Salem Witch Trials: History, Location, Executions, & Other Major Facts
Having been around for many millennia, false accusations of witchcraft reached incredibly high levels in Europe throughout the 17th century. This practice would find itself transported across the Atlantic to the North American colonies. It was often the case that the accused “witch” ended up being utterly humiliated, forced into given false confessions and later pardoned. Those who maintained their innocence were slapped with severer and outright barbaric punishments. Of the many witchcraft outbreaks of that period, the ones that took place in the Salem Village, Massachusetts, in 1692 were undoubtedly the most famous.
The hysteria began in Salem, Massachusetts after three adolescent girls started acting strangely. The girls made claims that they were under a curse. With no possible explanation for the girls’ abnormal behaviors, some sections of the village started pointing finger at a number of stern middle-aged women, calling them witches and spawns of Satan. In no time, the accusations reached the doorsteps of some very distinguished married women of the community.
The Salem witchcraft mania picked up so much steam that even children were accused of being agents of the devil. Unlike other places in the American colonies, the witch trials in Salem took a very dark turn and wreaked havoc throughout the village and beyond.
The question that begs to be answered is: how did the Salem witch trials begin? What caused those adolescent girls to throw accusations of witchcraft at those women? Finally, how many people died as a result of the Salem witch trials?
Below World History Edu presents everything that you need to know about the Salem witch trials of 1692.
The village of Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Salem was a 17th century village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that was predominantly made up of Puritans, a group of English Protestants refugees from England The Puritans, who had first settled in the area in the late 1620s, instituted a very strict theocratic set of rules to govern the village. As a result, villagers, like many other places in the Bay, tended to live an isolated life. Salem villagers also had to contend with periodic conflicts with Native Indians and the French in the area.
Typical of many early European settlements in North American, the early settlers of Salem were blighted by severe winter conditions, starvation and diseases, which in turn claimed significant numbers of the village.
Note: Unbeknownst to many, there were actually two towns called Salem in the late 17th century in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first Salem town, which is today called Salem, was a thriving port town at the time. The second Salem is the village that rose to fame due to the witch trials of the late 1600s. This Salem was a small farming community that had a population of about 500 at the time.
The fierce social divide in Salem Village
The Salem village of the 1600s was one that had very poor social cohesion. This was due to a palpable feud that existed between two very influential families – the Putnams and the Porters. The latter were known for their association with very successful traders and merchants, while the former were known for the influence they wielded over the poor families in the village. These two families found themselves clashing over a host of issues, particularly the governance of Salem. The Putnams fought very hard for the establishment of an autonomous kind of government in Salem. When the two families were not bickering over political issues, they could be seen suing one another over property.
Samuel Parris – the head of the Congregational church in Salem
With the backing of the Putnams, a merchant by the name Samuel Parris rose to the position of pastor in the village. Parris had a small household that included his wife, three children, a niece, and two slaves. One of the slaves was a woman called Tituba. The slaves were either of African heritage or a mixed between Native American and Caribbean origin. As we shall see below, the origins of Tituba is a very important point in the story of the Salem witch trials.
Perceived as by the Porters as a supporter of the Putnams, Pastor Parris tenure as the head of the clergy was bound to cause a rift in the congregation. Parris’ orthodox Puritan views did not go to well with some of his church members.
What triggered the first few major witchcraft accusations in Salem?
Almost acting as a nanny to Pastor Parris’ two daughters and a niece, the West Indian slave Tituba is said to have told the girls of many bedtime tales about witchcraft. Those tales surely left a mark on the impressionable minds of 9-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin called Abigail Williams.
Betty and Abigail, along with their 12-year-old friend Ann Putnam, Jr. and 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard, started having very strange behaviors. The girls complained of prickling skins and would sometimes experience frightening body contortions. Physicians at the time found nothing physically wrong with those girls. With no medical or scientific explanation to the girls’ strange behavior, doctors relied on the supernatural.
The first three women who were accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials
Tituba, a very superstitious woman, is said to have given the girls a “witch cake” that she believed could force out the evil spirits that had taken possession of the girls. Upon hearing of the strange concoctions that had been given to the girls, Pastor Parris became livid. The religious minister saw the actions of Tituba as borderline sacrilegious. Things got much worse for the West Indian slave, who was accused by three girls of being a witch.
The adolescent girls also accused two other local women of bewitching them. Those women were Sarah Good, a poor pregnant mother, and Sarah Osborn, a woman who was not so pleasing on the eye. In addition to missing many church services, Osborn was scorned by some members of the village for having an affair with an indentured servant. It was also later revealed that Osborn had a case in court against one of the accuser’s family.
Good’s daughter was pressured into bearing false testimony against her own mother. Good ended up given birth in jail; however, her baby died. Sarah Good received a death sentence and was hanged on July 29, 1692, along with four other accused women.
Sarah Osbourne, who like Good maintained her innocence, died in prison on May 29, 1692. She was in her late 40s.
