Salem Witch Trials

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Salem Witch Trials

In 1692 the community of Salem, Massachusetts, was engulfed in a series of witchcraft afflictions, accusations, trials, and executions. During the course of the year, more than a dozen persons claimed to be afflicted by spells of black magic and sorcery that had been allegedly cast by men and women who had enlisted the supernatural powers of the devil. Most of the persons claiming to be afflicted were teenage girls.

Those persecuted for allegedly practicing witchcraft included Salem residents who deviated in some way from Puritan religious, cultural, or economic norms. Other victims of the witch craze were perceived to be enemies of the largest family in Salem. A few victims were simply weak and sickly people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The legal institutions offered little protection for those accused of witchcraft because the primitive Massachusetts judicial system was still governed by superstitious rules of evidence permitting testimony about malevolent apparitions and broomsticks capable of flight. Although some ordinary Salem residents doubted the credibility of the witchcraft accusations, it was not until they were joined by authorities from Boston that the witch-hunt came to a close.

The outbreak of witchcraft hysteria took place in Salem Village, a small community a few miles inland from Salem Town. Salem Village was not an autonomous entity and lacked a government of its own until 1752 when it achieved independence and became known as Danvers. Salem Village was almost exclusively agrarian, cut off from the ports and tributaries that made Salem Town more mercantile and international in character. Although both communities were predominantly Puritan, during the seventeenth century Salem Town acquired an increasingly secular appearance through the growth of its fur, fish, and timber industries.

The Salem witch craze was largely fueled by personal differences between two families, the Putnams and the Porters. John Putnam Sr. (1579–1662) was the patriarch of the largest family in Salem. He had three sons, Thomas Putnam, Sr. (1615–86), Nathaniel Putnam (1619–1700), and John Putnam Jr. (1627–1710). John Porter Sr. (1595–1676) was the patriarch of the richest family in Salem. He had four sons, John Porter Jr. (1618–84), Joseph Porter (1638–1714), Benjamin Porter (1639–1723), and Israel Porter (1644–1706), and a daughter, Sarah Porter (1649–1725).

The Putnams were farmers who followed the simple and austere lifestyle of traditional Puritans. Although the Porters derived much of their wealth from agricultural operations as well, they were also entrepreneurs who developed commercial interests in Salem Town, throughout New England, and in the Caribbean. The Porters' diversified business interests allowed them to increase their family's wealth while the Putnam family wealth stagnated.

An interfamily rivalry began in 1672 when a dam and sawmill run by the Porters flooded the Putnam farms, resulting in a lawsuit brought by John Putnam Sr. A few years later the Putnams petitioned the town in an effort to obtain political independence for the village, and the Porters opposed them. The arrival of Reverend Samuel Parris in 1689 intensified the Putnam-Porter conflict.

Twenty-six villagers, 11 of whom were Putnams, voted to give Parris a parsonage, a barn, and two acres of land. Some villagers thought that these gifts were too generous. In October 1691 a faction of Parris-Putnam supporters was ousted from the village committee and replaced by individuals who were openly hostile to the reverend, including Daniel Andrew, the son-in-law of John Porter Sr.; Joseph Hutchinson, one of the sawmill operators responsible for flooding the Putnams' farms; Francis Nurse, a village farmer who had been involved in a bitter boundary dispute with Nathaniel Putnam; and Joseph Porter. The new committee quickly voted down a tax levy that would have raised revenue to pay the salary of Reverend Parris.

It is no coincidence, then, that the witchcraft afflictions and accusations originated in the Parris household. In February 1692 the reverend returned home from his congregation one evening to discover his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Parris, her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, and their 12-year-old friend, Ann Putnam (the daughter of Thomas Putnam Jr. and Ann Putnam) gathered around the kitchen table with the Parris family slave, Tituba, who was helping the girls experiment in fortune telling. Realizing that they had been caught attempting to conjure up evil spirits, the girls soon became afflicted by strange fits that temporarily deprived them of their ability to hear, speak, and see. During these episodes of sensory deprivation, the girls suffered from violent convulsions that twisted their bodies into what observers called impossible positions.

