Salem Witch Trials

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1693 pamphlet by the Puritan minister Cotton Mather declaring the trials to have been a success

The Salem Witch Trials are an early example of the weaponization of the legal process for political gain. From May to October 1692, in the town of Salem (short for "Jerusalem") in Massachusetts Bay Colony, several girls reported they were possessed by devils, and they accused three women of witchcraft. The community was alarmed, and held investigations and trials. All three along with 16 other accused witches were hanged. Nearly 150 people were imprisoned.[1] Jury supremacists blame this on allowing in as evidence what would not be allowed today, but research shows that social resentment by jurors was likely to blame. Concerning witchcraft at the time, see Macbeth.

This episode remains a top tourist attraction and topic of popular movies and books. The Conjuring and other movies assume that some of the accused really were witches.[2] The trials were stopped when the governor's wife was accused of being a witch. To this day Salem is a favorite gathering place for people enamored of witchcraft. Famous American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote the novel partially against Puritan morality called the The Scarlett Letter, was born in Salem as a direct descendant of a presiding trial judge who never recanted his actions, and Hawthorne felt his family was cursed due to its role. Hawthorne was only 4 years old when his father died at sea.

The European Witch trials in the early modern period occurred over a longer period of time: people were put on trial and some were executed during more than 300 years.

Witchcraft is practiced today by millions of mostly obese women, and crowds have surged recently on Halloween in Salem due to the 1692 witch trials.

Salem in the 1690s

Salem was a small Puritan settlement in the Massachusetts woods, not far from the coast. It was not a particularly successful settlement, with its villagers struggling to grow enough food to survive and always wary of the forest surrounding them - in their minds, the trees could be hiding murderous Indian raiders or demons or any number of evils. Thus, it was not a happy, cohesive community - this was not helped by the recent outbreak of smallpox and the Puritan's sexist practices of women being absolutely deferential to the men in their lives, and the belief that women were more susceptible to the Devil's charms. With everyone living in each other's pockets, it was impossible to keep secrets - everyone knew everyone else's business. There was a lot of fear and tension in this village.[3]

Under the Puritan beliefs at the time, the existence of witches was accepted as clear fact on scriptural grounds. In accordance with Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," witchcraft was criminalized and considered a capital offense.

Reverend Samuel Parris became the first ordained minister to Salem in 1689, but within a few years his conservative approach to religion and divisive sermons led to strong opposition to his ministry, including the cessation of his salary. Soon after, Parris began preaching of demonic assaults on the congregation, and he pitted members of his church against nonmembers, which led to confessions of witchcraft, most of which were coerced or tortured out of low-status women such as Parris's own slave, Tituba. The most active accusers tended to be the village's elites, who were the most ardent supporters of Parris, while those most often accused were usually Parris's opponents who lived on the outskirts of the village or beyond. Thus, a villager's status, especially within the congregation, was the most distinguishing characteristic between the accused and the accusers.[4]

Reports of witchcraft

The catalyst for the fears that led to the trials was an Indian woman from Barbados - Tituba.[5] She was a slave in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris, the village preacher. She had entertained Reverend Parris' daughter Betty (9 years old) and her cousin Abigail Williams (11 years old) during the winter of 1692 with stories from her life in Barbados, which involved some sort of magic. She began demonstrating this magic to the girls, and some of their friends who had joined the group. Knowing these activities were forbidden by their Puritan religion, the girls felt guilty - it is then that they began the witchcraft hysteria.

The girls began to exhibit strange behavior - they said strange things, screamed, threw things, crawled under furniture, complained of being pricked and cut by invisible pins and knives, and covered their ears during Reverend Parris' preaching as if it hurt them to hear it. The Reverend described their antics as "beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect" - naturally, when the village doctor (William Griggs) could not find out what was wrong with them it was assumed that they had been bewitched.

The girls soon began to accuse people of bewitching them - the first were Sarah Osborne (an invalid old woman who had married her servant), Sarah Good (a short-tempered beggar) and Tituba. They were all outcasts of the community, and so were easy targets - nobody stood up for them. Arrest warrants for these three were issued on February 29, 1692, and they were quickly arrested and tried by Magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne.

The escalation

More accusations followed the imprisonment of the first three accused. They included: Dorcas Good (4-year-old daughter of Sarah Good), Abigail Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey (an outspoken woman who was openly skeptical about the girls' accusations), Elizabeth Proctor and John Proctor. These new accusations frightened the community, as Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey had been virtuous, upstanding members of the Salem community - if these people were witches, then anyone could be.

The number of accused in the jails of Boston, Salem and surrounding towns grew rapidly, until they were overflowing - having no real government, the villagers had no organized way to try all these accused witches. A new Governor, Sir William Phips, arrived in May 1692 and began the Court of Oyer and Terminer ("to hear and determine") to try the masses of accused witches. It comprised 7 judges: Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin.

The trial

The first official session of Oyer and Terminer took place on June 2, 1692. The court based its decisions on 'evidence' such as confessions extracted under torture, 'witch marks' like moles and the reactions of the 'afflicted' girls.

Three women were brought to trial and, under pressure, stated the names of others who were working together to possess the girls. The Puritans governing Salem then saw this as an opportunity to use the legal procedure of court trials to identify and uncover the ways of the occult. Public trials were held and testimony was elicited in an attempt to bring forth the workings of the devil.