Finally, Tituba was released in May. She was pardoned because she confessed to things that she was accused of. The fact that she accused others also helped in securing her pardon. Being a slave, she was later sold to an unknown buyer a year later.
The Devil’s Book
The first accused woman, Tituba, initially denied harming the girls at first; however, she later caved in and told her accusers exactly what they wanted to hear. Tituba confessed to having interacted with the devil himself and sold her soul in exchange for some supernatural favors. She also claimed to have seen the names of Osborn and Good in the devil’s book. What even made Good’s case worse was the testimony that her husband gave against her in court. All three women were imprisoned, including Good and her four-year-old daughter.
Owing to the so-called Devil’s book that Tituba claimed to have seen, the authorities intensified their search for more so-called witches that were hiding in the village. This search resulted in fear and panic engulfing the village.
Witch hunts in Salem
Fast forward to the late 1600s, Salem still struggled to eke a living as it had little to no social cohesion and strong political leadership. Feuds among prominent families in the village was a common occurrence. The factions in the village created a fertile ground for accusations of witchcraft to multiply. Some factions began weaponizing those accusations to score points against their rivals.
Furthermore, as the fear of terrible winter conditions, diseases and starvation gripped the Salem, villagers began looking for explanations to explain why their environment was blighted. For example, the year 1692 is said to have had one of the coldest winters on record. Persons accused of witchcraft were believed to have given their souls to the devil in exchange for dark supernatural powers, which they then used to destroy individuals and the community as a whole.
Witches were generally accused of using demons and dark spirits to carry out their nefarious activities. It was also believed that the witches could take on animal forms to terrorize their victims, which often times included children. Stories of villagers spying witches riding or gliding in the air on broom stick abound in many early North American colonies. The village of Salem was no exception.
How were “witches” identified and tried in Salem?
As stated in the introduction, the witch hunt in Salem in 1692 was a transported practice which began in Europe as far back as the 12th century. Therefore, the method of identifying witches followed a similar pattern as the ones that existed in Europe. It usually started with a suspicion or an unsubstantiated rumor in the village. After the suspicions, accusations would begin trickling in, and finally, a farce judicial trial proceeded.
On many occasions, the accused is found guilty. The death sentence is given to “witches” that refuse to confess to the allegations. This resulted in many of the accused making false confessions to save their lives.
Aside from the church politics and family politics that could result in a guilty verdict, the court also used a technique known as the “touching test”. In that test, the alleged victims of witchcraft became calm once they were touched by the accused person.
In addition to those dubious spectral evidence and other bogus legal proceedings, the accused “witch” had to contend with jurors who were often drawn from the accuser’s family.
Authorities in Salem were in no shape or form interested in investigating the accusations. All the court and jurors cared about was securing confessions from the accused witches. Subsequently, the accused would be forgiven and made to promise never to practice witchcraft.
Historians have often noted how Memorable Providences, a 1689 work written by Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather (1663-1728) helped fuel the hysteria during the Salem witch trials. Mather’s book claimed to have detailed information about the typical signs one ought to look for when identifying a demonic possession. His book rejected the use of any scientific or natural explanations for the hysterical fits that alleged possessed persons experienced.
The hysteria that gripped the village of Salem and beyond
The hysteria then fueled more so-called victims of witchcraft to come out, including many members of the Putnam family who used the accusations as weapons to wreak havoc on people that they disagreed with or had litigations with. As the paranoia spread, distinguished members of the community found themselves being accused of witchcraft.
Spectral evidence was used to secure convictions
With accusations of witchcraft thrown haphazardly, Sir William Phips, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, ordered the establishment of a special court to handle those accusations. The court, which was known as Court of Oyer and Terminer, was headed by William Stoughton, the lieutenant governor of the colony. The other eight members of the court were: John Richard, Peter Sergeant, Johathan Corwin, Samuel Sewall, Bathelomew Gedney, Waitstill Winthrop, Nathaniel Saltonstall, and John Richards.
The only influential figure brave and principled enough to speak out against spectral evidence at the start of the Salem witch trials was Judge Nathanial Saltonstall. As a result, Saltonstall was accused of being a wizard himself. He resigned from the Court of Oyer and Terminer in June, 1692, to show his complete disgust at the admission of spectral evidence.
As it was the late 1600s, the accused “witches” did not have the rights to legal representation. Neither did the court carry out any robust cross-examination of the accusers. The presumption of innocent until proven guilty did not even exist. To make matters worse, the court allowed the use of spectral evidence – an archaic kind of evidence that relies on the accusers’ claim of having been tormented by a supernatural force.
While the accused testified in the court, the accusers, primarily adolescent girls, burst into uncontrollable fits, contorted their bodies, and screamed. There was no greater “evidence” than the scene of child writhing in pain upon seeing the accused.
The admission of spectral evidence therefore made the trials of witches in Salem a forgone conclusion. With everything stacked against them, majority of the accused immediately confessed to being witches and agents of Satan. They did so because they stood a greater chance of being pardoned by the court. But first, the accused had to name other witches. This farce legal proceedings allowed the Salem witch trials to perpetuate.