When the girls regained control of their senses, they complained of being bitten, pinched, kicked, and tormented by apparitions that would visit them in the night. These ghostly visions, the afflicted girls said, pricked their necks and backs and contorted their arms and legs like pretzels. Witnesses reported seeing the girls extend their tongues to extraordinary lengths. After examining the afflicted girls, Dr. William Griggs, the village physician, pronounced them under an evil hand.

Nearly 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem during the summer of 1692. Twenty accused witches were executed, 15 women and 5 men. Nineteen were hanged following conviction, and one was pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Four prisoners, three women and a man, died in jail. The trials began in June and continued for four months, the final executions taking place on September 22. In October the governor of Massachusetts, William Phipps, dissolved the tribunal that had been established to preside over the witchcraft prosecutions. The following spring the governor ordered the release of all the accused witches who remained incarcerated upon payment of their fines.

The persons accused of witchcraft ranged from a four-year-old girl, Dorcas Good, to an octogenarian farmer, Giles Cory. The accused also included an angry, muttering beggar, Sarah Good, who rarely attended church, and an ailing village matriarch, Rebecca Nurse, who was respected for her goodness and piety. Yet the witchcraft accusations were far from random. Historians have identified a pattern of accusations that strongly suggests that the afflicted girls singled out social deviants, outcasts, outsiders, merchants, tradesman, and others who threatened traditional Puritan values.

For example, Sarah Osborne, one of the first persons accused of witchcraft in Salem, had earlier scandalized the village by having premarital sexual relations with an indentured servant from Ireland. Another accused witch, Martha Cory, had given birth to an illegitimate mulatto child. Tituba, an Indian slave from Barbados, relished her reputation as a sorcerer in black magic until she landed in jail after being accused of witchcraft. Bridget Bishop, the owner of a small Salem tavern known for its disorderliness, and Abigail Hobbs, a village rebel who was neither a church member nor a churchgoer, were two assertive and independent women whose scornful attitude toward Puritan social order was silenced by their arrests for practicing witchcraft.

Like Bridget Bishop, John and Elizabeth Proctor were tavern keepers on Ipswich Road, the thoroughfare separating Salem Town from Salem Village. The tavern was frequented only by persons from outside Salem Village, and its loud, debauched patrons were a source of concern for residents of the village. John Proctor was one of the first Salem residents to openly criticize the witch craze, maintaining that the afflicted girls were shamming. The day after he questioned their credibility, the afflicted girls implicated his wife in the witch conspiracy. Other Salem residents who were bold enough to express skepticism about the sincerity of the accusations made by the afflicted girls, including George Jacobs, Dorcas Hoar, Sarah Cloyce, and Susannah Martin, soon found themselves ensnared by the malignant web of witchcraft allegations.

The largest common denominator among the accused witches was the source of the complaints against them. Eight members of the Putnam family were involved in the prosecution of approximately 50 witches. Thomas Putnam Jr. signed ten legal complaints against the defendants and provided testimony against 24 accused witches. His wife, Ann Putnam was the most prominent citizen among those who were purportedly afflicted by witchcraft, and his daughter, Ann, was the most prolific accuser, providing testimony against 48 accused witches. Members of the Porter family attempted to mobilize the village against the witch trials but were stymied when 19 of their allies found themselves facing witchcraft allegations.

Daniel Andrew, Phillip English, Francis Nurse, and George Burroughs were representative of the group of defendants accused of witchcraft by the Putnam family. Andrew was born and raised in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1669 he moved to Salem where he married Sarah Porter, daughter of Putnam family rival John Porter Sr. Through an inheritance, Andrew and his wife received a large parcel of land, helping them become the fourth wealthiest couple in Salem Village. Andrew was also one of the Salem residents selected to replace the Putnam-Parris faction on the village committee. Along with his village committee colleagues Francis Nurse and Phillip English, Andrew was accused of practicing witchcraft by the Putnam clan. None of the three was executed.

