. “Why were the Salem Witch Trials so significant?”)

During the trials, to help identify witches, the authorities used a “touching test.” During the “touching test” victims of witchcraft would become calm when they touched the culprit.

Aftermath

Minister Cotton Mather and his father, the president of Harvard College, had warned against using testimony about dreams and visions. They believed evidence for witchcraft should be equal to the evidence for other crimes. When public support for the trials began to decrease, Governor Phips dissolved the special court, called the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and stated that its successor disregard spectral evidence. By May of 1693 Phips pardoned and released all that were in prison on witchcraft charges. (Brooks. “History of the Salem Witch Trials”)

The Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the trials in January 1697. The court would later decide the trials were unlawful and the leading justice, Samuel Sewall, publicly apologized for his role in the trials. In 1711 legislation was finally passed to restore the good names of those condemned and provide financial restitution to their heirs.

Conclusion

The Salem Witch Trials resulted in the accusations and deaths of many resident of Salem Village. Religious superstition, mass hysteria, paranoia, and feuds played a large role in the Salem Witch Trials. Unlike other criminal trials, these did not rely on solid evidence, accusations were enough to convict some people. Such little importance was placed on actual proof that even the words of small children could be used as evidence. The Salem Witch Trials were a dark part of Massachusetts history and the history of the United States.

There have been numerous attempts to explain the strange behavior in Salem Village during the time of the trials. One Study by Science magazine in 1976, done by psychologist Linnda Caporael, suggested that the abnormal habits of those accused could be explained on the fungus ergot. Ergot is a powerful hallucinogenic that is found in rye, wheat and other cereals. Eating contaminated foods can cause muscle spasms, vomiting, and delusions. The fungus thrives in warm, damp climates which is descriptive of Salem Village where rye was a staple grain. Farmers had long known of this toxic mold but they assumed it was harmless. Today it is known that eating food containing flour made from grain containing ergot can cause death. It is also worth noting that ergot poisoning can burn the skin of whoever ingests it. (Baker, Jennifer P. “A Grain to Blame?”)

In August of 1992, which marked the 300th anniversary of the trials, the Witch Trials Memorial was dedicated. In addition to this, the Peabody Essex Musuem in Salem holds the original court documents. (Blumberg. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.”

Works Cited

  1. Bartholomew, Robert E. “Mass Hysteria at Old Salem Village.” Skeptic. Vol 19, Issue 2 (2014): 12-15.
  2. Baker, Jennifer P. “A Grain to Blame?” Calliope. Jul/Aug2011, Vol. 21 Issue 9, p36-38. 3p. Print.
  3. Brooks, Beatrice. History of the Salem Witch Trials. History of Massachusetts Blog, 18 August. 2011, http://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-salem-witch-trials/
  4. Editors, H. “Salem Witch Trials.” HISTORY. 12 October. 2018, http://www.google.com/amp/s/www/history.com/.amp/topics/colonial-americ/salem-witch-trials
  5. Schiff, Stacy. “Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the Star Witness of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 November. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unraveling-mysteries-tituba-salem-witch-trials-180956960/.
  6. Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 23 October. 2007, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/.
  7. Goss, K. David. The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide. Greenwood Press, 2008.
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