What happened to those who refused to confess?
The fate that awaited accused “witches” who refused confessing was a dire one. Such persons were condemned to death, usually by hanging. And there was nothing that the few rational members of the community could do to stop the hangings. Besides, the level of groupthink was so high that adults simply had to accept wild accusations by children as hard evidence.
The people who died during the Salem witch trials
Bridget Bishop holds the unenviable honor of being the first person to be executed during the Salem witch trials. Bishop, who had been acquitted of witchcraft about a decade prior, found herself accused of bewitching five young women, including Ann Putnam, Jr. during the Salem witch trials of 1692. She was hanged on July 10. Nine days later, five more accused persons, including Sarah Good and Rebecca Nurse, were hanged. The latter was a church-going woman of very upstanding character.
In the month of August, a former reverend minister of Salem, George Burroughs, was found guilty of being the leader of a band witches. On August 19, Burroughs, along with four other persons, were executed by hanging.
In September, about eight convicted persons accused of being witches were hanged. Perhaps the most gruesome of executions in the Salem witch trials was the execution of Giles Corey, the octogenarian who was pressed to death with heavy stones. For a couple of days, Corey’s accusers hoped that by placing heavy weights and boulders upon him, a confession could be forced out of him. Corey went to the grave standing resolutely by his innocence. Corey’s wife, Martha Corey, was also among the people who were executed in September, 1692.
Altogether, about nineteen were hanged during the trials. One person, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. A further 5 more died (while being held in prison) as a result of the trial. At least 150 people were tried during the period.
How did it end?
The witchcraft accusations continued to gather momentum and claims started becoming outright absurd, even for some members of the clergy and the magistrate office. The accusations also spread beyond Salem and entered towns such as Gloucester, Marblehead, Chalestown, and even Boston.
A few influential members of the community, including Increase Mather and some other reverend ministers, began pushing against the court’s use of spectral sightings as the only evidence to convict someone of witchcraft. The case made by Increase Mather, who was the father of Cotton Mather, helped in reducing the number of wild accusations.
The only time the authorities started having a change of mind about the entire witchcraft delusion came when accusations reached their homes. Many powerful figures were accused, including Governor Sir William Phips’ wife, Lady Mary Phips. The governor then worked hard to bring an end to the Court of Oyer and Terminer.
Phips set up a new court called the Superior Court of Judicature. Phips also instructed judges to dismiss spectral evidence. Judges that refused to abide by this order were replaced. Steadily sentences were amended, prisoners released and arrests stopped. By May 1693, the Salem witchcraft hysteria had extinguished.
Changes that took place after the Salem witch trials
The establishment of a new court to handle witchcraft accusations in 1693 was just the beginning of the reforms that took place in judicial proceedings in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the years that followed, the authorities tried their best to atone for egregious abuses and the travesty of justice that took place during the Salem witch trials. Samuel Sewall, one of the nine judges that sat on the court that tried witchcraft cases in 1692 and early 1693, made heartfelt apologies to the public.
The General Court of Massachusetts in the 1702 ruling declared that the Salem trials were absolutely unlawful and an affront to sound judicial proceedings.
About thirteen years after the infamous event, Ann Putnam, Jr. publicly apologized for accusing those women falsely.
The authorities took bold steps to heal the wounds of families of the victims by giving monetary compensations. Majority of the convicted persons were exonerated in 1711. However, it took another three centuries for the remaining convicted individuals to be exonerated.
About two and the half centuries after the Salem witch trials, the state of Massachusetts issued a formal apology.
Most importantly, lessons from the Salem witch trials helped kick start the introduction of reforms in the court procedures in the United States. No longer were the work of the judiciary done in a haphazard fashion. As enshrined in the founding documents of our country (i.e. the Bill of Rights of the United States), accused persons are guaranteed of rights to legal representation, and courts are required to follow a very robust cross examination of the accusers. Above all, the presumption of innocent until proven guilty is something that we as a nation hold very dear to our heart.
Notable facts about the Salem witch trials
- Contrary to popular view, the authorities in Salem never burnt any of the condemned witch at the stake.
- It was not uncommon for children to be accused of being witches.
- For fear of being accused of witchcraft themselves, there were very few people who opposed the Salem witch trials.
Did you know?
Parallels have been drawn between the Salem witch trials of the 1600s and Senator Joseph McCarthy-driven Red Scare of the 1950s. In the latter, instead of witchcraft, the whole nation went into a massive hysteria over the development of communism in the United States. The frenzy resulted in many accusations thrown the way of innocent people, including high-ranking government, public officials, artists, scholars, and many others. There was hardly any evidence produced to secure the convictions of people who were accused of being in cahoot with USSR-backed communist cells to bring down the U.S. government and our capitalist way of life.
Quick facts about the Salem witch trials
Date: February 1692 – May 1693
Location: Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony (now Danvers, Massachusetts, United States)
Total number of deaths: at least 25, including 19 people who were hanged
Most common mode of execution: Hanging
Arrests: More than 150
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