The legal environment in Salem offered defendants few protections against fabricated allegations of witchcraft. Similar to modern legal procedure, criminal proceedings were instituted upon the filing of a formal complaint by a party allegedly injured by witchcraft. Such complaints usually prompted the issuance of an arrest warrant by a local magistrate who then conducted a preliminary examination in public to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to hold the accused in custody pending Grand Jury deliberations. If the grand jury chose to indict a particular accused witch, the defendant was then tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, an emergency tribunal established by gubernatorial proclamation to resolve the burgeoning crisis. The law applied by the court was an English statute passed in 1604 during the reign of James I and carried with it the death penalty. The law prohibited "conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits" (Hill 1995). The indictment against the accused closely mirrored the language of the English Law, charging the defendants with having "killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined, and lamed" certain individuals by witchcraft.

During both the preliminary examinations and the ensuing trials, the accused witches were presumed guilty. The presiding judges and magistrates frequently asked leading questions designed to elicit answers that would disclose whom the defendants had bewitched and how, instead of more neutral and impartial questions aimed at ascertaining whether they had actually bewitched anyone at all. Although juries were impaneled to determine guilt and innocence, in at least one instance the court directed the jurors to reconsider an unpopular verdict they had rendered. After further deliberations, the jury reversed itself, declaring a previously acquitted defendant guilty. No accused witches were afforded the right to legal counsel, and only those defendants who confessed were saved from the gallows upon conviction.

The afflicted girls were normally present during the courtroom proceedings. When an accused witch entered the courtroom, the afflicted girls invariably collapsed into traumatic fits of hysteria that only ceased when the accused began to confess. In contrast to the dignified courtroom decorum demanded by most U.S. judges today, the Salem witches were confronted by belligerent magistrates, rabid witnesses, and apoplectic spectators in the gallery. One defendant was struck in the head with a shoe thrown by an onlooker.

The evidence offered to incriminate the defendants typically reflected the medieval superstitions of the Puritan community. Nine witches were convicted on the strength of spectral evidence alone, meaning that the only connection between the accused and the afflicted girls was testimony that an alleged victim had been visited during the night by a ghostly figure who resembled the defendant. Other defendants were convicted based on evidence that they could not properly recite the Lord's Prayer, owned mysterious dolls and puppets, or suffered from a reputation for witchcraft in the community. Jurors were told that unusual protuberant growths proverbially represented signs of a witch's nipple through which the defendant had ostensibly consummated intimate relations with the devil or lesser demons.

The Salem witch trials came to an end when the esteemed Reverend Increase Mather from Harvard University questioned the reliability of spectral evidence. The witch trials had been based on the premise that the devil could not assume the shape of a particular person without her consent. Mather turned this premise on its head, arguing that a deceitfully evil creature like the devil could assume the likeness of even the most unwilling and innocent person. Mather proclaimed that it is better for ten suspected witches to escape, than for one innocent person to be condemned.

Further readings

Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. 1974. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Christenson, Ron. 1991. Political Trials in History: From Antiquity to Present. New Brunswick: Transaction Press.

Hill, Frances. 1995. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. 1997. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Karlsen, Carol. 1989. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: Vintage Books.

Le Beau, Bryan F. 1998. The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: "We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way." Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Mappen, Marc, ed. 1996. Witches & Historians: Interpretations of Salem. 2d ed. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger.

Starkey, Marion L. 1982. Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Time.

Trever-Roper, H. R. 1967. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. San Francisco: Harper Torchbooks.

Weisman, Richard. 1984. Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts. Amherst, Mass.: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.


Presumption of Innocence; Religion.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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