These three women, along with sixteen others who were accused of witchcraft were hanged. Nearly 150 were imprisoned. Those who had reservations about the proceedings often found themselves to be accused. It is interesting to note that to avoid hanging, all the accused had to do was admit their guilt, but many refused. The refusal to admit guilt to save their lives may be attributed to the sturdy Puritan-based morality of the community at the time. One man would not even dignify the proceedings by entering a plea and was pressed to death.[6]

After many executions, a change in the rule of evidence for these trials excluded "spectral evidence," which was testimony by afflicted persons that they had been visited by a suspect's specter. With that change the subsequent trials resulted overwhelmingly in acquittals rather than convictions, and the later pardons were issued for several of those who had been convicted.[7]

A common misconception about the executions is that people were burned at the stake. The misconception arises out of the fact that during the 300 year time period of European Witch Trials, where people were in fact burned alive, that the practice must have also been happening in the colonies.[8]


The Court of Oyer and Terminer, over which Nathaniel Hawthorne's ancestor presided as a judge, was active between June 2 and October 29, during which time they condemned 20 people to be hanged. Many more died in prison awaiting trial. After Governor Phips closed Oyer and Terminer, a new Supreme Court was begun and used to try any remaining witchcraft cases. This time no one was convicted - the Salem Witch Trials were over.

June 10: The first official execution of the Salem Witch trials - Bridget Bishop is hanged.

July 19: Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Wildes.

August 19: Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Proctor and John Willard.

September 19: Giles Corey is pressed to death for refusing a trial.

September 22: Margaret Scott, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Alice Parker, Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker.


Due to the continued notoriety of the trial, tourists have streamed here since 1854; Salem is now known for a high density of occult-themed shops.[9]

Other communities

Salem had the only mass witch hunt in American history. However, there were 152 accused witches in over two dozen other communities. Latner (2008) challenges the traditional image of Salem as the site of a year-long epidemic of hysteria. Instead, accusations progressed as a sequence of limited and brief flare-ups and the accused were generally logical targets. Within most nearby communities, the witch-hunt passed quickly and the number of accused was small. Even in the high-profile centers of the storm, such as Salem and Andover, the episode was limited in duration. The victims of 1692 most often resembled those who were traditionally associated with witchcraft in 17th century England and New England, generally. Despite its reputation for irrationality and excess, the Salem witchcraft experience demonstrated the kind of constraints, limits, and coherence that scholars have found in other forms of collective violence. Such an approach helps explain how the outbreak spread to numerous communities as well as why the episode came to an end in relatively short order.[10]

Historigraphical debates

The trials are fascinating to ordinary people and to professional historians. Latner (2007) refute Boyer and Nissenbaum (1974) claim that the 1692 witch-hunt was rooted in an economic-based factionalism between Reverend Samuel Parris's agrarian supporters in Salem Village and the capitalistic opponents to witch-hunts in Salem Town. Latner's analysis of multiple tax lists, rather than just the 1695 record used by Boyer and Nissenbaum, shows that the Salem Possessed book exaggerated the degree that Salem Town's residents experienced financial advancement and the extent to which Salem Village inhabitants suffered economic decline. Similarly, the article suggests that economic status does not necessarily reveal someone's feelings about or connection to capitalism.[11]

Further reading

  • Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974), classic social history
  • Carlson, Laurie Winn. A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials. (1999). 197 pp.
  • Demos, John. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982)
  • Gragg, Larry. The Salem Witch Crisis. (1992). 228 pp.
  • Hall, David D. "Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation," New England Quarterly 1985 58(2): 253-281. 0028-4866
  • Hansen, Chadwick. "The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can't Tell an Indian Witch from a Negro," New England Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), pp. 3–12 in JSTOR
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials (1996)
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (1997). 165 pp.
  • Kieckhefer, Richard, European Witch Trials: Their Foundation in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500 (1976)
  • LeBeau, Bryan F. The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: "We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way." (1998). 308pp.
  • Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. (2002). 436 pp.
  • Rahming, Melvin B. "Phenomenology, Epistemology, Ontology, and Spirit: The Caribbean Perspective in Ann Petry's 'Tituba of Salem Village'", South Central Review, Vol. 20, No. 2/4 (Summer - Winter, 2003), pp. 24–46 in JSTOR
  • Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. (1993). 286 pp.

Movies and shows

There have been at least 18 movies and shows, many immensely successful, which are based on the Salem trials or have factual similarities to them.[12]

See also


  1. No one was burned to death.
  3. Norton (2002)
  4. Benjamin C. Ray, "Satan's War Against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692," New England Quarterly 2007 80(1): 69-95
  5. She was NOT a black; Hansen (1974).
  6. Five men were convicted and hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death for refusing to cooperate with the court. [1]
  8. Untrue:Witches Were Burned At The Stake During The Salem Witch Trials
  9. Stephen Olbrys Gencarella, "Touring History: Guidebooks and the Commodification of the Salem Witch Trials," Journal of American Culture 2007 30(3): 271-284,
  10. Richard Latner, "The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chronology and Collective Violence in 1692," Journal of Social History 2008 42(1): 137-156,
  11. Richard Latner, "Salem Witchcraft, Factionalism, and Social Change Reconsidered: Were Salem's Witch-hunters Modernization's Failures?" William & Mary Quarterly 2008 65(3): 423-448,

External links